Originally published in The Weekly Packet, July 10, 2014
New Brooksville principal takes on challenges, strengths of a small, rural school
‘Discrepancy of opinion takes a mutual respect’
Todd Nelson, the new principal of Brooksville Elementary School in Brooksville, Maine, attends his first school board meeting on July 7, 2014.
by Anne Berleant
Todd Nelson, a principal, teacher and writer with deep ties to the Blue Hill Peninsula, began his tenure as teaching principal at Brooksville Elementary School on July 1. He brings more than 35 years of experience as an educator in independent and public schools, including in Penobscot, where he and his wife Lesley live, and in Castine.
“It feels like coming home,” he told Brooksville School Board members at their July 7 meeting.
His experience with small, rural schools and the ins and outs of Union 93 will make the learning curve in Brooksville a modest one, he said in a recent interview. “I know many people in the school [and] from Union 93…so it feels comfortable,” he said.
Nelson was welcomed to Brooksville by a video made by older students, who interviewed locals, asking what Nelson should know about their town. “The answers were all genuine,” he said. “What I took away from it was the commonality of the answers. This is a town that cares deeply about its school.”
A small school in a rural community offers opportunities of “a different kind of sense of community and upbringing” than those in suburban towns and cities, he said. In a small town, children learn “rights, resources and responsibility lessons that will ground [them] for life anywhere.” For example, the idea that to have a fire department means people must volunteer creates “a different responsibility to one another…because [the community] is dependent on members to make it happen.
“Your parents, classmates and townspeople are uniquely poised to tell you about your responsibility to that place and the future of that place,” he said. At the same time, “schools need to be understood by their constituency and community.”
When the board began a search for a new principal, it called a community meeting to ask for input. A common answer was a principal who was able to resolve conflicts. “I think I tend to be a mollifying or stabilizing influence,” Nelson said. He has taken school leadership positions in the past directly after controversy, he added, including Castine in 2004 and his most recent position as head of independent school Rose Valley outside of Philadelphia.
His approach is to “get 360 degrees of perspective [and] not arrive with an agenda of my own,” he said. When there’s conflict, “discrepancy of opinion takes a mutual respect, a transparency of the process. Before we talk about it, let’s decide how to talk about it.”
As principal, he sees his role as “being the identified leader in the building, for students, teachers and parents,” and “being the chief explainer,” while what may or may not happen is determined by policy, choice or negotiation, he said. Key is knowing “when you’re involved with which.”
As an educator, the present “is a rich and bewildering time to be teacher” because of the changing use of digital tools in the classroom. “We’re only just learning to ask the right questions of what our digital lives are doing to us and to kids.”
While the values from the 19th and 20th centuries are the same, “how do you adapt them to the 21st century?” he asks. And along similar lines, how does an elementary school help prepare kids “for a future that’s changing as we speak?”
Or, as Nelson wrote in a letter that accompanied his resume about his decades in education: “Learning is, in fact, the grand continuum.”