New era begins as Erin Mayo takes charge at Fryeburg Academy

ERIN MAYO is Fryeburg Academy's first female leader in the school's 222-year history. She succeeds Dan Lee, who retired at the end of the last school year. (Rivet Photo)

ERIN MAYO is Fryeburg Academy's first female leader in the school's 222-year history. She succeeds Dan Lee, who retired at the end of the last school year. (Rivet Photo)

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — Like many students, Erin Mayo is looking forward to her first day of school.

As the new Head of School at Fryeburg Academy, Mayo is eager to see the arrival of new boarding students this Saturday and Sunday and the return of the Raider student body on Thursday, Sept. 5.

She is also anxious to stand in front of 18 students and teach an advanced placement class.

“I am really looking forward to a good year here at Fryeburg Academy. I am looking forward to my class and the beginning of our weekly all-school meeting (after first period). The first one will be on opening day — in the gym with all the students,” she said. “I plan to invite student leaders to help design future meetings — which can include special talks, musical performances, theater, recognitions as they come up, and announcements. Of the three schools I have worked at, this will be the first that we don’t have a daily meeting of some kind. For the whole school to be together at some point in a day creates a sense of community. It is powerful. It can be fun. I look forward to just looking out and seeing everybody.”

Change is in the air at the Academy, including the fact that the new Head of School is the first female leader in the institution’s 222-year history.

Mayo brings a vibrant spirit to the Academy, and will be a highly-visible leader. One step to create greater visibility was moving her office from the second floor to the first.

“I want more incidental traffic — to be more visible,” she said.

The News recently met with Mayo as she continued to tie up a few loose ends with the start of school just eight days away and asked the following:

Q. What attracted you to seek the Fryeburg Academy position as Head of School?

EM. First, the fact that it is a town academy. That is the educational model I am most familiar with and most drawn to. I went to St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont (student population of about 1,000, now), where my father was headmaster for 20 years (both of my parents were alums) and where I spent my first 15 years of my career as a teacher and eventually as an administrator.

The blend of students and families that you serve with an overlay of the boarding program is like no place else. It just feels like a democratic service that higher education ought to be.

When my husband (Peter) and I and our family (Maeve, age 17 and Gunnar, 12) moved to Dallas to a private day school (she was Head of Upper School at the Episcopal School and later became Assistant Head of School for Academics), there were strengths and an interesting learning curve, but it didn’t take too long for me to want to get back to the private academy setting.

We had talked about a change, and when I came across the opening at Fryeburg Academy, I paid attention. I wasn’t actively searching at that point. After being contacted by a consultant a couple of times, I became more interested. It was an opportunity that I didn’t want to let go. After experiencing the contrast of living in Vermont and then Texas, I found I really wanted to get back East.

Q. Being raised in Vermont, have you visited Maine or Fryeburg before? Offer some impressions about the area and school?

EM. Previously, my experience with this area was either chaperoning our dorm kids at St. Johnsbury (the school has a dorm population of about 260) over to the outlets in North Conway or traveling through Fryeburg to get to the Portland area where we have family and like to vacation. I have never been to the Fryeburg Fair — this year will be my first experience.

When I interviewed and visited, I realized Fryeburg is a unique village, warm community — similar to St. Johnsbury, but smaller. It has just a really good feeling about it.

Q. What does it mean to you that you will be the Academy’s first woman to lead the school? Biggest challenges ahead?

EM. I suppose it is a little surprising after that stretch of time that I am the school’s first female leader, I am awfully proud to be the first. Honestly, I don’t think about it much, but occasionally, I do. I know it registers with other people. I am proud of the fact that they chose me.

I want to gain a natural familiarity with how things work. The roles people have inside the school and outside in the community. Building relationships. I really want to look at ways to reinvigorate our residential life experiences and reunify the total student body. We have some divisions that have occurred over time. I want to understand what we do the best, and understand where some of our undiscovered potential is so we can really make a distinct attempt to make this school the one people want to choose, both day and boarding populations.

This was a very rigorous and good search process. I had many opportunities during my two visits to the school to spend a lot of time talking with faculty and staff. It was nice to arrive on July 1 and have met everybody. We’ve had many good conversations already. I had a couple of good sessions with 10 or 12 students as part of my second interview. I asked to spend some time with kids last spring. The genuine warmth and excitement that everybody expressed about Fryeburg Academy really sold me. There were never sentences, “It’s a good school, but…” If anybody felt there was a flaw, they would say we could do better in this area…That was across the board.

I was so hoping to get the job. My husband was really excited, as well. He is an English teacher. We met at St. Johnsbury. He took a sabbatical, and I was hired for one year to fill his position. He reclaimed his job, and when we married, I gained a little revenge. He is not teaching here. He will be looking at other opportunities.

Q. Why were you interested in entering the field of education? Anyone in particular that inspired you?

EM. My story is like others whose parents may be doctors, lawyers or business people. My parents were teachers. My dad became an educational leader. So, I grew up surrounded by that role. I never was conscious about the idea of being a teacher. But, when the opportunity came to teach that one year, it seemed like something I wanted to try. It crept up on me. For a long time, I was ambivalent about being an administrator because the more responsibilities you take on, the less classroom time you have. It’s a push-pull. You work with adults on behalf of the students as a school leader, but you lose out on the regular contact with students.

First year or two in Dallas, the leadership programs that I had taken really started to steer me toward being a head of school.

I taught a class for a couple of years in Dallas. I questioned I could do it because of my other responsibilities. As frenzied as my day was, teaching the class was the best part of my day. This is what it is all about. I need to get the feel of what it is like being a teacher here at Fryeburg, and the way to do it is to teach. So, I plan to teach an advanced placement class (18 students) for a teacher who is on leave. I’ve taught all grades. I can’t imagine not doing it. For that period of the day, I am a teacher.

My dad (the year he retired, the kids put him in a chair and carried him around campus after a school assembly) always taught. Can you do justice to the kids if you are disconnected from the classroom? I don’t think you can. You need to have that connection.

Q. Through the years, what have been the biggest changes in education you have witnessed and how have those changes affected your philosophy in regards to providing children with the best possible education they can receive?

EM. The many changes fall under the improvements in technology. Instant access to information and the need for literacy have transformed what we need to be doing for kids. There is a shift from content being the driver to 21st century skills being the driver — competent use of technology for collaborative efforts in a global market. The more schools pay attention to the needs of workplaces, the better we prepare them to succeed in the future and reach their potentials.

There have been tremendous advances in our research and understanding of brain development throughout childhood and into early adulthood. These have radically altered our comprehension of how people learn, as well as what conditions inhibit learning —both should heavily inform the kind of instruction and learning environment that schools offer.

Q. What are your goals/objectives for Year 1 at Fryeburg Academy?

EM. We have a tremendous opportunity to create a unified K-12 experience. I look forward to working with Jay (Robinson, SAD 72 superintendent). We share the same group of students, so we need to get our teachers together to talk about curriculum. I want us to become more aware of each other and work together.

Q. Strengths you bring to the position?

EM. Deep familiarity with this model — the town academy. This is an independent school, our governance structure is different and our decision-making is local. So, we can really chart a path that we feel best meets our mission. That is very different than public schools.

Personally, I have a good balance between emotional intelligence and rigor. I hope I have demonstrated and continue to show that I can walk the line of being kind and fair but also be necessary tough when the situation calls for it. As an educator, I describe myself as someone — be it a teacher or an administrator working with staff — who empowers students to be able over time to competently do things without help. I don’t want to be the teacher who is central and necessary to help students do things by the time June rolls along.

Q. What do you like to do when you are away from your desk?

EM. I like to be with my family. My kids are fun. We like to go to the movies. I like being outside, taking walks. I am really happy we moved our sailboat. Before, it was just too hot to sail during the summer while we were in Texas, which was when we had time off. Now, the boat is near where we vacationed. I like to sit and read.

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