9 Questions with Congressional School’s Edwin Gordon
The seasoned educator recently took the helm of the 80-year-old independent school in Falls Church.
On July 1, Edwin P. Gordon, 55, became the 11th Head of School at Congressional School, a longstanding pre-K-8 private school in Falls Church. An Atlanta native, he holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from Baylor University and a Ph.D. in educational administration from Cornell. He now lives in Bethesda with his wife, LaRita, who also works in education. They have a grown son and daughter. This interview was edited for clarity.
Tell us about your career path.
I began my career as a second- and fourth-grade teacher at an independent school. I’ve always [worked] at independent schools. From the moment I started working at elementary schools, I knew I was in the right place. I enjoyed working with little minds. Next I became an English department chair and did a stint as executive director of a K-12 education program [for the Graduate School of Education] at the University of Pennsylvania. Then I became Head of the Lower School [at Riverdale Country School in New York City]. Since then I’ve been head of two schools: Palm Beach Day Academy in Florida and now Congressional School in Virginia.
What convinced you to come to Congressional School?
First of all, this wonderful campus. This place is extraordinary. It’s a laboratory for learning and playing, which are two of the most important things children of young ages can do. It preserves childhood and it’s a place where [our students] can play endlessly. They spend time outdoors listening to leaves, watching the squirrels and playing in the rain. And we let them do that. There are playing fields, horses and swimming pools. It’s the best. I also came here because I wanted to be in a school where teachers put the child at the center. They make decisions on how to teach and what is being taught based on the child.
How are independent or private schools different from public schools?
We have a culture that’s free from the [Virginia Standards of Learning], which means we can teach to the child. We can spend as much time as we want talking about data mechanics or climate change. We are not required by the state to do it in any particular way. We do consider the national standards framework so that our students have a broader view of what it means to be a student [once they get to] high school. But we are not limited to those national standards, so we can learn about hunger and poverty and go out to do community service. We get real liberties, which aligns with my philosophy of education.
How has private school education has evolved since you were a student?
It’s more diverse. I’m a product of a private school education. I never attended public schools. I was the only African-American student in my grade, let alone my class. That’s changing. Also, at this school, I know a lot of students are exposed to travel that we didn’t do 30 years ago. Their education is more varied and the world is much larger to them. Access to information is another factor. Students ask questions that are much deeper and more curious now.
What’s surprised you about Congressional School and the local community?
I was more impressed than surprised by how hard these kids work here. They also play hard. You know, I wasn’t too sure. I was previously in New York where people are so driven and they don’t relax. But this community does both. Falls Church is so community-oriented. It is much more ethnically diverse than I thought it would be, which we are really trying to capture [at Congressional]. I think it will make our school much better. My last job was in Palm Beach—very, very affluent and uber wealthy. Not a lot of socioeconomic or ethnic diversity. Falls Church is [more like the] world that we are preparing our kids for.
What’s your biggest challenge as head of school?
Making sure we have enough resources so these kids get what they deserve. That can be a challenge. The resources, like in any institution, are limited, but the ideas and possibilities are not. We have a very generous parent body here, but we can’t be everything to everybody, so we have to be strategic. My job is to make sure we have the resources to do all the things we are committed to doing.
How could the school improve, in your opinion?
We can work on these aging buildings. Eighty years has definitely worn on us. But we are making improvements. We have two new design labs set to open this year so we can do more in the area of STEM. We are certainly not perfect, but are always doing our best.
How are today’s students different from when you started teaching?
I’d say the fear of failure. It’s causing a lot of anxiety. We have to teach our kids that it’s okay to make mistakes and to learn some perseverance. It’s okay to fall and fail. It’s really about how do you get up and recover
What do you love about your job? [As this question is asked, musical notes float in from an open window.]
What you hear. Those are kids who are learning and experiencing by doing. Those are second-grade students having music class outdoors. I know they are having an experience that’s hands-on and aligned with good teaching. They are outside, enjoying this beautiful campus, learning from each other and being joyful.