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East County Wednesday, Jul. 7, 2021 3 months ago

Out-of-Door Academy hires new interim head of school.

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New ODA interim head of school uses lessons he's learned from books as inspiration for his educational career.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Sarasota’s Jim Connor has always been an avid reader. 

He reads two to three books at any given time. 

Connor has often used the lessons he learns from books to guide his life in which he spent 49 years using books to educate and lead young minds as an English teacher and later an administrator at independent schools in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Connor now will continue to use the lessons he’s learned about how to build a society in E.M. Forester’s “Howards End” and lessons on how to give back to the community from Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native,” among other books. to lead the Out-of-Door Academy as its new interim head of school. 

“Those books have sort of been my foundation around sort of how I have come to see the world and come to be interested in education, interested in race, interested in how to make money work for communities, especially communities that don’t have any,” Connor said. 

Connor will serve as interim head of school at ODA for a year while the school’s board of trustees searches for a permanent head of school. Connor is replacing David Mahler, who resigned June 30 after serving as head of school for 17 years.

Connor started with independent schools as an English teacher and coach at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Over time, he realized “just how wonderful a teaching environment” at an independent school was, and he was hooked.

“For the most part, you have kids who really want to be there,” Connor said. “They want to excel. They’re surrounded by peers who provide that sort of positive peer interaction that helps them to know it’s OK to be a good student.”

But what he loves most about independent schools is the fact that it’s not only an educational institution but also a business where the leaders have to be entrepreneurial to make the school stand out compared to a free public education.

When Connor started doing research on ODA, the broad list of where ODA graduates were heading off to college and the school’s financials were just a few of the aspects that piqued his interest in applying for the interim head of school position.

What interested him most were the comments he saw from families at the school praising ODA.

“I feel like there’s nothing more exciting in life or important in life, other than your family, than a good school,” Connor said. “The opportunity to continue to serve and to have 27 years of experience is a true gift, and I sort of feel somewhat called to share it.”

During his time at ODA, Connor wants to develop relationships with the seniors. 

“I want to try to make them feel like they have a head of school and it’s more than just someone handing them a diploma,” Connor said. 

Books, such as E.M. Forester's "Howards End," has been a foundation for how Jim Connors views the world. Connors will use lessons he's learned from books to lead the Out-of-Door Academy as its new interim head of school.

Another priority is making timely decisions so the school can continue to move forward in the year of transition. 

“We don’t want to lose a year,” Connor said. “The school is on a good trajectory right now with some strategic planning and high enrollment and lots of good vibes in the community. I want to keep moving forward rather than sit around waiting for the next permanent head of school to come.”

Another priority is ensuring the school’s staff knows they’re supported and valued, he said.

Connor spent a bulk of his educational career as an English teacher and baseball coach at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania. Connor said the head of school at the time had made some poor decisions that led to Connor being asked to serve as the interim head of school during the Easter weekend of 1990. 

What started out as one weekend as interim head of school turned into serving as interim for the rest of the school year and the summer then he was offered the permanent position. 

After 26 years, Connor put on a red tie with “2016” printed on it multiple times for his final graduation ceremony. The two and the six were a different color than the rest of the numbers to represent his 26 years with the school. Connor wore the tie during his second day on ODA’s campus June 29. 

Connor retired in 2016, but he became bored with retirement within a year. In 2017, he was offered a position as interim head of school at Miami Country Day School in Florida where he served until the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

Although he’s dedicated decades of his life to education, Connor didn’t like school growing up.

“I thought it was a huge waste of time,” he said. “I just went to play sports. I went to see my friends and do the arts. … I wasn’t that interested in the academics.”

In high school, he always worked well with his teachers, well, until the fall semester of his senior year when his English teacher, Virginia Wiley, instructed his class to read the first chapter of “The Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy. 

“I couldn’t make heads or tails of it,” Connor said. 

Connor came into class the next day, stood up and questioned why he was being forced to read the book. 

“Miss. Wiley was standing up and she put her glasses down and she looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Connor, I will make a deal with you, you go home tonight and read ‘The Return of the Native’ for two consecutive hours and then come back tomorrow and tell me if you want to continue and if you don’t, you don’t have to,’” Connor said. 

He accepted the deal, but after reading for two consecutive hours, he found he loved the book. 

“When I spoke to Miss. Wiley the next day she said to me something I've never forgotten and actually found to be true,” Connor said. “She said, ‘Once you've gotten the taste for good literature, you're never satisfied with anything but.’”

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