A 1988 graduate of Gould Academy, Sara Shifrin earned a BA in English from Saint Michael’s College and a Masters in Literature from Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English. At Gould for the last 27 years, she has been an English teacher and an innovator, the result of which is Gould’s IDEAS Center and two design thinking conferences, Field Guide at Gould. A member of the Mahoosuc Land Trust Board, Shifrin is also a studio leader at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education summer conference. Shifrin and Brett, who have been married for 20 years, have a daughter who will start Bates College this fall and a son who will start Gould.

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Sara Shifrin enjoys working with Fatuma Ashraf, a teacher at the Tumaini Junior School in Karatu, Tanzania.    Pamela Chodosh

I was born in Newark, New Jersey. My father was an orthopedic surgeon. His medical school was subsidized by his Uncle Buddy, who was wounded in the Korean War. My dad was able to apply the education credits Uncle Buddy was never going to use. Because he had a deep reference for giving back what Uncle Buddy never could, he lived a life of service by being a surgeon in remote places.

We left New Jersey to live in Paris where my dad learned to be a hand specialist. After that, we moved to Rawlins, Wyoming.

Rawlins was a rugged oil drilling town. They blasted a horn when the bears or the antelopes were coming through town so you could bring your children inside. I learned to shoot a bb gun. They had a store called Galloping Palomino. Just think The Wild Wild West.

In Newark, on Saturdays, our parents would take us to cemeteries so we could run safely. In Wyoming, though we had to watch for wild horses, cactuses and rattlesnakes, we could run anywhere.

We lived in Rawlins for two years and then, in ’76 or ’77 we landed in Machias. I was probably around 8 or 9.

We lived right in town. I went to public school. We fished and spent a lot of time in boats. Then Dad bought Maddiow Farm. It was a real farm that had 250 acres right on the Machias River. Many of my formative years were spent cutting little samplings and dragging trees. Because my dad was a hand surgeon, we had no chainsaw. Instead, we used a pack saw and an ax. As a kid it was torture.

We had been driving from Machias to Burlington to visit family for years. When we drove through Bethel, which is halfway between, I would always see Gould’s field house. When my parents got divorced and my mom moved to Boston, I said, “I have a great idea. How about you send me to Gould.”

I came to Gould six weeks into my junior year. I was immediately swept up into the good community there and in Bethel. I met people who wanted to be change agents and who believed they had a role in the community.

Gould was a great place to learn. It was good at allowing kids to engage with adults to co-create. I felt comfortable doing things I had never done before, like leading groups and being part of a team. I just loved it.

Kids would complain about lights out. I thought this was awesomely predictable. I’d been waiting for that kind of stability. I had not had that my whole life.

Gould had a relationship with NTL (National Training Lab) which would send Marylou Michael to train us about how to be good humans and how to give good feedback. That allowed me to see communities as complex systems and that we all have our own biases which we have to be willing to unpack.

After I graduated from college, I was managing a gift store and working for a non-profit which welcomed new immigrants in Burlington, when Bill Clough, Gould’s head of school, called. He said, “We need help. Will you come?” I said, “Yes.”

I had changed, but Gould felt familiar. I had mentors from day one. I could be honest and vulnerable and brave. When someone knows you as a teenager, you can’t fake it. I didn’t think this was a liability. I thought it was a strategic advantage.

That fall a position teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) opened up. I taught freshman and began shaping programs. I then became department chair.

Seven years later, I was asked to lead a conversation about Gould’s library in Hanscom Hall and how its spaces could be redesigned. I got the library project going and then was asked to think about how the lower level of Hanscom could best reflect the needs of the 21st Century. That became the IDEAS Center.

Eight years ago Gould sent me to Tanzania with $800 to get a read on their educational landscape. When I got there, I found a room two porches wide with 90 boxes of donated books on the floor. Kids were jamming at the windows. They wanted books.

When I asked what this was, they said, “Someday we will build a library. Right now this is where all the books are.”

I had just been working with the architect on the Gould Library. I said, “I know how to take books out of boxes and put them on shelves. Let’s just make a little library and see how it works before we invest any money.”

It took a lot of listening and a lot of cultural convincing, but they let me make a library. Now there are three.

At the same time, I was working on the second renovation at Hanscom. I was researching ideas like STEAM and STEM and makerspaces when I stumbled upon design thinking. There was a whole scholarship around this that Stanford was leading which revolves around the idea that you feel, understand, research, and then do. I had been doing this at Gould, with the land trust, and in Tanzania.

I am a systems thinker. Though I am not perfect at it, I love thinking about how systems work and how to ask questions. It drives people crazy, but I think systems thinking is the wave of the future. Whether it was Newark, Paris, Wyoming, or Machias, my entire life’s narrative has been about being in different learning environments. It is what my life has been all about.

 


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