When Heather Manchester stepped up to lead the Oxford Hills School District in January, the school community was in turmoil.

After just six months on the job, Superintendent Monica Henson was placed on administrative leave following a no-confidence vote and allegations of inappropriately restraining a student.

“Morale in our district was at an astonishing all-time low, and it had happened incredibly quickly,” DJ Thorne, the former chief operating officer for the Oxford Hills School District, said. “I can’t think of anyone else that could have come in and restored morale as quickly as Heather was able to do.”

After Henson’s resignation in April, Manchester shifted from acting to interim superintendent. Just weeks later, she received a standing ovation at a teachers’ workshop.

Heather Manchester, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District, sits Friday in her South Paris office. Andree Kehn

“She was a background central executive,” Thorne said. “She became the face of the district and immediately brought a level of credibility, a level of familiarity . . . and just the level of confidence in the teachers.”

The workshop was planned with healing in mind. Among the usual professional trainings, teachers played games, sang karaoke and participated in fitness activities. And at the end, thousands of dollars in gift cards and prizes donated by local businesses were given away.


“That’s really at the heart of who I am . . . a collaborator, bringing people together to try to make things better for students and for staff,” Manchester said.

But Manchester’s favorite part of the workshop was creating the Viking Tree of Strength. Each teacher was asked to write a single word “that captured their reflections about sources of encouragement, levity or celebration” on a paper leaf. A few examples of the words written were “hope,” “resilience” and “phew!”

Months later, the tree and its leaves are still prominently displayed at the entrance to the central office.

As interim superintendent, Manchester has focused on rebuilding the administrative team and restoring faith among the school community.

Instead of scheduling a keynote speaker for the opening workshop in August as usual, Manchester invited half a dozen staff members from positions across the district to share why they work for Oxford Hills. After longtime bus driver Linda Berry spoke, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, Manchester recalled.

“I don’t need to be front and center,” Manchester said. “I can orchestrate and let people shine.”

As curriculum director, Manchester learned to put teachers at the heart of decision-making. She believes the relationships built in her nine years with the district were crucial in revitalizing the school community’s spirit.

“I think it’s really important to encourage processes where voices are heard, and people have respectful dialogue,” she said. “It makes us better.”

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