This year, Stanton will retire. She started at Hutchison in the seventh grade when the school was located on Union Avenue, and hers was the first senior class to graduate after the school moved to the Ridgeway campus in 1965. In fact, she was named Ideal Hutchison Girl that year.
After studying history at Principia College in Illinois and then completing her graduate work in history at Memphis State University, she decided to look for a job while her husband finished law school.
Her career at Hutchison began in 1970, when a faculty position in upper school history opened up. “I taught U.S. history to 11th-graders, a contemporary issues class to 12th-graders, and seventh-grade geography. It felt so right to be teaching and learning along with the girls.”
Stanton said she loved studying history but noticed in graduate school that the options seemed limited to history of the U.S. or western civilization. She had written a paper on the Marshall Mission in China and wanted to continue expanding her horizons. She got the approval from a professor to conduct an independent study on China.
“That graduate program helped me truly understand how you study history and how perspective is so important,” she said. “You can’t take anything at face value. The job is to go back and find supporting evidence for what you’re being presented or the event that happened. Today we do a better job helping girls look at perspectives. We say, ‘Here’s the original source, but let’s go back and look at this document and this document.’ In my day, that wasn’t the approach being taught.”
Carefully considering different perspectives has served Stanton well over the half-century she has been teaching and guiding Hutchison girls and faculty and staff.
AN OPPORTUNITY PRESENTS ITSELF
When Hutchison moved to the Ridgeway campus, the school was divided into two divisions: the lower school (K–6th grades) and the upper school (7th–12th grades). In the early 1980s, the head of school, Jack Stanford, decided that Hutchison should revive the middle school, which would encompass grades 5–8.
“Research at the time indicated that preadolescents needed their own programming in order to thrive,” Stanton recalled. “The challenge then was figuring out what that programming would look like.”
Jack Stanford asked Laurie if she wanted to lead the transition and become middle school head. At the time, Stanton had been teaching for about eight years. She said she wasn’t nervous about switching from the classroom to an administrative role. “I always enjoyed working with kids, but even more I loved watching how different people approached their teaching.”
She also felt ready because she and Georgeanne Beaumont, the lower school head at the time, had worked closely on curriculum alignment. “As I was first stepping into that leadership position, Georgeanne was so helpful to me because I was able to bounce situations off her. She wouldn’t tell me what to do; she would just steer me. I probably learned more from Georgeanne about how to set priorities than anyone.”
A challenge was to transition fifth through eighth grade teachers and students into a middle school environment. One of her programming successes was to set up and foster middle school advisory groups, which continue to this day. The groups of 10-12 girls are led by faculty members who get to know the girls, help them navigate the year, and discuss topics they might face as preadolescents.
Serving as middle school head was a good fit for Stanton and she continued in that role for the next 16 years. “It was a great opportunity, because we were starting from scratch. It was interesting to research and implement best practices that would help our girls through a pivotal time in their lives.”
INFLUENCING THE WHOLE SCHOOL
Working as the middle school head was rewarding, but an opportunity arose for Stanton to take on a more encompassing role at Hutchison. Starting in 1998, she served as the academic dean, primarily focusing on the upper school. When Dr. Annette Smith started as the sixth head of school in 2000, she asked Laurie to look at the curriculum schoolwide and created the position of assistant head of program. In this role, Stanton has steered the adoption of student-centered learning, the integration of technology, the Reggio-inspired and integrated curriculum, and faculty professional development with visiting scholars. She’s served in this role since 2001, minus a four-year stint as the head of upper school.
“It was a fascinating time, because the research and literature were asking: ‘What does real teaching and learning look like?’ What emerged then is what’s now called student-centered learning,” Stanton said. “It reduces the teacher’s lecture time and encourages students to help craft the learning. The students are doing eighty percent of the talking in class.”
“Laurie did the hard work of researching, reading, staying on top of curriculum initiatives across the country, and she could distill that into how it might be used to help Hutchison develop,” said Smith, who retired in 2017. “That takes real leadership skills. She had to analyze that information and decide what parts of it worked and what parts of it didn’t. Then she had to figure out how to roll it out without everybody rebelling.”
Implementing that type of learning, in upper school specifically, required a change to the daily schedule as well. This is how the block schedule came about, Stanton said, which allows 85 minutes for classes that meet several times during a week. “It is a way of slowing classes down and going deeper into a subject,” Stanton said. “It enables girls to really focus on a subject.”
When they were implementing this change, Stanton said that they knew the block schedule would result in less time in class cumulatively for the year. Nevertheless, their data showed that loss of time in the block schedule equaled the time spent changing classes and starting up shorter classes in the previous schedule. The block schedule also creates a common block, when both students and teachers can meet.
Beyond simply changing the schedule, though, it also required a significant shift in teaching strategies and lesson plans. “The teachers wanted to implement it right away and they made it happen,” Stanton recalled. “One of the outcomes that we didn’t see coming was that after our first year, when those girls went off to college, they returned and told us, ‘We had no issue with a college schedule and having unstructured time. We understood how to use it and how to plan for it. We saw other kids struggling, and it was just natural for us.’ Changing to the block schedule was a huge accomplishment.”
THE VALUE OF LISTENING AND COMMUNICATING
“In every position I’ve held, the skills that have served me better than anything else are knowing how to listen and how to ask questions.
“My background in history trained me to always ask a lot of questions before I end up telling you what I think about something,” Stanton said. “I want to have an idea of different people’s perspectives. I’ve found that when things get complicated, you have to listen harder,” she added. “If there are difficult choices to be made, the important factor is not only to consider what choices need to be made immediately, but what the ramifications will be beyond today. What precedents are being set? What messages are being sent? Lastly, how are you communicating it?”
“Laurie always knew the history of the school, where it was in the present moment, and where it could be in the future,” Smith explained. “That kind of perspective was incredibly important to the leaders and the teachers, and in articulating changes to the parents and the girls.
“Hutchison encourages the best of everybody. So does Laurie,” Smith added. ““I believe Laurie committed 50 years to Hutchison because it was a mirror of her interests, her values, and what she believes, which is that every human being has intrinsic value,” said Smith. “Her whole being is to empower and support other people.”
Dr. Kristen Ring, head of school since 2017, concurred, adding: “Laurie has the ability to think through the big picture but work on the small details. She can listen to 14 different perspectives and distill them down to what matters. She is incredibly perceptive, understands people, and knows how to get them moving in the right direction. She is exceptionally humble and calm in a storm. Her steadiness has anchored the school for decades. Hutchison owes her considerable gratitude for her vision and dedication.”
BLOOM WHERE YOU’RE PLANTED
“When I was middle school head, one of the sayings that was popular was ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s the perfect description of me, because that’s kind of what I do. I bloom where I am planted.’ I’m not figuring out where I’m going to be planted. Plant me and then I’ll figure it out.
“Hutchison has given me a place to continue to grow and to thrive in an environment that honors integrity, true learning, and serving others.”
She has similar thoughts about retirement when she plans to disconnect to read, garden, and expand her opportunities to serve. “A friend of mine who just recently retired described it as ‘redirecting,’ so I’m just waiting to see where I’m redirected.”