Profiles in Education: Lisa Eckstrom — Bringing Reason to Middle Schoolers
A few years ago, when Lisa Eckstrom was an English teacher and chair of the English Department at Stuart Country Day School, she received the following advice: “Every day think of all the people you can help.”
That advice has guided her career and her work. She is now assistant head of Princeton Charter School (PCS), directing the fifth through eighth grades, while continuing to teach a fifth grade English class.
“That’s definitely advice that has stayed with me,” she said. “You can make such a difference in somebody’s life by being reasonable and compassionate and making the rules work for the students. How can you help the situation? How can you make it better? At the end of the day, that’s what you think about.”
Sister Frances de la Chapelle, long-time Head of Stuart and the purveyor of the well remembered advice, described Ms. Eckstrom as “a gift to Stuart.” Commenting on the extraordinary respect and admiration that students, administrators, faculty, and parents had for her, Sister de la Chapelle noted, ”As a faculty member, she loved her students and the subject which she taught. She was creative, very demanding, and always wanted her students to learn as much as they could. She wanted the best for them and they responded.”
Sister de la Chapelle was equally admiring of Ms. Eckstrom’s success as an administrator, pointing out that “She was clear in her expectations and her goals. People were delighted to work with her. She energized them. She was always ready to take on more responsibility and gave of herself 100 percent.”
And Ms. Eckstrom, now in her fourth year at PCS, seems to have held onto all those qualities. “Lisa is a great educator, who brings a wealth of knowledge of school institutions, trends in education, understanding of students, and skill in communicating with parents,” according to Head of School Larry Patton, who went on to praise her “empathy, intelligence, and experience as an educator.” He also mentioned her strong understanding of the community, as a resident of Princeton since 1993, with two children (Grace Rosen, 24, and Simon Rosen, 17, currently a senior at PHS) who have gone through the Princeton Public Schools — “my 19th year as a PPS parent” — from Riverside to John Witherspoon to Princeton High School (PHS).
Ms. Eckstrom’s father was an aeronautical engineer with NASA, but her mother and grandmother were both teachers — “I know how fulfilling they found it,” and, as an undergraduate at St. John’s College in Annapolis she knew that she wanted to be a teacher.
She also knew that she would eventually go to graduate school. “I knew I always wanted to be intellectually engaged. I had always been a reader, interested in academics, and I wanted to be around people who were talking about ideas,” she recalled.
Her first job — “the only job I got” — after graduating from college with a concentration in philosophy and the history of mathematics, was at a parochial school where she taught history and English to classes of 35 seventh and eight graders.
She was admitted the following year to graduate school in comparative literature at Princeton University, with a concentration in French and English literature. Ms. Eckstrom, who worked as a preceptor for a variety of courses, recalled, “I loved the teaching part of grad school.” She earned her Masters at Princeton and also met her future husband, Gideon Rosen, now the Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Princeton.
After a short stint in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Mr. Rosen had his first job and their daughter was born, they returned to Princeton, and Ms. Eckstrom started as a lecturer at the University. She worked there part-time from 1991 until her son started kindergarten and she got a job — at first part-time, then later full-time — at Stuart as English Teacher in the upper school.
“I wanted to be in a community,” she said. “In my position at Princeton University it was hard to develop deep relationships with people, but I loved the Stuart community — great bosses, great students, great parents.”
She became English department chair at Stuart in 2008, though she continued to teach classes, and she gradually decided she “wanted to do something more administrative.” In reflecting on her decision to leave Stuart in 2011 and take a job as Head of School at the American Boychoir School, Ms. Eckstrom commented, “Being in the Stuart community for a long time makes you think about what kind of leadership you want to pursue. That’s part of the DNA at Stuart. I thought I wanted to do something more administrative.”
Two years later, with the Boychoir School facing financial difficulties, Ms. Eckstrom “wanted to seek something a little more stable,” and she happily moved to the PCS to direct grades 5-8.
“It was certainly not part of a long-term plan, but a big opportunity for me with a lot of positives,“ she said. “It’s terrific. I tell my friends you have to put your name in for PCS.”
Still torn between the positive attributes of private and public schools, Ms. Eckstrom appreciates the fact that PCS, though part of the public school system, is smaller in size and more independent than most public schools. There are about 48 students in each of the grades five through eight at PCS.
“The thing that kids need most,’ she said, “is the community. Keeping things small is going to be like whatever the opposite of fast food is — the slow food movement. There’s going to be a small school movement. I appreciate that when the parents come in here, I know who they are. I’m not dealing with people as strangers. It’s important to have a community where everyone knows each other’s name. Everyone feels comfortable knowing that you’re not just a cog in the wheel. That makes a huge difference.”
Ms. Eckstrom expressed her appreciation that PCS and other public schools “educate a wider variety of students than a traditional private school would.” She mentioned also that public school can more easily be an integral part of the community rather than a school with students from many different towns.
“One of the strengths of public school is that everyone lives in the same town. When I go to McCaffrey’s,” she said, “I see my students. When I go to Small World I see parents of my students, and as a teacher or administrator you either hate or love that, and I love it. That’s a big plus.”
Having always taught classes along with performing her administrative responsibilities, Ms. Eckstrom emphasized the importance of operating in both worlds. “You have to do both all the time to understand what the teachers are going through. Teaching and administrating are very different jobs in many respects.”
On the day I talked with her in her office, she had just been involved in sorting out an elaborate schedule of school bus drills and negotiating with the fifth grade boys to persuade them to let the fifth grade girls play basketball with them. “I spend a lot of time trying to bring reason to middle schoolers,” Ms. Eckstrom admitted. “A lot of my days I’m not involved with intellectual issues, but I am always engaged with people — parents, students, and teachers. I find that meaningful. If you do your job right you can really help people.”
Teaching a class of fifth grade English this year, she described her students as “extremely enthusiastic and really, really curious. They’re an energetic bunch. Teaching keeps you centered on what schools are all about.”
Along with her love of teaching Ms. Eckstrom emphasized the vital importance of good administration. “A lot rests on people in administrative positions to make sure the focus is on the people, on kids, on character — not just on the rules. The English call it pastoral care. (It doesn’t have to be religious.) I think there’s a lot of pastoral care at the administrative level, and it’s basic. It changes the tone of the school.”
As teacher, administrator and leader of grades 5-8 at PCS, Ms. Eckstrom may have come a long way, but she has never departed from her beliefs in community, caring and helping as many people as she can.