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Head of School Michael Turner: Redefining Educational Excellence at Shipley

Melissa Tassoni
Michael Turner laughed when his former baseball coach and then Head of School, Jim Connor, told him he should return to Germantown Academy to teach. Though Turner always envisioned he would have a second career in education, he didn’t think it would start only five years out of college.
 
But the pull to go back was strong. “I was steeped in love,” says Turner of his student experience at GA. “I was a lifer there. My father was a longtime teacher and coach there. We grew up next to campus. The school was my world. It was my neighborhood. It was my extended family. It was everything.” It was only natural that he’d go back.
 
His undergraduate research in urban redevelopment and environmental studies had fanned a passion to make a positive difference in the world, but Turner’s graduate work cemented his desire to stay in education for the rest of his life. “I learned the art and science of good teaching. I learned about how the mind works, how humans develop, and how those things fit together.” He also learned how to be a better teacher by taking a more collaborative and student-centered approach.
 
All great teachers, he says, share similar characteristics. “They delight in children. They possess a true love of learning—continuing to learn for themselves and finding joy in other people’s learning. They are reflective practitioners who never think that they’re done working on their craft. There’s also a science to it. There’s a knowledge base, a skillset that’s involved that you have to develop and continue to refine.”
 
Turner’s understanding of good teaching grew out of his graduate studies, and a few key people would shape his leadership style. “I learned the human or social/emotional side of leadership—how to treat people and create an environment where they yearn for not only their own success, but that of the team—from my dad. I learned how to run an organization from Penn football and coaches like Al Bagnoli and Ray Priore. There was no doubt from anybody associated with the organization who was in charge, what the values were, what the objectives were, and how things were to be done. It was a master class in organizational leadership.” Turner strives to balance these in his role as Head of School.
 
When it comes to Shipley, Turner believes fully in the School’s mission and is excited about executing the current Strategic Plan, Vision 20/26. He acknowledges the many challenges that independent schools and other organizations face as they try to match the rapid pace of change in today’s world. “As contexts change, as the economy changes, as students’ needs change, it’s easy to get turned around and to chase down rabbit holes. We must be crystal clear about what our mission means in the current context and what our strategic priorities are. It’s critical that we continue to tend to those and then be responsive to the environment.”
 
As part of that important work, Turner is sharpening Shipley’s focus on Educational Excellence—working with faculty, administrators, and the Board of Trustees to develop a clear definition that unifies Shipley’s emphasis on individual and collective well-being with student achievement in academics, athletics, and the arts.
 
Shipley has always had a profound interest in individual student well-being, and positive education is the right approach at the right time—a natural extension of what has been a cornerstone at Shipley since its founding. “The difference,” Turner explains, “is there is now a robust and decades-old body of research indicating that what the School has leaned towards for many years is, in fact, correct.”
 
One of the most exciting aspects Turner sees in this approach is, “the unique position Shipley is in to deliver the many benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion work, social-emotional learning, and world-class academics so they are balanced and mutually dependent.” 
 
Turner believes that embedded in Shipley’s culture and mission is “a sense of responsibility, an expectation that you will do something beyond yourself to have a positive impact in the world. It’s not just a line in the mission statement, it’s a day-to-day reality.” One that Turner sees clearly and embraces in his own life.
 
“I have the best job in the world. I really do,” he proclaims. “I’m grateful for the fact that I get to use all of the different things that I’ve learned throughout my life. The skills that I’ve acquired, the understandings that I hope that I have—be that on the business side, thinking about marketing and branding, working with the board and really amazing, talented people. But then also on the education side, in terms of what it means to educate children and how their needs are shifting, what the latest research tells us in terms of how human beings learn best and how can we apply that to schools. I get to do all of that. And that’s an amazing opportunity and a real privilege.”
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.