Interview with Hannah Nelson, Midland's Next Head of School

Interview with Hannah Nelson: Education Leader

Sitting down with Midland's Incoming Head of School

As we get ready to welcome Hannah Nelson, our new Head of School for the 2024-2025 school year, we wanted to take some time to get to know her better and share with the community. 

First of all, the Midland community enjoyed meeting you and getting to know you during your campus visit as a candidate in Fall 2023. I’m sure you were excited to get to know more about Midland as well! What stood out to you during that visit? 

Oh my gosh, so many things! Really the thing that stood out to me was the students. I was blown away by the capacity of students living at Midland. They are kind, curious, and put full effort into their school work. Midland is an intentional community brought together by a love of the natural world, the beauty of a supportive community, and the appreciation of high academic standards. Midland gives students an opportunity to be held to and rise to high standards while becoming (and supporting others to be) their best selves. The environment inspires people to do and be their best. The students hold the culture of the school sacred; they nurture it with every incoming class. It is really impressive; they are amazing culture keepers.

One of the unique aspects of Midland as a boarding school in California is our setting on nearly 3,000 acres of land in the Santa Ynez Valley. How do you see the environment playing a role in your transition as the next leader of Midland School? 

I have always chosen the areas I have lived in very intentionally: Vermont, Wisconsin, Colorado, and now California. I love getting to know all of the flora and fauna wherever I live. I am very much looking forward to getting to know all of the land. I have a ‘not-so secret’ desire to draw a hand map of the property as I explore it. Truly, I find that I am most myself when I am in the outdoors and connecting myself physically to the natural world. It allows me to look beyond the problems in front of me and see the beauty and connection in the world around us. I think that in this age of screens where everyone is always looking down, it is important to pause, look up, look out, feel our feet on the ground and connect to the earth. To quote bell hooks in the work Belonging: A Culture of Place, “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully.”

I have always been incredibly inspired by the environment I am working in. I find inspiration in the simple beauty of nature around me. Whenever I am feeling stuck in my work, being able to look out at the hillside, see the wind moving the leaves in the trees, or smelling the freshness of the earth, helps ground and refocus me. It also helps remind me that even in the most complex issues that we are facing, the world keeps turning and how we walk in the world, the path that we choose and what we leave behind matters to those that are coming after us. 

Midland School’s campus includes 2,800 acres of land, a working ranch, and an organic farm and garden.

Speaking of the world continuing to turn, being a historic boarding school founded in 1932, Midland has always aimed to incorporate both traditional and modern aspects into its educational approach. When you think of Midland and its place in 21st Century Learning, what do you feel are important skills for learners to take away from their high school experience? 

I wonder if we need to be thinking more about “futurist skills” and the ability to adapt to a changing world. So, what is needed both now and in the future? Relational skills, emotional intelligence, collaboration, critical thinking, and leadership are all skills that are going to be needed moving forward. We are living in a world with artificial intelligence that is able to do so much, so quickly. Future learners, leaders and workers are going to need to be able to bridge the gap between what can be quickly and artificially outsourced and what works for humanity.

I think the future of education lies not in what to think, but how to think. Access and exposure to information is constantly increasing. Anyone can look up information, but what I think will be at the heart of education in the future will be how to think critically, analyze information, determine accuracy and authenticity, and question information that is presented to them.

How would you see students being involved in shaping their educational experiences? 

I am a big fan of student agency. I want students to have input into the learning they are doing and what they do with that information. Midland students do so much to shape their culture; they are involved in so many aspects of the school.  I am hopeful that future students will have even more opportunities to show and share their interests and explore how they can make a difference outside the walls of the classroom. 

Experiential learning is the future of education. I think that experiential learning is one of the best ways to learn. The learning takes place everywhere–not just in the classroom–especially in a community like Midland. When we get outside of the classroom, not only do we learn about the topic at hand, we also learn about others and about ourselves. My most valuable learning experiences have been when I’ve been out in the world, speaking with people about their lives and their experiences–it broadens my perspectives, gives me compassion, and instills a sense of inspiration to explore the world more.  By setting the stage for experiential learning, students  are able to craft the boarding school experience in ways meaningful to them and to the greater community. 

Science class at Midland is very hands-on.

Since 1932, Midland has previously had eight different Heads of School, all of whom have been male. The school itself became coeducational in the mid-1970s. How do you feel about being Midland’s first female Head of School? 

It is an honor. I am incredibly proud to be a woman in academic leadership, and I hope to be a role model for others in their aspiring leadership. I am also energized by the trend that we are seeing with women, people of color and people that identify as LGBTQ+ aspiring to become Heads of School. According to reports from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the percentage of Heads of School that identify as women has increased from 31% in 2009 to 41% in 2021. The percentage of Heads of School that identify as people of color has increased from 5%  in 2009  to 11%  in 2021. There is still a lot of room for growth in those numbers. 

How would you describe your leadership style? 

I am a hands-on leader. I value transparency, collaboration, and communication. I like to get out and spend a majority of my time seeing and living the values of the school. I am looking forward to working with the staff, faculty, and students at Midland. They are such a strong community and I am really thrilled to get to know everyone, encourage their strengths and help identify and strengthen any areas where people may be challenged. I consider myself a positive and optimistic person. I see Midland as a place where I can be my best self and help to encourage the same in others. 

You will be joining us at our Decades Reunion this year. What do you hope to learn when you get to meet alums from across the decades? 

I am so excited to meet everyone and hear their stories. What do they value about Midland? What is a strong memory they have from their time here and what are their hopes for the future. I think that those stories that people share are so valuable to the life of the institution. It’s important for those stories to live on and inspire others to do amazing things. 

Decades Reunion attendees in the summer of 2023 represented the classes of 1953 through 2013.

What are you and your family most looking forward to with the move to Los Olivos? 

We are so excited to become a part of the Midland community. We felt so welcomed when we visited. William (my son) is going to absolutely love having all of the space to run, see animals, pick his own food, and explore through the woods. Actually, we all will! When I think of all of the different elements of Midland, it honestly feels like the best fit for us as a family. We love nature and the outdoors, self sufficiency, and most importantly a community of individuals who cares deeply for the land and its inhabitants. 

Thank you Hannah. We are thrilled that you will be joining us in the summer of 2024 to lead Midland in this next chapter of our journey.  

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