When Lee Fertig speaks, you lean in.
Even through the warped tinniness of the computer mic and camera, his measured tone is undeniably genuine; it’s a voice that calmly infuses sincerity into each syllable and, no matter the topic, plants and grows the validation of being heard.
Fertig himself is much like his voice. He’s openly friendly, with a head of white hair and broad smile that spreads often and unforced. He often gestures as he speaks and expresses an obvious passion for education, a field in which he’s worked for over 30 years—and one in which he will continue at Nueva as the new Head of School.
Fertig’s extensive experience leading high schools for the past couple decades is largely international, with his most recent position as Director at the International School of Brussels in Belgium. He attended Ohio’s Oberlin College after growing up outside New York and double majored in math and psychology. After graduating in 1983, his first teaching job was a math teacher at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. After that, he fell in love with education, as he put it, and secured a teaching job contract and a one-way flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From being a teacher and administrator in Ethiopia, he embarked upon a globe-circling journey from Brazil, to Minnesota, to Spain’s Barcelona, back to Brazil, and finally to Belgium. The path took him to four continents and from teacher to administrator, and led him to teach and train other principals and directors around the world.
The Q&A with Lee Fertig
What drew you to our Head of School position?
Sometimes society doesn’t think highly capable, highly talented, highly aspirational students such as yourselves have their own vulnerabilities. Maybe many of you come from well-resourced families; you’re smart, you’re intelligent, and you have that school savvy to succeed. But that doesn’t mean that students like you and your friends and your classmates are not susceptible to other things. What I like about Nueva is how seriously it takes this notion of supporting students on their own learning journeys, and really committing with integrity to those journeys. Yes, the school wants students to get into good universities, and yes, we want you to be successful and have a good skill set to enter the workforce eventually. But what I heard loud and clear throughout the entire interview process was Nueva cares about the journey of learning that the students are on, and wants to make sure that it’s a happy, safe, balanced, healthy journey.
What are your goals come August?
I hope diversity is one of the things I focus on. I get the sense that there are decision makers and community members truly interested in seeing if we could broaden socioeconomic and racial diversity…I know the admissions team is eager to increase the level of diversity. I get the sense in general that the notion of becoming as inclusive as we can is something that is desired, which is great. I just want to confirm first, that it is indeed a community desire. If I confirm that quickly, then I will mobilize our skill set and push that forward a little bit more.
What transition challenges do you foresee?
I haven’t been immersed in [the missions] the way Diane has been immersed for 19 years, the way your teachers have been immersed for many, many years. And even though I’m American, I have lived overseas for many years. And there’s a part of me that’s nervous to go back to the States. I’m looking forward to it, but I’m going to need some help with that. I will be looking to other people in the community to help me be a very quick learner. I just want to make sure I jump in, in the right way.
What do you think your largely international experience will bring to Nueva?
A lot of what my career has entailed has forced me to learn new languages, new cultures, and meet new groups of people. I think I’m extremely open to new perspectives, new ways of doing things. I’ve built my career [around] allowing things to fester a little bit, letting people have their spirited debate, as long as it’s grounded in some norms and consensual agreements. It sounds cliché, but I really do believe in my heart that that there is strength in diversity and diverse voices. Hopefully the Nueva community will appreciate that.
How would you describe your ideal relationship with students, teachers, and parents?
In general, I think I tend to be myself in these relationships—authentic and empowering. I strive to be visible, helpful, resourceful, and fun. Of course, I also need to be professional, competent, and reliable in these relationships… but I truly believe all of these characteristics come along when we engage in collaborative and candid relationships.
Many of the international schools you’ve worked at follow the IB curriculum. Can you speak to the IB compared to Nueva’s curriculum, and how it might factor into our academic development?
I am welcoming a bit of a break from the IB. It’s gotten so big, so fast, and I think it’s got some growing pains associated with it; it’s lost the ethos of learning that they had earlier on.
I’m excited to be at Nueva that has more autonomy to play, to innovate, to experiment through trial and error and fail, and then get back up and try something new. I really felt that
loud and clear when I was [on campus]: the spirit of trying, and
experimenting and innovating, knowing that we might not always get it right.
However, I also heard…from some of the administrators that some faculty are looking for a little bit of glue that connects these things. And I don’t know from a student perspective, but I wouldn’t be surprised that sometimes, maybe students feel like things are a little disparate. It might be nice for students to feel that there’s synergy across classes. I don’t want the cohesion to be restrictive and constraining; I think there’s a sweet spot. There’s a balance in there, some place where you can continue to play, continue to innovate, continue to experiment, continue to be open and try new things, but be anchored, be grounded in some broad, base curricular principles.
You’ve mentioned a strong interest in sustainability and nature. How might this translate to environmental goals for the school?
I’ve been involved in several master plans for campuses and new buildings, and each and every time I’ve worked with the architects and the designers to make sure that they are as environmentally sustainable as possible. I take that kind of stuff very, very seriously. I also work with faculty and parents to do even small things. In a previous school, we still were selling water in plastic bottles, so we got rid of all the plastic. I think it’s important for our school communities to come together and demonstrate not only symbolically, but authentically, that this is a value of ours.
You’ve been at a number of different schools—is Nueva another stop along the way?
I don’t envision I will be moving on to other schools after Nueva, just because, one, my age, and two, I think it’s time for my wife, my three children, and I to reacquaint ourselves with the United States. What could happen is I’ll stay at Nueva for seven, eight, nine, 10 years, whatever it is, and then afterwards maybe do some consulting with schools but not being in the Head of School position again.
Did you always want to be an educator?
I would love to be able to say that ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to be a teacher. No, it was nothing that romantic. Probably elementary and junior high, I wanted to be a basketball player, and then a sports writer. I never ever, ever thought about becoming a teacher. It just kind of happened. And once I got in it, I loved it.
I was a high school principal for many years in various settings. I left schools for a couple years, working for a school technology company, so still working with schools, but with the adults, not the kids. And I’ll be honest with you, there was a hole in my heart. I missed it, so I went back to being a school leader.
You’ll be coming to Nueva in mid-March for an open visit. Do you have any goals for that visit?
Sadly, during the process, I did not get to really spend a lot of quality time with students or teachers, so that’s one of the things that will be a priority item for me. I believe the plan is to schedule me to meet with groups of students, faculty, and parents and community members. I’m really looking forward to that.
I’ll also be looking for where there are commonalities across the different stakeholders. Even just as a candidate, I already heard a lot of same language, desires, and values coming from faculty, board members, and parents. There might be some differences that pop up also.
I will also be inquiring, when I’m there and during my transition visits, about what people most appreciate about the Nueva community. What are the non-negotiable, sacred cows that that you don’t want the new Head of School to touch? What needs to be preserved and enhanced? I do find that when we build improvement plans that leverage where we are already strong, it’s a good start with the community.
Do you play any instruments?
I used to play a lot of guitar. I haven’t played in a long, long time but I used to be in bands. I was in a folk duo, and we called ourselves the Red Creek Combo. I have no idea why. I was also in a three-person rock band for a while called Impact. I’m looking forward to maybe one day playing with the steel drum ensemble.
You mentioned that you might want to jointly teach a class in the future, time and workload permitting. What would it be about?
I think the subject I teach best is psychology; I have taught various levels of psychology, including the IB program. Empowering young people to understand human behavior, including their own, is very rewarding. If there were opportunities to teach a class on leadership, this would be interesting to me as well.
Tell us about some of your hobbies.
I walk a lot and like to hike. There are wonderful forests and wooded areas everywhere in Brussels. I have three dogs—one of them is kind of old, but the other two I take to the forest every morning just to walk in the woods.
I do like water sports and like to swim…canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle a little bit. I like to be out there in nature. I’m also a foodie. I eat anything and everything. I will be looking forward to some great food on the West Coast.
What artifacts might we see in your office?
I will probably have a family photo or two…might include my dogs! I also tend to have a handful or two of books that have influenced me a lot—professional resources about leadership and related topics. I tend to keep my office fairly “uncluttered” as I like to use it as a place of conversation and collaboration. I also tend not to be in my office a lot as I prefer to walk around campus a lot and meet people in their location instead.
An inside look at the hiring of Lee Fertig
Lee Fertig’s magnetic warmth is something others saw in their first interactions and subsequent conversations with him as well.
“As we went through that process, one of the things we all felt very strongly about was his sense of humor and his joy,” Susan Barnes said, referring to the 10-person search committee that she co-chaired.
“I think that kindness and caring is essential here,” co-chair Kathleen Donohue said. “I think Lee’s kindness will be evident early on, along with his tremendous intellect and deep experience as an educational leader.”
The committee was also drawn by his wide-ranging experience in a number of different fields.
“You know that tool that people only use for cracking open hard-boiled eggs?” Aron Walker, one of two faculty on the committee, half jokingly asked. “What was appealing was that he’s not one of those tools. He has a much more versatile toolbox.”
The committee believes that these aspects will be key in this next phase of the institution, especially with its evolution and expansion over the past two decades.
“I do believe Nueva is complicated. It’s grown a lot; its needs keep changing. Diane has had the benefit of 19 years of being with Nueva, so she understands those operations. For someone to come in, it’s a little bit daunting. We wanted to find somebody who had the experience and skill set to understand Nueva and how to operate effectively here, and that’s something Lee definitely has,” Walker said.
That depth of knowledge was one aspect of Lee that was well-cited by the search committee, who mentioned its presence along every step of the process, from the preliminary over-the-phone interviews to the full-day-long, in-person meetings in the finalist stage at the end of the “elaborate” nine-month process, as Donohue put it.
“[Fertig] had fabulous answers to our questions, but he also had fabulous questions,” Donohue said. “And the depth of his questions suggested an understanding of our school, independent schools, and their functioning that felt very much aligned with Nueva that clear even at that early stage.”
Walker recalled as well that those questions seemed largely informed by what Fertig heard from the committee and community members he met with.
“He has a great presence, like he was there, he was listening,” Walker said. “That really struck me. He’s such a thinker about like schools and the systems in schools. It was neat to see that he’s going to jump right into trying to understand all of the things that make up Nueva.”
Throughout the selection process, Fertig almost exclusively interacted with the search committee—in fact, the Board in its entirety hadn’t met with Fertig as of mid-February. While the process included a visit where the committee “snuck” Fertig, as he described it, onto the campuses, as well as a formal meeting with Rosenberg herself, meetings with and information about candidates and finalists were kept to a small, closed group of the search committee. The closed search, as such a confidential process is called, was necessary, in the search committee’s opinion.
“In order to attract the best candidates, it had to be a closed search. In this day and age of the internet, people who are known to look [for new jobs] can lose their current ones,” Barnes said. “Many, many of these candidates were sitting heads of schools and were very happy where they were—I would put Lee in that category as well. We could not expose the candidates to that.”
The closed search did mean, however, that the larger community was unable to be privy to the entire process. The search committee “would have loved to have had more of a community meeting,” Barnes said, but the circumstances necessitated less transparency.
The majority of community input was gathered in the initial stages of the search process, with the drafting of the Position Statement, a written job and school description provided to applicants, which also served as one of the main guiding documents for the rest of the process. The 13-page statement was written by the search committee in conjunction with the search firm RG175, using information from focus groups and an extensive online survey of the Nueva community, including faculty and staff, students, and families.
“It was a way to both do kind of a self-assessment of what we needed for the next stage and for us to communicate to potential applicants about what we wanted,” Donohue explained. “The broad swath of the voices that we heard at that early stage was critical in shaping the search and the outcome of it.”
Now that the outcome has been determined, the committee is progressing into the transition process.
“Our goal is to welcome him to the community, to show him what we think is so wonderful about Nueva—call it the Nueva magic if you want to,” Donohue said. “And [we want to] help him really understand that on a visceral level so that he can take us to where we need to go next.”