Q&A: Flint Hill School head

John Thomas, who has been headmaster at Flint Hill School in Oakton since 2005, will retire in June 2022. (Photo by Freed Photography Inc.)

John Thomas has been delighted and inspired by students and faculty during his 15 years at Flint Hill School in Oakton, but he’s decided to turn over the reins in a year and a half.

Thomas informed the school’s board of trustees recently that he would be stepping down in June 2022.

“The 2021-22 school year will mark my 17th year at Flint Hill, my 26th year as a headmaster and my 50th year in the field of education,” Thomas wrote. “While words cannot express how deeply I will miss this community . . . it is the right time for me to step away and have more time with my family and it is the right time for Flint Hill to benefit from new leadership.”

Thomas came to Flint Hill in July 2005 and planned to announce his retirement this coming spring, but because of the pandemic gave earlier notice to give the school more time to find his successor. In this edited Dec. 17 interview, Thomas discussed his years at the school and his future hopes.

Why will you be stepping down?

“To spend time with my family. My great wife [Emily] has been an angel. We got married in the summer of 1972, right after we got out of college, so we’re almost at our 50th wedding anniversary. We have three boys who are around the country, two in California and one in New York, and a slew of grandchildren. We want to be able to have more time with them.”

What was the tipping point?

“I did a major study years ago on retirement when I was in graduate school, and one of things I remembered from the people I interviewed was they said, ‘You’ll know when it’s the right time. Don’t rush it, you’ll know.’ I used to call retirement the ‘R word.’ I had a grandfather who worked until he was 88. He was kind of a role model for me. He just wouldn’t quit. But all of the sudden a couple of years ago, talking with my wife, we realized we couldn’t get to some of our grandkids’ special events because I was sort of married to the Flint Hill calendar. I realized we should probably have a date in mind. We picked 2022 as an appropriate time to make that move.”

What were your biggest achievements at Flint Hill?

“I think a lot of it has been helping to promote our school culture. We’re totally student-centered. I feel really good about the people we’ve been able to hire as faculty and staff [and] the sense of collaboration and innovation. We’re a very entrepreneurial school, always looking at how we can do this better, how can we make sure the students are getting the very best they can get?”

How do you bond with students?

“I still teach [one psychology class each semester] so that I can get to know kids not just in an administrator role, but right in the classroom with them.”

How has Flint Hill’s reopening gone during the pandemic?

“It’s gone well. We had a COVID response team that met starting in July that was trying to figure out how we could open school. We really wanted to be on campus as much as we could. Right now, about 85 percent of our kids have come back to campus to go to class.”

How does the programming vary between the school’s age groups?

“Lower and Middle [students] come five days per week because those classrooms are big enough. We’ve capped classes at 12 students and a teacher. Because of the size of our Upper School, we had to go with a hybrid program. Monday and Tuesday, only juniors and seniors come to school and freshmen and sophomores go to their classes virtually. Wednesday is a class meeting day with teacher office hours. Thursday and Friday, the ninth- and 10th-graders are on campus and juniors and seniors [take classes] virtually.”

How do you teach the 15 percent of students who attend classes “virtually”?

“You teach with a laptop and an iPad, because you’ve got to be there for the kids who are at home. You bring them into your class, so you teach them at the same time [as those on campus].”

What health measures are in place?

“They get their temperature checked every morning and everybody’s masked all day long when you get to school, except when you’re eating lunch. Also, we’re trying to keep people distancing [and] we do a deep cleaning of the buildings every night. We’ve had to go virtual a couple of times. This week we’re all-virtual because we had a positive case in our staff.”

How is the new Middle School?

“One of the beauties of wearing a mask all day is when I go over to the Middle School, the kids can’t see that my jaw drops open every time I walk in that building. It’s just a beautiful facility.”

Advice for your successor?

“Leaders should be visible, available and approachable. You need to be a people person. You need to listen to people and get to know them. You need to be collaborative, hearing the ideas of other people and then supporting them, making that a reality and making sure they get credit for that. Make sure those areas around diversity, equity and inclusion are right there at the forefront of what you do so that everyone who walks in the school feels welcome, appreciated and valued.”

What will you do in retirement?

“I’ve always thought I ought to write about this or how to do that. Also, I’ve learned how to do bronze sculptures, little figurines. That’s a great hobby and I love doing it, but I just haven’t had time.”

What made you take up sculpting?

“When I was in Texas teaching in Houston, our eldest son was in ninth grade and took a course called ‘Wax for Bronze.’ We had a great art teacher who was actually a well-known sculptor. There’s a big statue down at Texas A&M called “The 12th Man” outside of their football stadium and he had done that sculpture. I kept talking to the artist, Pat Foley, and the next year he let me audit the class. He had me do a sculpture and from then on I found I just loved to try and do that.”

Where do you live now and will you move after retiring?

“I live in a schoolhouse that is right next to our Lower School campus . . . We bought a place outside St. Michaels, Md., 10 years ago. It’s not on the water, but we can walk to the water pretty easily. St. Michaels is a cute little town with shops and restaurants and we can walk or ride our bikes to it. And it’s flat. As we got older, we figured that would be a nice, safe place to be.”

[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]

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