Many kids have fond memories of their grandmother coming to visit, baking cakes for birthdays or babysitting when their parents went away. I certainly have my share of these recollections, but I recall from an early age that my grandmother was also an incredibly creative and curious person. She taught me many things but, most importantly, she inspired me to follow my passions, which have led me right back to where it all began at The Nysmith School.
Carole or Grandmother—she was not one for nicknames—had taught for years in Fairfax County’s Gifted and Talented program. She loved working with children but recognized how academically advanced students would become bored with the static nature of the curriculum. She took a risk in 1984 and opened Nysmith School for students in kindergarten through second grade.
Much like a teacher’s prepared lessons don’t always go as planned, Carole’s vision for the school didn’t materialize without its share of surprises. I remember over lunch one day when she told me the story of how the Upper School (fourth through eighth grades) was created; both of us ended up laughing at the audacity of it.
The second-grade children loved the program and being with Carole and the others so much that their parents essentially “refused” to leave the school and forced her to open a third grade. It didn’t stop at third grade; before long, she added a fourth grade, then fifth, and before you knew it, Nysmith was a K-8 school. It was the quintessential supply and demand—in reverse order.
It is surreal being back at the school where it all began for me. Many of the teachers with whom I spent many hours of my childhood learning from and being inspired by are now my teaching colleagues. I remember as a child thinking how different they were, yet now I realize we are actually incredibly similar.
All of us are curious, motivated, love to learn and excited to share that knowledge with some awesome children. We genuinely enjoy coming to school every day because we don’t see teaching as work; instead it is a passion and a purpose we were meant to pursue.
Growing up, I remember spending countless hours at the school, watching how both my grandmother and my father (now Head of School) worked together in tandem. I would marvel at how easily they seemed to deal with each and every situation and how much they loved doing what they did. And I began to understand what a special place it was, although truth be told, I’m not sure anyone truly appreciates how great an experience it is until they have some perspective with which to view it.
I walk down the hallways and it is quite a bizarre feeling for me. Everything’s the same and yet so different. The kids are still just kids—laughing, smiling and sharing stories. They still settle things with the tried-and-true rock, paper, scissors method. The students walk quickly to their Algebra 2, Trig or computer classes, although those programs are far different today than they were in my day. Rather than “just” coding, students are now programming robots and doing 3D printing.
Their lessons and experiments in math and science classes are way beyond what I remember doing. As much as things are different from my time here, the core experience has not changed. Nysmith is still very much about nurturing yet challenging children to reach their potential in a nonstressful environment. It’s instilling a love of learning, keeping them thinking and making each class as engaging and fun as possible. That philosophy hasn’t changed—and it never will.
Carole’s mission and values were at the core of my childhood—and the foundation for the school for all these years. They have led us to constantly adjust how we teach to meet the needs of our students.
As with the unprecedented times that we live in, life changes, and so do our students. In my few years as a teacher here at Nysmith, I have not found one graduating class to be identical to the other. Each has its own personality and disparate interests. Education and the methods of teaching must adapt to the students who now sit in the chairs in front of me and my fellow teachers. And I’m happy—and proud—to say that is something at which Nysmith excels.
Alex Nysmith is the grandson of Carole Nysmith, founder of The Nysmith School in Herndon, Virginia. Learn more by visiting nysmith.com.