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From Farm to Classroom, New DA Preschool Director Carolyn Howes Preaches Empathy
by Dylan Howlett

It was there, amid fields of tobacco and corn, of cantaloupe and watermelon, that Carolyn Howes led her first classroom. Or something close to it. Her father, Chuck, needed hands, lots of them, to work the hundreds of acres on the family’s Riverland Farm in Dunkirk, Maryland. Everyone in the family had their role, mostly because everyone in the family was there: Carolyn’s grandparents lived next door, as did all of Chuck’s sisters and their families. Chuck would enlist his siblings by day to plow and weed and harvest a swatch of land nestled near the shores of the Patuxent River. Their children needed supervision. And so they were left in the care of their older cousin, Carolyn. “I loved it,” she says.

 

 

Her most frequent charges were the Sealey boys, her younger cousins — Toby, Cory and Jody. “They were like my little brothers,” Howes says. She would run out of her front door and bound across the street to meet their school bus. But summer was their oasis. In the mornings, they plucked fresh cantaloupe from the field and served it for breakfast, and they snatched ears of corn for lunch or dinner. They would ride bikes through the fields and play with toy cars in the dirt. The Sealey boys were all within two years of each other, and all inclined to place their hands on each other. When the heat of southeastern Maryland summers would grip the boys in abrupt frustration, they would cry on Carolyn’s shoulder. When they were timid or unsure, they would find Carolyn imploring them to stand up for themselves, to chase whatever it was they believed in. There were no phones, no screens of digital diversion. And yet Carolyn had the radar of a veteran teacher. “She had eyes in the back of her head,” Cory Sealey says. “This is hundreds of acres, and she would let us run outside. But she knew exactly where we were. It was kind of like GPS before GPS was invented.”

Sealey laughs. “No wonder she went into education.”

She did, indeed. Howes spent 16 years as a first-grade and second-grade teacher at New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, where she has served for the past eight years as head of lower school. And this summer, Howes will assume the role of Preschool director at Durham Academy, as outgoing director Christian Hairston-Randleman — who has led the Preschool since 2015 — will become DA’s first-ever director of student support and wellness. “Carolyn’s extensive leadership experience, deep commitment to young learners, focus on diversity and empathy, and demonstrated ability to collaborate with colleagues in curriculum development and alignment will speed our growth as a school community,” Associate Head of School Kristen Klein wrote in an email announcing the hiring of Howes.

Her career started, in capacities both unofficial and profound, at that farm in rural Maryland, where rambunctious cousins and seasonal rhythms seeded a life of learning, and listening. “I think the biggest thing that resonates with Carolyn is empathy,” Cory Sealey says.

“She just knows how to connect with people.”

 


 

There was one day, a rare day, when Howes couldn’t connect with someone. Literally. The skies above Calvert County darkened, and storm clouds billowed overhead. There were fears a tornado would spawn. Howes started to shuffle Toby and Cory inside. She looked up and realized Jody wasn’t with them.

Carolyn and Cory raced across the fields. They knocked on the front doors of their aunts and uncles and cousins, and soon a search party mobilized. The weather worsened. Carolyn and her aunt finally thought to look in the Sealeys’ house, where they found Jody playing in the bathroom sink. “We really gave her a crash course,” Cory Sealey says. “And we didn’t scare her off.”

Nor did life on the farm scare off any of the Howeses. Riverland Farm was, and is, their home. In the 1980s, when other farms across Calvert County began parceling their land for development, Carolyn’s grandfather placed their property in a preservation program. When the Howeses eventually stopped working the land themselves, they leased the acres to other local farmers who wanted to raise corn and soybean. And the Howeses remained in their homes, on the land, without having to concern themselves with the daily anxiety of pests and weather and yields. Paradise does not often beget wanderlust.

But it did for Howes, who started to look beyond Dunkirk. In high school, she participated in a three-week exchange program in Vienna. “That was a huge lens into the world for me,” she says. She picked up conversational German during her stay. She became passionate about environmental issues. The Howeses noticed. “The whole family just watched what she was doing like she was the celebrity of the family,” says Sealey, who now lives in New York and books celebrities for advertising and marketing campaigns. “‘What is she doing?’ Where is she traveling? What is Carolyn up to?’”

 

18 Things About Ms. Howes

The Koalas — Elizabeth Parry and Allison Schenck’s Kindergarten class — were eager to get to know Ms. Howes. They asked, and she answered. Here are 18 Things About Carolyn Howes, courtesy of 18 student-journalist Koalas.
 

1. Do you have a dog? 
— Emma, 6 

Yes, I have a 5-month-old puppy named Max, who is a girl.

2. What is your favorite character on a TV show or book or movie? 
— Lucy, 6 

My favorite character is the pigeon in the Mo Willems books. 

3. What is your favorite song?
— Eleanor, 6 

One song I love to sing with children is “Puff the Magic Dragon.” 

4. Do you like the hot or the cold? 
— Bennett, 6 

I like the hot! 

5. Where are you from?
— June, 6 ½ 

I am from Maryland. 

6. What is your favorite plant?
— Shiv, 6 

My favorite plant is hydrangea.

7. What’s your favorite thing to do after school?
— Margaret, 5 ½ 

I like to go running. 

8. What is your favorite animal?
— Caroline, 5 

My favorite animal is a cat.

9. What is your favorite candy?
— Zayn, 5 ¾ 

My favorite candy is Kit Kat.

10. Do you have a cat?
— Edwin, 5 ¾ 

Yes, I have a cat named Ollie.

11. What is your favorite color?
— Otis, 6 

My favorite color is green. 

12. What is your favorite ice cream?
— Lucas, 6 ½ 

My favorite ice cream is chocolate. 

13. Do you like to play games? What is your favorite?
— Henry, 5 ½ 

I love to play games! My favorite game is Scrabble.

14. What is your favorite snack?
— Sofia, 6 

My favorite snack is cheese and crackers.

15. What is your favorite shape?
— Niam, 5 ½ 

My favorite shape is a circle.

16. What is your favorite state?
— Leo, 6 

My favorite state is North Carolina. 

17. Do you have any hobbies? What are they?
— Alexander, 5 ½ 

My hobbies are running, making crafts, baking, and playing board games.

18. Who is your best friend?
— Louisa, 6 

I feel lucky to have so many great friends. Two of my best friends are named Hannah and Cara.

 

Soon she was off to North Carolina’s Guilford College as the first in her family to pursue an undergraduate degree. She majored in education studies and, inspired by her Austrian sojourn, German studies. The summertime programming that she had finagled for the Sealey boys — with ample help from her mom, Susan, who would help lead craft projects or ferry the children to the local library — informed, in no small part, Howes’ student teaching acumen. Her friend Hannah Barrett was a few years younger than Howes when they met. Howes was a teaching assistant in one of Barrett’s classes, and Howes was also a teacher at the same school where Barrett was completing field work. Howes’ students, not surprisingly, were as enraptured as the Sealeys.

“I would say one of her biggest strengths is how she builds community in the classroom, and honoring the classroom community is really important to her — and really figuring out kids’ individual needs and meeting where they are,” says Barrett, who taught in schools for 10 years and now works as an occupational therapist at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “She does it very naturally. It’s almost innate how she figures things out.”

It was no different in her classroom at New Garden Friends School. In 2005, during her eighth year in the classroom, Howes and her co-teacher, Judy Pellarin, received a teaching award from Disney for instructional excellence and creativity. They devised a project that they dubbed “The Town Unit,” in which students played specific roles within a mock economy — banks and post offices, general stores and news stations — and invited their families to participate. Their classroom featured a loft from which students could drop an assortment of goods into a bag of flour below. They did so, ostensibly, to determine whether the diameter of the object and the height from which it fell would affect the size of the resulting crater. “I don’t know if our results really mattered,” Howes says now, “because we were having such a good time.”

She has sustained that fun through her work as an administrator. Howes always looks for openings in her schedule — or actively carves out time — to visit classrooms and observe lessons, often at the behest of teachers. New Garden Friends School doesn’t currently have a dedicated librarian, so Howes organizes and puts on the annual book fair. She is an enthusiastic participant in the third grade’s annual overnight trip, jumping on the zipline alongside her students. “I think that gets me back to what’s at the heart of it,” Howes says. She laughs. “Writing the report is not at the heart of it.”

Within that heart, always, are students. Howes created and implemented an instructional program at New Garden Friends for students with dyslexia and other reading challenges. She has spent recent years deepening her understanding of students on the autism spectrum, which she says has contributed to a significant shift in her response to student behavior and challenges; Howes says she finds herself explaining the rationale for decisions or rules in a different fashion, such as pointing students toward a section in the student handbook where they can see a given rule for themselves. Her empathy, too, extends to staff. Howes has presented a workshop titled “Repairing Harm Among Staff,” and she seeks to partner with teachers who need to make changes on behalf of their students rather than placing them in the unenviable position of feeling criticized or judged. She will solicit feedback about school-wide initiatives or invite teachers and staff members to actively shape those plans.

Howes doesn’t leave anyone behind. Not even a younger cousin who wanders off amid the threat of a tornado.

 


 

In the fall of 2021, Howes wanted to improve her stamina while walking. So she started running, if for no other reason than to push through that same pang of self-doubt — “Oh, I can’t do that” — that she has recognized in children for more than two decades. “Just like I would ask of my students,” she says, smiling. Howes joined a Fleet Feet intervals program — one minute of walking followed by one minute of running — in Chapel Hill, where Howes lives with her partner, Arzu Ozoguz. Within a year, she had completed her first 10K. Within two years, she had finished her first half-marathon. And in January 2023, Howes became a mentor within the program for beginning participants. Educators, after all, educate.

They do so at DA, too, and Howes was well aware. She had met Lower School Director Carolyn Ronco at various conferences, and she had heard of DA’s strong academics. Ozoguz, a professor of finance at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, has colleagues who are parents at DA. Howes met with a DA parent representative during a daylong interview in April. The representative spoke about the importance of sending their child to a school that supported their moral and ethical development. That resonated with Howes, who has done the same at New Garden Friends. “DA has an incredible academic reputation,” she says, “but hearing how much more there is beyond that was a really great moment.”

There was little selling to be done. Howes was keen on DA’s commitment to social-emotional work, its commitment to learning and growing along with its faculty, its commitment to sustaining wonderful traditions while also striving for more. Her first year as Preschool director, she says, will be spent collaborating with teachers and her administrative team, all the while getting to know students and parents. She wants to stay up to date on the latest research around early childhood literacy, and she hopes to incorporate more songs and games that build foundational reading skills. But the former teacher who encouraged her students to drop sizable rocks into bags of flour also wants to have fun. As her interview with DA’s administrative team wound down, Howes asked about everyone’s favorite school traditions. It shattered the expected banalities of interview decorum, and the room soon filled with excited chatter about DA fixtures: the Durham County Special Olympics, the Lower School and Upper School buddies program. “I could really just feel the heart of the school coming through,” Howes says.

So, too, does Howes’ heart. Her oldest daughter, Leyna, will attend college in the fall; her twins, Silas and Halle, are both in sixth grade, avid readers and art aficionados both. Ozoguz has family members who live in Istanbul, and some of her Turkish relatives recently visited Chapel Hill. Howes has been completing Duolingo lessons in Turkish. Her favorite stock phrase is “çok güzel” (choak GOO-zell), or “very good,” which can describe the weather, or a store, or someone’s outfit. She uses it in semi-broken conversations with Ozoguz’s family, all in an effort to connect.

She is connected, still, to Dunkirk. Howes lives in North Carolina, and Sealey in New York, and a third cousin in Florida. Everyone else remains on Riverland Farm. Her great-grandfather, Louis Stafford, would always have the honor of cutting the first watermelon of the season and of eating its first crisp slice. The moment is captured in one of Howes’ most cherished photographs. She and her brother are by their great-grandfather’s side on one of those triumphant days, savoring the arrival of watermelon, the company of those who matter most, the small miracle of something so sweet emerging from what was once barren soil.

That is, of course, what a farm sows: sustenance and dreams. It’s big enough for nourishing a love of kids, and for a mental GPS to keep them loved.