Thomas Farquhar received no grace period when he arrived as the headmaster of the Bullis School in July 2002. After 13 years as headmaster of the Westtown School near Philadelphia, Farquhar moved to the area with his wife Mary Grady and began as Bullis headmaster two days later. In October, Farquhar was presented with the challenge of leading a school during the area sniper scare. Relieved temporarily of his duties by student Zach Howard, Bullis Headmaster for the Day, Farquhar spoke with The Almanac from a temporary office on the Bullis Campus on Friday, Jan. 17.
Q: What inspired you to leave the Westtown School position and come to Bullis?
A: “I was interested in an institution that would permit me an opportunity to grow [and] a dynamic, evolutionary quality of a school on the move. … In the past decade, Bullis has shown tremendous growth and evolution [and] had the courage to change.”
“I left [Westtown] on June 29, and arrived here on July 1.”
Q: What are some of the first strengths that you could perceive in Bullis?
A: “The strength of the families’ connection to the school and the support of the parents. We have a very active parents’ association.”
“It’s not wise for an institution to rest on its laurels with its strengths, though. I want to see more parents involved.”
“The strength of athletics is also very important to the school community.”
Q: What were some of your priorities in leading Bullis during the sniper scare last October?
A: “We had a crisis management team… and we met daily in my office during that period of time. Virtually every day we sent a communication via email to the parents.”
“We reduced outdoor activity very significantly but we did not eliminate it. … We began to take advantage of the size and expansive nature of the campus by allowing students to go outside [in areas not visible from Falls Road].”
“We chose not to use ‘lockdown’ language. The language of the penal institution is not the most hopeful, optimistic attitude. … School can feel like a prison to kids, and it’s so important, especially for smaller children, to get outside. The playground is a place where children express their social skills.”
Q: How do you try to overcome the perception of the headmaster as villain or figure to rebel against?
A: I’ll never talk down to students. In a one-on-one conversation, the student is always my equal. … It’s two people talking; that’s the way I want to feel with every student or teacher.”
Q: When you referred to your “misspent youth” in a recent speech, were you serious or joking?
A: “Adolescents, and adolescent males in particular, each have a unique developmental timetable. I was not a consistent academic performer in high school.”
Q: With the caliber of public schools in the area, what can private schools, and Bullis in particular, offer to students?
A: “Public schools across the country suffer from a common problem, and that is the schools are too large for the students to be known by their teachers.”
“I would argue that school size is the biggest issue, and not class size. A quiet child, or any child, can get lost in the cracks. … When teachers know a child, magic can happen [and] the best teachers never forget you.”
Q: What are some of a headmaster’s less obvious challenges?
A: “It’s the number of people who would like to have the ear of the headmaster [and] to share their perspective.”
“There’s also the time question; I guess it goes without saying. … Sometimes you miss out on the daily joys and successes that go on around the campus. … I also teach a class in physics that has helped me to get to know the students.”
Q: What are some of your favorite books?
A: “I’m drawing on the high school curriculum here. … To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespeare’s sonnets.”
“[Also] a scholarly work by Rabbi Abraham Herschel entitled ‘The Prophets.’”