Trust is Still our Strength

August 18, 2021

Message from the headmaster



When I arrived at St. Johnsbury Academy last year, the global pandemic had us all unmoored, and the only thing certain about my first year as Headmaster was that everything would be different. I remember sharing with some teachers at that time that I was feeling uneasy about the extent to which I sensed people were trusting me to lead through such a crisis—in fact, it was keeping me up at night. What if the plan for reopening wasn’t right, and people got sick? What if I had persuaded people to follow me in the wrong direction?


I’ve since realized that the confidence the school community placed in me was really a confidence in our collective resilience and wisdom. It was trust that if we collaborated and listened to each other, we would do the right things to protect ourselves and our students from a danger whose contours were not yet clear.


After school was underway last October, I spoke in Monday morning Chapel about the work of the SJA Board of Trustees, suggesting that a “Trustee” was someone whose strength, fidelity, and reliability we believe in enough to entrust with the future of a school, which is a precious and unlikely thing. It struck me then that there was power in that act of trusting—that it might seem stronger to stand alone and not rely on others, but really, in our trust of one another lies our greatest strength as a community.


When I was diagnosed with a form of cancer over the summer, the Trustees of St. Johnsbury Academy’s first response was to trust me to find a way to be Headmaster while still getting the treatment I would need; to communicate with my team; to make it work. Again, I was humbled, and again I have realized that their confidence comes from knowing this community as they do, and knowing that I will be turning to that community to collaborate, plan, and do what makes sense. Especially as we find ourselves again starting the school year contending with the same global crisis, asking many of the same questions, and hoping that by acting judiciously we can preserve or soon regain some of the freedom we felt over this summer.


For my part, I have never in my life been so full of gratitude for the trusting support of my bosses and colleagues, for the fact that I am healthy and that my prognosis is beyond excellent, that I am able to be treated at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and that my family is near. I am grateful for the loyal team of people who are working magic on the ground, talking with me every day, Zooming me into meetings and orientations so I can be part of all the start-of-year excitement, and so I can continue to lead from a distance. I’m even grateful for the fact that this stubborn pandemic has given us skills and technology that is now making it possible for me to be “present” at the Academy virtually for these few weeks I need to be away. 


And I can usually put things into words, but my gratitude for this community—who have offered me everything from food to prayers to their own stories of having faced fear and pain—has at times been inexpressible. When I ride the MBTA to the hospital every morning, I can feel Saint J riding with me.


As we welcome faculty and students back in the coming days, I hope that our students will see how our school responds to uncertainty by trusting in each other and getting to work. I hope that they will learn from this new example that a truly strong community chooses, gratefully, to face its challenges together. Because I still believe what I said last fall: “Trust is our strength.” To be sure, my own reliance upon and trust in this community has already made me stronger.



Dr. Sharon L. Howell



Return to — Message from the Headmaster