By Max Smart, Class of 2022
In fall 2018, then-freshman Max Smart interviewed Head of School Alan Sparrow about his years of service to Rowland Hall for the Upper School’s student newspaper, the Rowland Hall Gazette. As part of our ongoing celebration of Alan, we’re proud to share Max’s piece with our larger community.
On November 27, 2018, I sat down with Alan Sparrow to discuss his upcoming retirement at the end of the 2019–2020 school year and his reflections on 28 years of service to Rowland Hall as the head of school. I wanted to know what words of wisdom Mr. Sparrow had to share. He told me that his real title, the title on the nameplate on his desk, is head learner. Mr. Sparrow recalled, “When I first got here, people asked whether I wanted to be called headmaster or head of school, and I said neither. I told them that I want to be called head learner.”
He explained, “If I’m the number-one learner in the school, then it sets up a model for everyone learning in our school, not just the students. That’s a culture I have supported at the school. It was here when I arrived, but I’ve continued to nurture it . . . and that’s something I’m proud of.”
Mr. Sparrow’s insights into education could be considered surprising because they come from a man who spent part of his youth sporting long hair, surfing, and running rock concerts for headliners including Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, and Taj Mahal, but Mr. Sparrow’s rock-and-roll surfing days and his current position are entirely consistent with one of the fundamental principles he told me he teaches and follows: “Don’t assume things about people.”
Next, I asked Mr. Sparrow about his puppets, which were a cornerstone of my Lower School experience at Rowland Hall. Mr. Sparrow said he initially decided to greet students on the Lower School campus with a handshake every morning. However, in the winter months, “if 300 kids come in from the playground and shake your hand, guess what happens: your hand gets pretty cold.” When former board chair Peggy Olwell brought about 25 or 30 puppets for a school project, the kids loved the puppets. Mr. Sparrow asked if he could use them to greet the kids. It was great, Mr. Sparrow said. “The kids loved it and my hands were warm!” After returning Ms. Olwell’s puppets, Mr. Sparrow used his own Kermit the Frog and Winnie the Pooh puppets. He explained that this “started a tradition of people going off on spring break and seeing a puppet in the store or at the zoo they liked and bringing it to me.” Mr. Sparrow now has 110 puppets! All but two of them were given to him by students, their parents, or a local bishop. To this day, Mr. Sparrow has “alumni coming back asking, ‘Do you still greet the students with puppets?’”
Mr. Sparrow's top advice for students: live a balanced life and remember to enjoy the moment.
I was personally interested to hear what advice Mr. Sparrow has for students because he knows Rowland Hall better than anyone. So I asked Mr. Sparrow this question, and he said, “To live a balanced life and to remember to enjoy the moment.” Though this may seem surprising coming from the head of a competitive academic school, Mr. Sparrow truly wants students to enjoy their lives and not feel overly stressed by school. He said, “You’re not going to regret not going to one more meeting.” However, Mr. Sparrow said, “you may regret not spending as much time with your family or with your friends.” He believes that although one should “work towards the future,” it’s not good to place too much focus into any one thing, whether it is work or play. Mr. Sparrow believes that focusing on one's family and friends is a necessity for happiness.
To get a nice summary of Mr. Sparrow’s work at Rowland Hall, I asked him what he believed his greatest accomplishment at the school is. He replied, “A lot of people would see my greatest accomplishment as the building of the McCarthey Campus.” Mr. Sparrow also believes that is one of his greatest accomplishments. He is also very proud that he raised the teacher salary at Rowland Hall from “20% below [that of] the Salt Lake City School District to 100% of the Salt Lake District.” This has certainly helped the school keep its great teachers and get many new talented teachers.
Mr. Sparrow has spent his years at Rowland Hall building and nurturing a strong and kind community where learning flows freely among faculty, staff, and students.
But Mr. Sparrow actually believes his greatest accomplishment is the ombudsperson program. The ombudsperson program was Doug Wortham’s idea and was started by Mr. Wortham and Mr. Sparrow. To this day, it is still overseen by both of them. Mr. Sparrow explained the program as follows: “When a teacher is struggling, it’s a system to help that teacher in a very supportive way.” It is also used to “to help a teacher achieve and be able to become an excellent teacher.” The ombudsperson program helps teachers who may be in an uncomfortable situation by giving them a mediator and a safe space to work out any kinks in their daily life at school.
I’m sad to see Mr. Sparrow go, but I’m happy for him because I’m sure he will enjoy spending more time with his family and being an independent executive coach on the side. Mr. Sparrow has spent his years at Rowland Hall building and nurturing a strong and kind community where learning flows freely among faculty, staff, and students. Mr. Sparrow and his time at Rowland Hall will always be remembered.