Meet Middle School Head Suzanne Nagy

Monday, October 10, 2016

Suzanne Nagy, ’90, knows better than most what it’s like to be a Middle Schooler here at Heathwood—she used to be one. She has, in fact, spent most of her life on the Heathwood campus.

After attending Heathwood from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, Suzanne went to Furman and then returned to Heathwood in 1994 as an English teacher. Although she left in 1999 to work for Governor Jim Hodges, and then moved with her husband Greg to Charlotte and Little Rock, she returned to Heathwood in 2008 to serve as Assistant Head of the Middle School and then as a 5th grade English teacher. She has also worked in the Heathwood Admission Office and coached basketball and tennis for the Highlanders. Along the way, she earned M.Ed. degrees from the University of South Carolina and the University of Arkansas. In July, when previous Middle School Head Donnie Bain became Director of Heathwood’s Columbia Connections program, Suzanne took his place.

Here she talks about what she loves about working with Middle School students, what’s kept her at Heathwood for so long, and which Heathwood teachers have inspired her.

What attracted you to a career teaching middle school?

Middle school is my favorite age to teach. I love students this age because they’re in that middle ground of both being young and impressionable but also growing into who they will become. So as teachers, we can have a real impact on students this age.

What appealed to you about moving from teaching to being Middle School Head?

I felt ready to push myself and take on a challenge, and it felt like this particular challenge might be wonderful. My previous experience as Assistant Middle School Head also meant I knew much of what to expect.

What do you miss most so far about being in the classroom?

I do miss being around the kids all day and really getting to know them deeply as individuals. There’s such a unique relationship you develop with kids in the classroom—you get to know so much about their personalities, their interests, their sense of humor.

That’s compensated for, though, by the fact that I’m getting to think about the big picture, to explore new ideas and new programs. I suppose that where I have a true administrator’s brain is that I love the details of taking a big idea and drilling it down to all the details that make it happen.

So what are some big ideas you’re thinking about?

I’m really interested in finding ways to engage students in service that’s deeply meaningful to them. One thing I’ve been thinking about is service as hands-on learning that connects to the curriculum in ways that are valuable for our students.

For example, we could have cross-divisional experiences where students explore issues like aging, disability, or leadership and do service around those issues. Broadly, I want to think about ways for students to build skills by doing different tasks.

Community service is a particularly valuable approach in middle school, because so much of the middle-grade experience is about developing empathy and figuring out your place in the community. And speaking from personal experience, I know that learning beyond the classroom can be especially impactful. My own lifelong passion for civil rights was sparked by hearing civil rights pioneer John Lewis speak when I was on a Heathwood Winterim trip.

Speaking of your own experiences as a Heathwood student, who are some of the Heathwood teachers who inspired you?

I learned to write from Mr. Gasque. Long before then, in Early Childhood, Mrs. Page Steinert and Mrs. Jean Dukes are also legendary Heathwood teachers who had a big impact on me. And Sue Swick was my mentor teacher when I got out of Furman.

What has inspired you to follow in those teachers’ footsteps by spending so much of your career at Heathwood?

Heathwood is a place that has always encouraged me to ask questions and has made me value being curious and learning just to learn. It gave me so many opportunities, not just as a student but as an athlete, and in the arts—there was an expectation that I would just keep trying things and doing things, and all those experiences really shaped who I am and how I see the world. So I want to be part of passing that kind of educational experience on to new generations of students. I also value that as a member of the Heathwood faculty, I continue to experience that level of encouragement and support. When my name was announced for this job, I received so many wonderful emails of support.

Middle school can be a challenging time for students and parents alike. This summer you invited our Middle School teachers and parents to read Michelle Icard’s Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. What were your big takeaways from that book?

First, that it’s so important for parents to change the way you think about middle school so you don’t project your own rough experiences from that time and stress your kids out. Also, that it helps to realize all the ups and downs are very normal at this age, and not necessarily a sign that anything is really wrong. Finally, and maybe most importantly, that one of the best things we as parents can do is just to spend time with our kids—that quantity time can be more important than quality time.

What should Middle School parents know about you as a division head?

I value conversation, because I learn the most when I talk with people and can understand their perspective. I have deep faith that God is with us and everything will turn out how it’s supposed to. I have a great sense of humor. And I actively try to choose to be happy and positive.

What might Middle School parents—and students—be surprised to know about you?

I love football, and I actually have a favorite NFL ref, Ed Hochuli. I also love Elvis. My dad had an 8-track player and he would play “Suspicious Minds” and we’d sit on the front porch and listen to it after he cut the grass. I wore blue suede shoes under my wedding dress.

Maybe less surprising to my students is that I love an agenda and color coding—and that books are my favorite thing in the world.

Any parting words?

I am so grateful for the opportunity to work at this school, where we embrace ideas and collaboration as part of how we function. I am so thankful that people trust me to educate their children. That is a huge responsibility that I take very seriously.