By Sarah Leonard (Cohead of Layout and Design ‘23)
Among the numerous transitions at the beginning of this year, the welcoming of Lee Payton, the new Head of the Upper School, is one of the most significant. Though Lee grew up in Center City Philadelphia, around Taney park, he’s originally from Trinidad, where his parents first met in the 70s. A lifer at Friends Select, Quakerism and Quaker education have always been an important part of his life. “I teach a Quakerism class, that’s an important piece,” Lee notes, adding “I’m a Friend with a capital F, and a member of Chester Monthly Meeting with Robyn Richmond, who I’ve known for a long time.” FSS is also where he met his wife in their junior and senior years. They currently have a twenty-year-old daughter at the University of Richmond, a son in his senior year at Delaware Valley Friends, and a baby born in the past couple months.
“I loved school when I was a kid,” Lee explains when asked about what initially drew him toward working at Friends’ schools. “I loved the environment. Community is such a big part of it, it’s about being together, it’s about getting to know people, and going to a school where you’re not one of 350 tenth graders, where you know your teachers.” Lee also emphasizes the impact some of his teachers had on him: “I had two African American history teachers, who were really important. Eric, the one with the goatee, wasn’t very hardcore about memorizing dates, but was like ‘I know you can do better.’ It’s this idea of seeing God in someone else, or seeing someone’s gifts, and he saw that in me. I had a tennis coach who said the same thing, and I was like ‘if these people think I can do something, then why not?’” During Lee’s years of higher education, he was able to return to FSS as a mentor for middle and high school students in a group for boys of color. “It wasn’t really work for me. It was just cool. I would help these kids with homework and talk to them about school, and I was like, ‘I can do this for a job!’”
After spending a year at Howard University and three at Temple, his first job out of grad school (a degree in education at Penn) was as a tenth and eleventh social studies teacher at Penn Charter and, later, as the department chair. During the last four years, he’s been the Assistant Director of the Penn Charter Upper School, a position in which he backs student life through “clubs and activities, and going to performances and games and just being present.” He even helped get an ice-cream truck on campus before the pandemic. Lee’s taught electives on everything from African American history to the 1980s and early twenty-first century, but one of his favorites is a class called American Studies. “It’s an interdisciplinary course,” Lee clarifies, “where a cohort of kids all take the same English and History course, taught by two teachers all the time. You can read a novel, like the Great Gatsby, and learn about the 1920s at the same time, or a novel like The Invisible Man, and learn about the Harlem Renaissance and race in America.” Although the past is a valuable learning tool to him, present issues and occurrences, Lee adds, take up space in the classroom, too: “One of the things I love about Quakerism and Quaker education is the emphasis on social justice. What’s going on in our world is critically important, and kids have to be aware of as much of it as we can offer. All the issues we’ve been dealing with in our society, particularly in the past few years, we need to make space for that in our curriculum.”
Lee’s teaching style combines these larger-picture topics with how their effect on students more personally, and how their identities shape the way they view the world. “Bringing the kids’ experience into the classroom is really cool, so in everything I do, I try to have some kind of reflective, personal component to it,” Lee states. “It’s not just about ‘Can you spit out when the 100 years war happened?’ or who Otto von Bismarck was. The phrase I use, actually I stole it from somebody, is ‘What’s a story only you can tell?’ It might be that you lost your season, or it might be that you were only able to have a Bar Mitzvah with close family. I want you to zoom in on how it was reading the Torah with just your family there, what was special about that moment? This tells me a lot more about who you are and how the pandemic affected you, as opposed to how it affects everybody else.” Lee’s teaching style has allowed him to deepen his connection with his students and dig deeper into material.
Speaking about what brought him specifically to Friends’ Central, Lee explains “The role of an FCS principal has a lot more responsibility that I want to take on. In my current role, I do discipline, student activities and support the upper school with a variety of things, but at FCS, the principal is also involved in curriculum, hiring, and teacher supervision. I feel like after 20 years of teaching, I don’t have diabolical plans or whatever, but I have experience and ideas that I want to share and enact, and this role gives me the opportunity to work closely with faculty and think about what we want education and friends' education to look like for our students. I’ve also been impressed by the school from afar. I worked with Beth Johnson while she was at PC, and she's just an amazing person and leader. I’ve known Robyn Richmond for a long time and she’s kept me abreast about what's going on at the school.” As for some of his more specific plans for his leadership, he reiterates the importance of togetherness, especially after the past two years: “Covid was rough, and is rough, because it’s not over, and I think at this time more than ever young people need what quaker schools do best, which is community and engagement. I’m interested in what FCS has done in the past to build community, and what we can do to bring these things back or change and augment them.”
Other roles Lee has taken on prior to joining us are being a tennis coach for the middle school at Penn Charter and running the Tennis Farm camps around the Philadelphia area, including Radnor High School, Springside Chestnut Hill, and Friends Select. “With teaching tennis” Lee observes, “it’s even more immediate. If I’m teaching you US history, and we’re talking about the Voting Rights Act, I may never actually see the impact that had on you. I might find out 10 years later that you’re an attorney working for the ACLU. But when you teach somebody how to hit a forehand, you see them do it, and you see them improve every single day.” Tennis, in fact, is what first brought him to the FCS campus. He recalls, “One of my first memories of FCS is in middle school, when I had a temper tantrum there, because in the Friends League they used to have a really good tennis team, so they were tough competition. Back then the baseline was double-thick, so I kept taking shots that would land right on the baseline.”
To add to his list of multifaceted interests, Lee identifies himself as a big Eagles and Sixers supporter, a listener to late 80s and 90s hip hop (he named A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul specifically) and “a ridiculous star trek fan.” Please give Lee a warm welcome, and encourage him to bring back the ice cream truck!