Getting Acquainted: Incoming Head of School Ryan Dahlem Visits Campus for Two-Day Immersion

Incoming Head of School Ryan Dahlem visited The Rivers School on February 2 and 3 for a two-day immersion in the life of the school that included classroom visits and meetings with students, trustees, faculty, staff, deans, and department chairs. The itinerary, mapped out by the Heads Transition and Support Committee, was designed to give Mr. Dahlem an opportunity to experience the culture and community of Rivers firsthand before his official start in July.
Braving below-zero temperatures and strong winds, Mr. Dahlem arrived on campus for an inspiring Upper School assembly where seniors Sammy Cohen, Graham Johnston, and Jared Ross delivered powerful and poignant senior speeches. This Rivers tradition, which dates back to 2001, is a graduation requirement (and a rite of passage) for seniors, who use the opportunity to share meaningful thoughts with the community—as well as to hone their public-speaking skills. Assistant Head of School Jim Long took a moment during assembly to give Mr. Dahlem (warm) school-spirit gear to officially welcome him to campus. In response—and much to the delight of the students in attendance—Mr. Dahlem offered an enthusiastic “Go, Red Wings!” 

Mr. Dahlem then headed to Dr. Betty Bloch’s Biology & Chemistry II course. The students, who recently completed units on the circulatory and respiratory systems, were engaged in a hands-on dissection, gaining a better understanding of what organs actually look like. Dr. Bloch explained that “because the respiratory system and circulatory system work together to circulate blood and oxygen throughout the body, it is always a great experience for the students to fully see where the two systems intersect (specifically, finding pulmonary arteries and veins connecting the heart to the lungs).” Mr. Dahlem donned an apron and rubber gloves and jumped right into the lab alongside students. 

Visual arts faculty member Jeff Nisbet asked Mr. Dahlem to serve as the subject “model” in advanced art during a lesson on drawing from direct observation. “Ryan held (and played) the guitar to provide more options for my students to draw, and it made for a relaxed environment,” said Mr. Nisbet. “We had been working on observational drawing, and getting to work with a model presented a great challenge for the students. Judging by the smiles and laughter that day, I’d say it was a lot of fun for everyone,” he added.

In the Middle School, Mr. Dahlem sat in on Cathy Favreau’s highly interactive Grade 8 Latin class. Students were up at the whiteboard practicing noun declension (group) endings; the mood was playful and supportive as they put endings on nouns of different declensions. The students pondered why endings formed in these ways and offered suggestions to one another on how best to memorize these endings.

Mr. Dahlem also attended a Grade 6 Humanities class taught by Sarah Cohen, where he enjoyed seeing these young students effectively communicate with one another in an open setting and share varying opinions and viewpoints. Later, Mr. Dahlem remarked that these students seemed “wise beyond their years” in how they approached their seminar-style discussion. 

Mr. Dahlem shared that visits to Upper and Middle School classes provided a deeper look into the challenging academic program at Rivers. “It was inspiring to see inquisitive students at the center of the classroom experience, actively engaged in the learning process while being stretched and supported by expert faculty,” he said. “I observed firsthand the philosophy of Excellence with Humanity authentically lived out in each of the classrooms I visited.” 

At Mr. Dahlem’s request, he also met with a group of graduating seniors to hear insights from those with the deepest understanding of the current Rivers student experience. The seniors spoke glowingly about their close connections with supportive adults on campus and shared advice with Mr. Dahlem as he takes on the head of school role this summer.

At an all-staff and faculty drop-in, Mr. Dahlem led a warm and welcoming session with members of the professional community from all areas of the school, opening up the floor to questions and gaining important insights into people’s thoughts, hopes, and wishes for the future of Rivers. Sharing laughter and conversation brought the community together on a freezing Friday afternoon and this first phase of visits to a close. 

Throughout the two days, Mr. Dahlem also had an opportunity to meet in small groups with members of the Board of Trustees to begin their important partnership. Trustees shared their support for a positive transition for Mr. Dahlem and conveyed a steadfast commitment to the future success of the school. 

Mr. Dahlem covered a lot of ground over the two days—from classrooms to drop-in sessions to a hockey game at MacDowell—and even managed to have some off-campus excursions with his wife, Anne. Dining in Boston’s North End was a highlight, he noted.

Mr. Dahlem will return to Rivers on March 28 and 29 for a phase II visit geared toward meeting more members in the broader community, specifically current and incoming parents, as well as alumni. A larger welcome will be planned for the entire Rivers community to align with homecoming in October.

“I am so grateful for the warm welcome I received on campus,” said Mr. Dahlem. “I look forward to returning in March and continuing to form relationships across the school community as we look toward the future of Rivers together.”
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