Farewell to Faculty: Mike Gwaltney

By Jethro Swain

For someone who grew up in Southern California, Mike fits in with Portland pretty well.

I’ve never actually seen him downtown, but I’m sure everyone in the school can picture Mike strolling through the Pearl on a rainy day with a cup of coffee, a Timbers scarf, and an umbrella in hand. Portland, at least to me, just seems like his home. But next year, Mike will have a new home in Providence, Rhode Island.

“I never thought I’d end up in Rhode Island,” Mike told me. He’ll be living right by Brown University and about fifteen minutes from his new place of work; Head of Upper School at Providence Classical School Rock Hill. “The school is just like OES with a Pre-K to 12th grade, except the student body is about half the size so that class sizes are about 40 students each,” said Mike.

Mike stepped into OES six years ago and became Head of the History Department in just one year. “Professionally, I’ve spent most of my time here as a department chair. I’ve been given a lot of different responsibilities, so I’ve grown in terms of leadership and leading big projects,” said Mike when asked about what he’s learned from OES. “Right now OES is trying really hard to evolve into a school that is more progressive and student centered in teaching and where the curriculum will be more project based,” something which Mike has had a hand in shaping during his time here.

“As a person,” said Mike, further elaborating on what OES has taught him, “OES has been really great for me because I’ve learned a lot about the way the pacific northwest works, the way people here communicate, and the way they see the world. I’ve also really been able to make great relationships here. I count a lot of students as friends that I’ll stay in touch with. I’ve loved living in Portland, its a fantastic city.”

While Mike was new to the city of Portland, and Northwest entirely, when he came here, he was not new to independent schools. He’s worked a large portion of his career at independent schools, and I wondered if OES was any different than the rest of them to him. “From my perspective,” he said, “the thing OES does uniquely is bend over backwards to make sure students feel supported emotionally, [at least] while they’re here on campus and in school. Students may think the school takes a harsh approach in terms of the amount of homework or disciplinary actions, but in my experience teachers pick up trash left from students and give extensions whenever a student wants one and advisors are really there for their students. OES goes even further than other schools to help their students.” I would argue that sometimes OES goes a little too far and supports when they may not need to, so I would say Mike is surely right, OES is always there.

So now that Mike is leaving, what’s going to happen to the history department?

“The next department chair is Stephanie Portman. Next year will be her third year at OES since she’s coming from the middle school and she teaches Modern India and China. Next year she’ll be teaching that (Modern India and China) and Modern Social Movements.” As for Mike’s trademark class, Government, Politics, and Citizenship, “GPC will be offered only in the first semester. We’re going to hire somebody new to teach it, and the process is wrapping up so I can’t say who it is quite yet.” GPC was one of my favorite classes in high school, especially since I was able to take it in a one in every eight semester during the election, and the class surely won’t be the exact same without Mike, but I truly hope it lives on and teaches students how to be engaged citizens.

Now Mike looks forward to his future in New England. “That school (Rock Hill) was looking for a particular kind of person to be their head. I was working with a firm that put me and that school together and so I did two Skype interviews and then an in person one and it was a match,” he told me. “They’re focused on innovation and technology based learning so it was a good fit for me.”

In the words of Mike, “I’ve really enjoyed my time here and it’s really been meaningful. OES is in a great place and I’m sure the relationships I’ve made here I will be able to continue for a long time.”

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