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Meet Lise

By Christine Marston Chamberlain '63
 

CSW Welcomes Head of School Lise Charlier


On October 10, 2018, following a thoughtful and inclusive search process led by a dedicated committee of alumni/ae, trustees, faculty, and friends, the board of trustees had the pleasure of announcing Lise Charlier as The Cambridge School of Weston’s next head of school. After months of eager anticipation and close collaboration with a strategic leadership transition team, Lise officially began her new role in July of 2019. 

In her time at CSW so far, Lise has already proven herself to be a capable and accomplished educator, who leads with intellect, patience, positivity, and drive. She is smart, passionate, perceptive, and sensible. Her 25+ years of experience as a teacher and administrator is evident in her ability to build relationships, problem-solve, and innovate with creativity and confidence. She is a natural-born leader, a progressive thinker, and an invaluable asset to The Cambridge School of Weston community. 

“I see my life in phases,” Lise shares. “I have learned a lot in all the places I have worked and lived. I loved being a classroom teacher, and I loved overseeing curriculum development. In this position at CSW, I believe there is a place for me to use the many lessons I’ve learned and put them into practice for good use. It’s a natural next step. And you can’t usually do something that leads to growth unless you experience it in a job you love with people you like. I have that here.” Prior to CSW, Lise served as director of studies and strategic initiatives at Severn School in Severna Park, Maryland. Before Severn, Lise was upper school assistant principal at Friends School of Baltimore in Baltimore, Maryland. She has served on the board of trustees for Green Street Academy, the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools (AIMS), the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE). She holds an MS in education from Johns Hopkins University and a BS from Georgetown University.

Walking into Lise's office in the Kluchman Building, there is a sense of order and calm. Large binders on her shelves hold a collection of resource material — letters, articles, scribbled notes — all with insights she considers to be valuable. She moves forward reflectively, gently, and collaboratively.

Looking out the window, Lise rues the fact that she still sees students walking past and doesn’t yet know the things that are important in each of their lives. She eventually will, no doubt.

EARLY LESSONS

Lise was born and spent her early years in Haiti. Her father, Gérard Frédérique, was an ophthalmologist who began his career at Haiti’s Albert Schweitzer Hospital, a rural medical facility founded in 1956 by William Larimer “Larry” Mellon, a doctor and an heir to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune. There he also met Lise’s mother, Esther Eshelman, a young Mennonite nurse from a Pennsylvania farming family who was working as a volunteer at the hospital. The first in her family to go to college, Esther had earned her GED and gone on to the Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx, NY.

Deeply impressed by Gérard when he worked at the hospital as an intern, Mellon urged him to go to the United States for his residency in the mid-1950s. Gérard was among the first Black residents at the University of Pittsburgh Hospital. Lise’s father then returned to Haiti as the first U.S. Board Certified ophthalmologist, as he had always intended to do, and married Lise’s mother.

Though much of Lise’s childhood was spent living in the hospital's diverse community, comprising both expatriates and locals, Gérard and Esther were unique in being a mixed-race couple — a Black Haitian doctor and a White woman from the United States.

“My mother’s parents shunned her when she married my father, who was Black and Catholic,” Lise shares. “When I asked him if he was angry about their opposition, he said no. Yes, he was sad, but no, he was not angry. My father always felt that their opposition to the marriage came from a lack of understanding on their part, and a fear of the unknown for their daughter. While my mother was upset about her family’s position, my father was always optimistic that they would eventually change their minds, and they did. They even visited Haiti a few times. The lesson here is that my father left the door open so that my mother’s parents weren’t humiliated. They didn’t have to ask for forgiveness when they eventually came around. That was one of the biggest lessons I took from him.” 

It is a lesson that Lise has kept with her, especially when she joins a new community, as she did at CSW this fall.

“I try to respect people’s dignity and leave plenty of room for them to grow,” Lise says. “Too often, we come to judge or to dictate, failing to leave people room to change without losing face. We need to give people in all aspects of our lives, including our students, a chance to present iterations of themselves. Often we are not good at a task the first time we try, and it is particularly important for us as teachers to remain open to potential.”

THE ENDLESS AND VARIED PATHS TO LEARNING

Growing up, Lise remembers sitting next to her father on his bed while he regularly listened to audio lessons and read professional journals from the American Society of Ophthalmology, and although she did not fully understand, she did internalize the fact that he was reading and listening and growing in his knowledge. It was her introduction to a life of continuous learning and a deep and perpetual curiosity.

At that time, there was no real museum in Haiti, nor was there a library for young people. Lise’s school — the best school in Haiti at the time — had a library that was only the size of a small classroom, and the shelves were marked as to what grade level qualified to look at particular books. If you were in the 9th grade, you could not take a book from the 11th-grade row. Lise soon exhausted the books she was allowed to read at school, but one of her mother’s best friends, a teacher from the U.S. who brought books when she came to visit, supplemented her source. Lise remembers well the year she brought Maya Angelou’s amazing work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There were also books such as Where the Red Fern Grows, set in the Ozark Mountains during the Great Depression, in which Billy Coleman works hard and saves his earnings to buy two coonhound pups. They also had the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Lise loved.

“Reading has always been huge in my world. If I have a plan or a thought, I want to learn more about it,” Lise explains. “I hold a deep belief that if you set a goal for yourself and maximize the tools around you, you can do a lot. Everyone can become a better version of themselves, an enlightened version of the person they want to become.”

The Frédérique family moved to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, when their three children were school age. In the Catholic schools, the language was French, but students also studied English, Spanish, and Latin. Creole was spoken among friends.

As a sophomore in high school, Lise had the chance to travel to Newton, Massachusetts and enroll at Newton South, leading to one of the most illuminating years of her life. She was fascinated by how nice people were to her, but there was cultural shock around the open and frank adult-student relationships, coming as she did from a school where many of her teachers were more formal in their relationships. The discussion-based classes were a complete change from her schooling in Port-au-Prince, where memorization and recitation were the mainstays of learning. Both experiences continue to have an impact on Lise’s own dynamic as a classroom teacher.


“My ideal teaching technique involves teachers who passionately share their knowledge while applying fabulous and creative ways of including students in discussions and discoveries,” she says. “Questioning a teacher in my early Catholic schooling was considered by most as an insult to their authority. One of the aspects of CSW that impressed me right away was the opportunity students enjoy to ask questions freely and use their voices to impact curriculum and program.” 

Lise determined that she would go to college in America to study languages, and in looking for a place that provided an international atmosphere she chose Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her parents were supportive, but neither of them had ever gone through the application process, so they could not help much in practical terms. She remembers very well filling out the applications herself. A few days before she left for the U.S., Lise’s mother pulled her aside to warn her that “there was an issue in the U.S. around race.” 

“She confessed she didn’t know what it was going to be like for me, and that must have been worrying for her,” Lise explains. “In the end, the complications of race relations was probably one of the most challenging aspects of my experience at Georgetown.”

While at Georgetown, Lise went on a year’s study abroad program to Spain. During her time overseas, her mother died suddenly. While Lise was in Haiti for the funeral, the Duvalier regime, a 30-year dictatorship, was overthrown, sending the country into turmoil. Upon graduating from Georgetown, Lise took a teaching position in Haiti at one of her alma maters, and soon thereafter met her husband, Garry Charlier, who had returned to Haiti (where he was born and raised) after earning a master’s in mathematics in Grenoble, France, and an advanced civil engineering degree in Paris. After their daughter, Emmanuelle, was born, there was a six- or seven-month period during which the government changed three times. As the situation became increasingly difficult, they decided to leave the country.

“Friends in Haiti thought we were crazy because technically we had everything we needed and wanted there, but we increasingly found that we no longer shared aspirations with many of the people we knew,” Lise says. “We left Haiti with two suitcases each.”

BUILDING A CAREER IN EDUCATION

Lise and Garry went first to Pittsburgh, where Lise spent five years teaching at the pre-K to grade 12 Winchester Thurston School, founded in 1887. Garry and Lise had their second child, Cedric, while living there. One of Lise’s fondest memories at Winchester Thurston is of taking six girls on a foreign language trip to Mexico. Lise says this was the first time, as a young adult and mother, that she fully realized the role of trust that exists in such a situation. “I understood what it means for a parent to entrust their child to you as a teacher or head of school.”

After a few years in Pittsburgh, Lise and her husband realized that it was not an ideal location from which Garry could freelance in international work, so when Lise received an offer to work at the Friends School of Baltimore, she jumped at the opportunity. They made the move to Maryland, and from there, Garry was also able to join the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. At Friends, a Quaker school founded in 1784, Lise worked first as a full-time foreign language teacher while immersing herself with the Quaker tenets. Eventually, she moved into more administrative roles from ninth grade dean to assistant head of upper school, serving also as dean of students and alternatively as dean of faculty. In each of those roles her goal has always been to strengthen student and faculty capacity by finding strategies that are relevant and supportive.

Peter Bailey, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools, and a close friend and colleague of Lise’s, believes that her personal experiences provide her with an internalized sense that listening to different voices is profoundly valuable and worthwhile. He also feels that the international, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic dimensions of her life experience are particularly well-suited to CSW. 

“In the Quaker environment, you learn to listen deeply,” Lise says. “You don’t ask a question unless you’re interested in the answer. This takes me to the issue of hierarchy and to the question of who has a voice and when. If everyone has something to contribute everyone should also have a voice, regardless of who they are and regardless of their age or sex.” Lise was the assistant principal at Friends School of Baltimore when Felicia Wilks began teaching English there in 2004. Felicia is now assistant head of school and upper school director at Lakeside School in Seattle.

“I attended an independent school, but I had a lot to learn about working in one. I was a young working mother and Lise was a North Star for me in many ways: she led with humility and was a model of strong, calm and thoughtful leadership,” Wilks shares. “She was also a caring and present mother. I had the privilege of teaching both of her children and they are remarkable people. After three years, I became the upper school English Department chair. In this, my first formal leadership role as a professional, Lise taught me how to listen openly and seek to see things from a variety of perspectives. She also taught me to be aware of and to act responsibly with my new power as a department head. I carry these lessons with me in my work today. I count myself as lucky to have had Lise as a mentor for all of these years and to count her as my friend.”

Lise formalized her master’s in education at Johns Hopkins in 2007, and accepted an appointment as academic dean and later as director of studies and strategic initiatives at the Severn School in Maryland. At Severn, she built a team and created a vibrant Summer Academy focused on professional development for faculty. She also enjoyed many opportunities to join conversations and committees thinking about the future of education both in content and pedagogy. She was involved in the creation of an innovation space as well as the implementation of an online network of classes through the Malone School Online Network (MSON) that transformed opportunities for students at Severn and other independent schools across the United States. She was also instrumental in launching the Association of Independent Maryland and DC School’s (AIMS) annual diversity conference, which was held annually at the campus of the Severn School. After nine years she left to join us at CSW.

COMING TO CSW

From the beginning of the head of school search process, Lise says she felt a real affinity for CSW, feeling drawn by the school’s mission and core values. As someone who has dedicated her professional and personal life to promoting student-centered teaching and learning, and to building communities that value diversity, equity, inclusion, and global engagement, she has said it almost feels as though she spent a lifetime preparing for this incredible opportunity to lead our wonderful school.

When Lise looks back on how she got here, she admits that it wouldn’t have happened without the education she received, both formal and informal. “My education was a rich one and started in the locality where I was born. I was born in a community that, though physically small, was the richest I have ever lived in. Hospital Albert Schweitzer (HAS) was a beacon of peace and hope; the community the Mellons created was, at that time, undoubtedly one of the most diverse and inclusive that existed anywhere. “ Lise attributes those years at HAS, subsequent visits there, and the relationships made and built over the years to be the bedrock of her values. Dr. Mellon saw in her father, Dr. Gérard Frédérique, a brilliant ophthalmologist whom he subsequently sponsored for additional training and opportunities. This, too, is what Lise loves to do in her work in schools: amplify opportunities for all students.

“We have a Mission Statement at CSW,” Lise says, “of which we must never lose sight: ‘To provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community, and the world.’ It is a major task, but one I know we can continue to realize as we work together. I invest a lot in people’s dignity and self-esteem. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t hold people to high standards. I am compassionate, but I am also a no-nonsense person. I’ll help you, we’ll make a plan, I’ll get you everything you need. But if you’re a grown-up working in a space where children need you, then I expect you to bring everything you’ve got to the task. That’s the contract.”

Perhaps it is best to end this profile with a comment that echoed through all the conversations I shared with friends and former colleagues. “What do you think of first,” I asked, “when you speak about Lise?”

Without exception, I heard about her inherent grace and her ability to move forward collaboratively. A former colleague describes Lise as a community builder, and she does that by encouraging everyone to communicate and share what they know with others. Mary Carrington, director of library services at Severn, met Lise 14 years ago when she came to the Severn School as the new dean of studies. Mary describes her mentor as one who leads others to a place where they can dream.

High praise, indeed.

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The Cambridge School of Weston is a progressive high school for day and boarding students in grades 9–12 and PG. CSW's mission is to provide a progressive education that emphasizes deep learning, meaningful relationships, and a dynamic program that inspires students to discover who they are and what their contribution is to their school, their community and the world.