Head of House, Humanities teacher and coach Max Gordon
BY JACQUELINE PRIMO LEMMON
Maxwell “Max” Gordon’s Humanities classroom in Schoolhouse gives the impression that there is plenty of room for free thinking and creative writing. Modest stacks of books sit dog-eared beside the whiteboard and cheeky grammar posters remind students of the importance of commas. Gordon’s demeanor is youthful and warm, and his steady gaze makes it easy to see why he is a natural at working with students: in the classroom as a teacher, as a coach on the basketball court, and in campus housing where he serves as a head of house.
“I love to read, I love basketball; why don’t I go back to boarding school and try to teach and coach for a living?” Gordon — a boarding school graduate himself — recalls thinking while an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon, where he played basketball and was on track to earn a degree in business. He imagined he would go on to work in sports marketing or advertising, but when he started to research internships and fellowships, an epiphany sent him in a new direction.
Of his passion for reading and basketball, Gordon says, “It was like, these are the things I love to do, and I think I can do them all at boarding school.” With that decided, in his last year and a half of college, he added a second major: English, so he could pass on his love for literature to future students.
In 2012, Gordon was part of the inaugural class of the Penn Boarding School Teaching Residency program at St. Paul’s School, a University of Pennsylvania initiative that allows new college graduates to earn a master’s degree in education during a two-year teaching fellowship. After completing his fellowship in 2014, Gordon stayed on as a faculty member in the Humanities Department. He has been the head boys varsity basketball coach since the 2017-18 season and also has served as an assistant coach for boys JV lacrosse.
As part of the School’s multi-faceted approach to student support, Gordon is on his eighth year as a head of house, currently in Kitt 1, where he lives in a faculty apartment with his wife and two young children. At SPS, heads of house (and other faculty) live right next door to the students, meaning an adult is always around for anything they might need, from help hanging a poster during move-in to assisting with a medical concern — no matter the time of day or night.
Gordon says he focuses on three primary areas of responsibility as a head of house: residential life programming, presence in the dorm and a little bit of fun. The last of these is as important as the first. “In boarding school, you don’t go home,” he says. “Providing that feeling to students when they get back to their rooms after a day of academics and athletics is crucial.”
Students at SPS are supported in myriad ways, with a team of adults collaborating and meeting weekly — or even more often — to talk about everything from academic and athletic performance to each student’s overall well-being. Are they making friends? Are they engaging in class? Do they seem happy? The heads of house meet every week with the Dean of Students Office; house meetings are held every Thursday before athletics, with all residents in attendance; and there is informal but nearly constant interaction between heads of house, advisers, prefects, coaches and teachers.
“We don’t let kids slip through the cracks here,” Gordon says. “They have so many point people in their lives, whether it’s a teacher who notices that they’re sleepy or unhappy and then shoots an email to the adviser, or it’s an adviser who shoots me an email and says, ‘Hey coach, I know this kid plays on your team; they’re struggling with this,’ ” Gordon says.
Still, sometimes it’s the little things that mean the most — like ordering pizza for his residents after the Winter Formal, or bringing in chicken nuggets and fries on a Saturday night. Gordon has been working with students at SPS for long enough to know that being there for his residents and showing support doesn’t always have to be in the form of an organized house activity or scheduled check-in.
“Being a fully residential boarding school, we have to be relationship-based,” he explains. “As a teacher, you get kids for a year. As a coach, you get them for a season or two, maybe three. … But if you see somebody for three years in the dorm, and on the court, and in the classroom, you develop a really strong relationship and you see that remarkable growth.”