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California native returns to Conn. as head of King School

August 27, 2018

STAMFORD — Lining the walls of Dr. Karen Eshoo’s new office at King School is her mask collection. They range from the delicate white face of a kabuki dancer to a devilish looking figure with an angry, red face and scraggly black hair.

The latter is one of the only masks Eshoo has added to the collection she inherited from her uncle in 1995. Since then, the masks traveled with her throughout the 20-plus years she’s worked in education and now across the country as she joins King as the new head of school.

“I have a mask for every mood,” Eshoo, 49, said. “They’ve been with me for such a long time now. They’ve been in classrooms, they’ve been in offices. They lived in California and now they live in Connecticut. They’re like old friends.”

Right now, Eshoo said a Japanese mask depicting a grinning man captures her mood about the first day of school on Sept. 5. In addition to bringing her mask collection, the California native brings an enthusiasm for learning and keeping up the King School spirit to her new home in Fairfield County.

A native of the Bay Area, Eshoo spent previously was the head of Vistimar School, a 15-year-old private high school in Los Angeles. She also led and taught at Sacred Heart Schools in California, her alma mater, for 12 years.

As the daughter of a Connecticut native and having spent an exchange semester in Greenwich as a high school student, Eshoo said she’s been trying to come back to her second home on the East Coast — but only for the right job.

“There’s always schools out there looking for someone to turn them around,” she said. “I didn’t apply for those jobs. I really wanted to be part of a place that is excellent and is growing.”

Eshoo said King was that place. During the interview process she was struck by how everyone spoke about the school with the same affection.

“The experiences people are having here are shared — the experience of being part of a community who knows each other well and understand students and teachers need to have great relationships,” she said. “There can be a tendency to believe student-teacher relationships are nice. I’m not always interested in nice. I am interested in kindness because that’s characterized by honesty. It’s characterized by generosity with one another and because you have good relationships with one another, you can leverage those relationships to take some risks and be in a place where you feel safe enough to be uncomfortable. This is a school that gets that relationship is a foundation of everything.”

Eshoo said these qualities have been in every school she’s worked in since she started teaching religious studies at a parochial school after earning a bachelor’s in philosophy. Her original plan was to take a year off before earning a doctorate of philosophy and teach college. But she fell in love with being in the classroom, learning how to teach by watching those around her.

“They took their work really seriously,” she said. “It’s really hard work to (teach) well. You have to be well prepared but also nimble. I learned very quickly I couldn’t take myself too seriously, because high school students will not take that. I just enjoyed the students so much. They were smart. They were funny. They wanted to be engaged.”

After earning her master’s in education and history at Stanford University, Eshoo taught middle school, where her skills expanded. She recalls one lesson about the caste system where she made her seventh graders live it — assigning each student a role either in the highest class, where they got to eat candy, to the lowest rungs of society, where the period was spent picking up hole-punch droppings.

“I never would’ve tried that my first year teaching because I was still in that mindset I was supposed to tell them things,” she said. “But teaching middle school was the thing that broke me out of that for the first time. It was my opportunity to apply so much of what I learned in graduate school and watching my friends teach.”

Eshoo eventually moved up to administration, but continued teaching classes while leading schools. But this first year at King will be focused on meeting the community before she considers diving into teaching seminars.

“I keep laughing because everyone wants to know what my vision is,” she said. “I’m going to be able to articulate that best, probably by the end of my first year because by then I will have gotten to know the people in the community and the history of the school so I can start thinking more carefully about how we’re all going to move forward. I came here because this is a wonderful school.”

In the meantime, you can find her getting to know Stamford, visiting family around the state, cheering on her favorite California sports teams and embracing the accessibility of Broadway as a nod to her “theater kid” roots.

“It almost feels like I’m coming back,” she said. “I think what I’m most excited about is getting to understand what it’s really like to live here. What I’m looking forward to is starting to understand more deeply what the culture is in this particular area.”

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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