Staff Spotlight: Joe Hinchliffe

Joe Hinchiffe pulled into the FernLeaf parking lot in his classic orange Jeep on the school's opening day nearly five years ago. The Jeep, and Joe, in many ways are emblematic of the school's trajectory since the days of its planning and creation - resilient and pragmatic, sturdy but agile, willing to take on the next thing that needs taking on.

After 14 years working in early childhood education, Joe came to the school with a deep well of experience with young kids. That first year at the school was focused on the first grade team as an assistant teacher. For years two, three, and four he crouched into miniaturized chairs and desks as an assistant teacher in kindergarten classes.

His calm, consistent presence in the classes was palpable as he helped the youngest learners at FernLeaf grow into the multi-dimensional task of learning how to learn.

Like the entire staff at the school, however, it was impossible to narrow Joe's job description to just one thing. While he centered in the kinder classes of Building A, he also worked to create an archery program for older students, used his mechanical skills to help with maintenance and generally served as a Jack of All Trades (and master of many) for the school community.

As the school made the pandemic-driven pivot to remote learning in 2020, Joe sidestepped from his role as an assistant teacher into a maintenance and facilities role.

"Without anyone on campus, I served as a school sitter," Joe said of the change. He worked to ensure that the empty buildings and campus were safe, secure and ready for the day when students and staff could return.

That flexibility and skill set led Joe and the school administration team to create a new position for him - Maintenance Supervisor.

Reaching beyond the traditional, important duties of a school custodian or facilities manager, Joe's new position is aimed at blending the practical tasks of maintenance with the FernLeaf mission "to engage the unique passions and aptitudes of our school community so that in addition to achieving academic fluency, students become thoughtful, compassionate and engaged."

"I really like the idea of the kids learning what they’re interested in," Joe said as he spelled out the vision for his role.

Instead of buying picnic tables for the school's courtyard, for example, Joe wants to work alongside a group of older students to design, plan and construct them, giving the students an opportunity to sharpen, or even discover their skills as they learn how to safely and efficiently use tools and woodworking principles.

Likewise, he sees an opportunity to work with students to take a role in the care of the school's lawn and vast swaths of play space. "We could start with using leaf blowers and then progress to weed eaters and push mowers," he said. "The kids could learn how to take care of grass, but also how to take care of the equipment; how to assess spark plugs and gap them correctly."

Maintenance director working with FernLeaf student to build a laptop cart
Joe working with a 6th grader to build a laptop cart.

While Joe is convinced the practical, tangible skills are important for the students to learn, he is also sure that the work would bestow a deep sense of ownership and responsibility - a sense of affection - for the school space. That affection, he believes, is just as important as the skills for the students to learn.

On a day-to-day basis, Joe's plan also includes more student involvement in the cleaning and maintenance of the buildings. To one degree or another, this has always been an aspect of the school's curriculum; Joe plans to make it a regular and clear component of the classroom culture.

Instead of submitting a ticket or making a call for some invisible maintenance worker to fix a broken toilet, for example, Joe's vision is to mentor and train a group of older students who can, likewise, work with younger students to fix it themselves.

While that mentorship and training has been waylaid by the pandemic and its associated challenges, Joe did have an opportunity to put some of his vision into action recently.

child sitting in front of class posing next to recycled shelves he created
FernLeaf 5th grader, Gabe, showing off his recycled metal shelf

When fifth-grader Gabe saw a stack of old table pieces at school he decided to take action and ensure they were put to good use. With Joe's guidance, Gabe learned how to identify framing in the walls and use a drill to hang supports, turning the pieces into shelves in a classroom.

Similarly, while FernLeaf doesn't have a formal technical bay for mechanic study and work, Joe does have a wide-open parking lot. He recently gave some of the younger students an introduction to car parts and processes and then allowed them to crawl around his 1976 Jeep with a checklist and a task to identify as many parts as they could.

"It’s neat to see kids figuring out how things work," Joe said.

In a world that is undeniably becoming less tangible, where abstract information is king but knowledge is scorned, Joe's vision and practice of his work at the school is an exciting counterpoint. That vision and work comes to school every day willing to do what needs doing.

It's a nice bonus that it gets to ride in a cool Jeep along the way.

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