By SCOOTER MACMILLAN
Adam Bunting didn’t grow up wanting to be a school principal. He hadn’t thought that he would come back to lead his alma mater, Champlain Valley Union High, and he never dreamed that he would be named 2018 Vermont State Principal of the Year.
Bunting sat down for an interview with The Citizen last week to talk life, goals, and how both can change when you least expect it.
Two random strangers stepped into the path of Bunting’s life and changed his journey when he was an undergraduate at Connecticut College.
The first stranger came out of the night as he walked in downtown Burlington with a friend who’d come home with him for the October break.
As he was bragging to his friend about how safe the Queen City is, the stranger walked up to Bunting and punched him in the face, knocking him unconscious. Bunting’s jaw was broken and he was choking on his blood. He would have died if his friend hadn’t fought off the attacker and tilted his head so Bunting could breath.
A few weeks later, out of the hospital and back at school, he was driving to New Haven, Conn., for a college art project and thought, with the way his luck was going, it would be “funny” if his car broke down.
“Sure enough, I hear this ka chunk, ka chunk,” said Bunting. “I pull over and a policeman rolls down his window and says, ‘I’ll come back and check on you in a little while,’” said Bunting.
He didn’t see the officer again. He started walking and knocking on the windows of stopped cars. Finally, one guy said that he didn’t have the right tool, but he was going to go borrow one from his buddy.
Bunting felt sure the stranger was going to get a gun.
“I thought this is it. This has been a good life.”
But the stranger, who Bunting still remembers was named Wayne, returned. He helped fix his car.
As they got ready to leave, Bunting mumbled a thank you as intelligibly as he could with a broken jaw that was wired shut. Through his clenched teeth he slurred, “Can I send you a check?”
But Wayne said, “Nah, the next time you see someone who needs help, just do it.”
A mishap with impact
“At first I thought it was kind of cheesy,” said Bunting. “But the next day sitting in class, it kind of clicked in my head.”
He began to think about how two people had really impacted his life in very different ways.
“I’m very wary of people who try to save you, but I realized the power of how there was this one person who really went out of his way to try and hurt me,” he said. “And this other person really went out of his way to do good and positively impact me. I began to think I would like to help people think about what their influence on the world is.”
He said that struggle really helped him find purpose.
“That’s something we talk about with the students: How do we use our struggles and those fears that we have? How do you get to a point where you can embrace those things and have them become directional, rather than just thoughts and experiences that we avoid in our minds?”
Bunting isn’t sure who nominated him as Principal of the Year, but he has his suspicions, and although he was pleased to get the award, he said it does feel awkward.
“I get to be the front person for a lot of amazing work that goes on around here.,” he said. “This teaching staff and staff in general are pretty amazing. We do have a really supportive community, so we can innovate and try things and our community trusts us to do the right thing. So, I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of that.”
One of the things that the school does is divide the student body up into houses. When a student enters Champlain Valley High in the ninth grade, they are assigned to one of four houses – Chittenden, Fairbanks, Nichols and Snelling, each named after a Vermonter who made a difference in the state.
Although they do work to make each house as varied as they can be, students follow their siblings into the same house.
“We want to make sure that we have relationships with families,” Bunting said.
There are six teachers in each house – math, English, social studies, science, health and wellness, and special education.
The teachers teach in lots of interdisciplinary units. For example, they don’t often refer to English and social studies, by name, rather those areas of studies are referred to as humanities. “There are some classes that you walk into, and you can’t figure out who the main discipline teacher is,” he said.
Smaller schools within biggest school
Students stay in the same house for all four years of high school.
With over 1,200 students, dividing up one of the largest high school in the state into four houses of around 300 students helps make smaller schools within the bigger school. It’s a model that other schools are following.
Bunting said he thinks that CVU has been doing this since the mid-1990s. It was the model the school used when he was in high school. When he graduated from college and landed his first teaching job, he was an English teacher in the Fairbanks house at CVU.
Bunting has much to talk about when he talks about the future of CVU. He says they will continue to push students to take ownership of their education. He doesn’t want students to graduate without being clear about what their strengths are and what their challenges are, and he wants to find more internships for students.
“There’s some cool research out there that says that students who experience a meaningful internship in high school are twice as likely to be engaged in work they describe as meaningful later in their lives,” Bunting said.
He added that internships during the school day need to be a normal part of the students’ everyday experience.
Bunting sees learning at CVU to be less and less about getting grades and more about achieving proficiency.
“So, you’re not doing an assignment to get it done, you’re doing an assignment because it helps us learn more about who you are as a critical thinker,” he said. “It’s also helping you deepen your critical thinking skills. And you’re seeing it beyond school.”
Instead of students concentrating on earning credits, Bunting said he wants to see them becoming competent in particular skills.
He is committed to seeing the students have experiences in the world while they are in high school, so they will have a better sense of how they want to connect with the world.
Bunting said the shift to proficiency-based education wasn’t an easy journey, but he is committed to having students making sense of what they experience in the classroom rather than just covering the subject matter.
“We started this work in earnest about 10 years ago, and we’re now at a place where our students can describe it better than we can.”