Come fall, Dunn Middle School will have several new teachers and a new head of school – an Australian by the name of Simon Sweeney.

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Mac Duncan, who graduated from the middle school in 1993 and has been teaching there since 2005, was part of the selection committee. There were more than 70 applicants for the job, she said. “It was really cool to have so much interest.”

“We were really sad to lose Eric [Gaylord], but the upside is that we have a great opportunity to bring in someone exciting,” said Duncan. As they reviewed the various qualities they were looking for in a new director, Sweeney’s name kept popping up.

At the middle school level, especially at Dunn, a principal has to wear many hats, reports Duncan. Finding someone who can wear them all successfully was not an easy job.

“It is really hard to plug people into a system to find the right fit,” she said. But there was a “spark” about Sweeney. “He was familiar with Dunn because he had worked with someone who was familiar with our school,” she said. They even use some of Dunn’s practices at Sweeney’s former school.

But policy is just one aspect of the directorship that was of concern. Personality was also a priority. That, said Duncan, Sweeney has in abundance. “He has a fun sense of humor.” Duncan described that interviewing Sweeney gave her the sense of being at a familiar staff meeting.

From the feedback process, Sweeney “was the overwhelming favorite” of parents, staff and students, Duncan stated. The students had the opportunity to meet the candidate when he was invited to run a morning deck meeting. “His deck meeting activity was something the kids really enjoyed. He got the students both laughing and thinking,” said Duncan.

A native Australian, Sweeney has been working with middle school students since 2005. He grew up in a small town in Australia before moving to California. While Malibu is nice, Sweeney said, he is looking forward to being back in a small community. He loves to hike and the Valley will offer plenty of unique and beautiful opportunities to do so.

Sweeney started out his foray into higher education by receiving a B.S. degree in zoology and Conservation of Australian Wildlife from the University of Melbourne in 2002. In the process of earning that degree, he did some tutoring and discovered that not only was teaching something he enjoyed, it is something he is good at, he said. It was a discovery that led to a change in his original plans.

Besides, he admits, Australian wildlife is all nocturnal. “I was 21 and not interested in that.” Sweeney went on to earn a Bachelor of Teaching degree in 2004, and is now pursuing a Doctor of Education from UCLA, which he hopes to finish next year.

Sweeney began his teaching career at the hands of 7-12 grade math and science students at the Salesian College at Rupertswood in Melbourne, Australia, in 2005. When a beautiful woman, Lauren Jaffe – now his wife – lured him away from Australia, he said. She, by the way, works for Yahoo! and is primarily able to telecommute. Starting in 2007, Sweeney taught middle-school algebra 1 and 6-8 grade science at New Roads School in Malibu. Just like Dunn, he says, New Roads is a small progressive school within the midst of a larger school. In the summer of 2009, Sweeney served as their director for Environmental Studies, followed by his most recent position as assistant director of the middle school there. “I find teaching middle school interesting because the kids are developing their sense of identity and are open to trying new things,” he said.

In addition to being a classroom educator, Sweeney facilitated educational outreach programs such as refugee tutoring in inner city Melbourne, and coached Australian football both in his homeland and in the U.S.

Sweeney succeeds Gaylord, who moved on to the head of school position at Colorado Springs Middle School, after two years as the Dunn Middle School director.

Sweeney believes that the ideal culture of middle school is one in which “students and faculty are encouraged to take risks, yet are aware that they will be supported if they fail,” he said.

He remembers how in junior high he was much smaller in stature than many of the others. “I really wanted to do well, and cared about my grades and was worried about everything,” he said, especially about making mistakes. And then as life will have it, no matter how hard one tries, Sweeney made mistakes and discovered that doing so wasn’t the end of the world after all. It is a discovery he hopes to share with the 60 or so students they are expecting this fall.

It is important, he said, that students’ ability and growth be measured by a number of factors – not just their ability to master the simple memorization of facts or how good they are at passing tests. “Classes should be rigorous, but not in the traditional more-is-more mindset; the focus should be on the level of critical engagement the students have with the material.”

But what Sweeney really wants parents to know is that he is here to support the students and to challenge them to develop a lifelong passion for learning.

“I’m super excited to work with him and he has an awesome accent,” concluded Duncan.

struax@syvjournal.com