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FairfaxEducationQ&A: Incoming Flint Hill head of school looks to future

Q&A: Incoming Flint Hill head of school looks to future

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“Happy, healthy, hardworking” is a mantra Patrick McHonett will emphasize starting next July when he takes over as the new head of school at Flint Hill School in Oakton.

“When you surround yourselves with kids, you have to be happy, because we’re lucky to work in this field and the joy is always around us, even on the hardest days,” he said. “Working in education is challenging and you have to be hardworking, willing to go the extra mile for a student or the school.”

McHonett will succeed John Thomas, who is retiring after 17 years as headmaster. Since July 2019, McHonett has been head of school at St. John’s Episcopal School in Orange County, Calif. He previously was associate head of school at Phoenix Country Day School for 12 years and assistant dean of admission at Claremont McKenna College for two years.

The Phoenix native holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s in literature and legal studies from Claremont McKenna College. He recently told the Sun Gazette about his experiences and educational philosophy.


Why did you seek the Flint Hill School post?

Flint Hill is an amazing school with a stellar national reputation. The Flint Hill focus on academic excellence, in a personal, inclusive environment, appeals to me both as a parent and a professional.

What attracted you to the school?

The Flint Hill mission, vision and core values are more than just words in a brochure or on a Website. It was clear during my visits to the campus and seeing the students, teachers and community members in action that this is a school that unapologetically “walks the walk,” which – to be honest – is a rarity in education. I think about my experiences with students, and my hopes for my own children, and they align perfectly with Flint Hill’s desire for students to “take meaningful risks, be yourself and make a difference.”

What do you consider your accomplishments at St. John’s Episcopal School?

While we’ve had many great successes in building the school’s enrollment, culture of philanthropy and academic culture, probably the most wild experience has been guiding a school community over the course of the last two years within the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of my favorite mottoes is “stay prepared so you don’t have to get prepared,” and that certainly guided me and my team at SJES during these dynamic times.

How does your current school resemble and differ from Flint Hill?

St. John’s is fairly different from Flint Hill in that it serves students from early childhood through eighth grade and is religiously affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Both are independent schools and inherently prize academic excellence, small classes, autonomy of program, resources and governance.

How was your experience at Phoenix Country Day School?

PCDS is actually more similar to Flint Hill and my experiences there greatly informed my desire and approach to working at Flint Hill. I was given the mentorship and opportunity to dig into areas vital to the effective management of a school – from budgeting, enrollment and fund-raising to academic-program development, to community relations, marketing and outreach.

What attracted you to the education field?

I never truly thought about a career in education until one of my high-school teachers said that I would be a great teacher when I grew up. It kind of surprised me, especially since I was never the top student in any of my classes! But, I found over the years that I really enjoyed the process of learning, teaching and connecting with others. When I worked in my college’s admissions office as an undergraduate for my work-study job, I found that I really enjoyed educational administration.

How is education likely to change in the future?

Education historically has been slow in its evolution, but the last few years have truly changed everything. Brain-based research helps us, as educators, understand how students learn and truly enables us to evolve our in-class practices to meet students’ varied needs.

With practically every person having a smartphone at their disposal these days, there’s a recognition that students don’t always need to know specific facts and information, when detail is available at their fingertips. Rather, students face a challenge now to be connoisseurs of information – knowing how to evaluate what’s real and what’s not, using critical thinking and analytical skills to a much greater depth.

Who have been the biggest influences in your life?

I was a student-athlete growing up and through college, so I have learned much from my coaches and teammates over the years – lessons that I apply every day on the job in leading a school, supporting my team, and cultivating a positive and impactful culture.

Who were your biggest mentors?

I have had some great professional mentors over the years, including a number of leading heads of school at independent schools. I believe I have taken bits and pieces of their approach, while also recognizing that I have to lead with authenticity within my community, trusting my gut and those around me, when facing tough decisions.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“When you know, you know,” from my mom, when I told her I wanted to ask my now-wife to marry me.

Who are your favorite authors?

My favorite fiction author is Cormac McCarthy, and I try to re-read one of his books each year. But my bookshelf is filled with books on leadership from Patrick Lencioni and Brené Brown, and I am constantly blown away by anything that Malcom Gladwell puts out. As one gets older, that shift from fiction to non-fiction [comes from] the understanding that our world around us is so fascinating, and more compelling than fantasy, for sure.

What are your hobbies?

Chasing my kids mostly! But, in a free moment, I love to read, write, practice yoga, watch sports or get out for any outdoor activities or hiking.

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