Andrea Archer, 53, approaches her new job as head of school at Derby Academy in Hingham with dignity - even on the day she is dressed as the Tortoise Fairy Godmother for the annual fall play.
"One of the parents made me the most spectacular costume," enthused Archer. Asked if she had any qualms about being photographed in the role, Archer laughs. "This is an elementary school and it needs to be fun."
The funny thing, she adds, is that she has always had a special affinity for turtles, and has "an office full of little turtles - candles, wood, metal, whatever - all of which have memories or histories. It is absolutely coincidental that the play this year was 'The Tortoise and the Hare.' "
The fact that Archer landed at Derby Academy is, if not exactly coincidence, at least fortuitous.
"My daughter had just left" to go to Oxford University "and we felt that since we were going to be empty nesters it was a good time, perhaps, to take on another challenge," Archer said. "I figured this was probably going to be my last headship before I retired, and I did not want another fixer-upper. I was looking for a strong elementary school within striking distance of Cape Cod, where we have a summer home, and close to a metropolitan area.
"Frankly, I was stunned to find all those pieces were here. You always have this dream of finding the perfect job in a perfect place. You don't really expect it to happen."
Archer, who is Welsh, didn't expect to go into education, either. She planned a career in medical research, but found lab work "very isolating." "My strongest relationship was with the lab rats. It didn't fit my personality," she said.
She went back to school for a degree in education and taught in England, before moving to California - "it falls into the category of adventure" - and landing a job as head of the science department at a private school in Santa Monica.
There she met her husband, Paul (he now teaches Latin and Greek at Milton Academy) and discovered that she liked independent schools.
"I went into independent schools with some ambivalence," she said. "I grew up surrounded by what in the US is public education. My attitude . . . changed very dramatically the more I got involved and saw the wonderful work that was going on. I was in a very progressive school, then a very traditional girls' school and then in a small elementary school. They looked very different from the outside, but when it really came down to the fundamentals, they had the same goals: helping students grow both intellectually and emotionally and to leave really feeling this commitment to the community. And those were my values."
Those values fit Derby Academy, the small private school founded in 1784 by Sarah Derby. Derby's trustees chose Archer after a national search. She replaced Edward Foley, who retired after 15 years as headmaster. She is the second woman to lead the school, which has about 320 students in prekindergarten to eighth grade.
Archer's immediate goal at Derby is to "just imbed myself in the school culture" and understand the traditions of what is the oldest co-educational day school in New England.
One of those traditions is the morning meeting, an assembly for students in grades four through eight that's held four days a week. Archer was skeptical that meeting so often would be useful, but she's now impressed with the students' contributions to the gathering.
One tradition she changed was the assembly on the first day of school, which had been for the older students. Archer expanded it to include all grades.
But Archer ran into trouble when she tried to change the traditional snacks offered at the school, cutting out sugar and opting for saltines and water. Students complained to their parents, who complained to Archer. She compromised with fruit, crackers, and cheese - and cookies on Friday.
"Snackgate," said Maria Murphy of Hingham, president of the Derby Parent Association. "I hope that's the biggest of her problems."
Murphy gives Archer high marks for balancing the needs of making improvements with retaining traditions.
"She's nailing it," Murphy said. "I was having a hard time letting go of the old head of school: My family has been here 20 years and was attached to him. But I am having a remarkably easy time adjusting to her.
"I really speak more than just for myself. Parents all come to me, and it's a generally good feeling about her style and her mission."
As part of that mission, Archer wants to attract more students from less affluent or suburban backgrounds. And she's looking at ways for teachers to work more in teams, across disciplines.
She's interested in making the campus more energy efficient, increasing recycling and cutting down on paper, for example. She's also trying to cut back on the number of new textbooks, re-using old ones when they're still current.
"We have a unique niche in the independent school world - the perfect place for instilling all those wonderful habits in children to keep that love of learning alive while also acquiring skills and competency to leave us," she said. "We spend a lot of time educating not just the mind but the heart and soul of these children."