At Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, Dal Sohi leads by observation
by Ryan McDonald
Daljit Sohi tiptoed through a dark hallway. He reached a set of doors, then turned around and said in an elevated whisper, “Let’s see if there’s something going on.”
We stepped into the performing arts practice space at Palos Verdes’ Chadwick School to find two teenage girls lit on a stage. The jagged chords of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” displaced the quiet of the previous moment like a gust of wind forcing open a door in a blizzard. Nigel Williams, the Chair of the Performing Arts School at Chadwick, stood in the shadows prompting the pair on stage with themes to wordlessly act out as the music played.
“Bullying!” Williams cried in a voice unlikely to ever shed the crisp lilt of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Sohi became Chadwick’s Head of School last July. On most days, he rises early and answers emails before leaving his house so he can spend as much of the school day as possible walking around the 45-acre campus, popping into classes and interacting with students. (Technically, Sohi is already at school while at home; like many of Chadwick’s faculty, he and his wife live in on-campus housing.) On a sunny day in February, he stood wordlessly for several minutes inside the practice space, watching the students writhe and shuffle to Kurt Cobain’s detached whaling. Here we are now, entertain us. Sohi exited the room, walked down the hallway into the sunlight, and began chuckling to himself.
“I came in here to visit last week. There was something happening with our Theater 4 class, and I was mesmerized,” he said. “I could not leave. I spent the whole 45 minutes just watching.”
Sohi bears little resemblance to the popular image of the headmaster. (Chadwick, I was reminded while reporting on this story, has forsaken the fustier, gendered “Headmaster” in favor of “Head of School.”) He has none of the snarling menace of Roald Dahl’s Mistress Trunchbull, who approaches Matilda and her fellow students like “a tigress stalking a small deer.” He lacks the aloof remove of Dickens’ Doctor Strong, who glances up from his work in the library to greet David Copperfield with “the lusterless eye” of a “blind old horse.” Sohi can seem less like the man-in-charge than a traveller marvelling at the place he has stumbled upon.
“Isn’t that just the greatest view in the world?” he asked, peering through the broad windows of Chadwick’s library at the Los Angeles basin spreading out below.
Before arriving at Chadwick Sohi helmed schools in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Beijing and Dubai. He began his teaching career in Canada, and speaks English, Punjabi, French and Mandarin, the last two of which were acquired in adulthood. When I asked if learning a new tongue came naturally to him, he delivered what can only be considered a humble-brag.
“A lot of my doctoral-level work has been on languages. The research shows it’s not a gift: it’s just hard work. That, and the willingness to take a risk and sound foolish,” he said with a smile.
It was Chadwick’s vaunted international reputation in the education world that drew Sohi to seek the job. Now that he is here he seems unconcerned with pretense. He showed me a video on his phone of a “Community Building Day” in the fall, in which older and younger students were paired up to compete in an obstacle course. In the video, he holds the phone away from him, selfie-style, and spins around to capture the action, which he narrates with unscripted innocence. “Uh oh, this could be a glitch!” he says at one point when a team gets tangled up, adopting, perhaps unconsciously, the Gen Y habit of using a digital term to refer to a real life occurrence.
Velveth Schmitz, chair of the Roessler Chadwick Foundation Board of Trustees, headed the search that resulted in Sohl’s selection. What set Sohi apart, Schmitz said in an interview, was his empathy: an ability to go beyond pedagogy to find out what it feels like to be a student.
“[Sohi] is always thinking about, What is the experience of the student? How is the student experiencing, understanding the world around them?” she said.
Sohi is the oldest of four children. He and his three sisters grew up in British Columbia. He sounds right at home in Southern California, the edges of his accent having been smoothed over by the cosmopolitan winding of his career. Every now and then, however, especially when something excites him, an unmistakable “Canadian raising” of diphthongs tumbles out.
His parents immigrated from India, and his dad worked as a laborer. Sohi’s sister Sukhi, a year younger than him, said they were “definitely a working class family,” and recalled their parents “were not always there to help us with homework or even navigating the school system.” Education was, nonetheless, a priority.
“There was always a lot of encouragement. It was apparent from a very early age that we would go to university,” Sukhi said.
“They wanted to make sure that their kids had the opportunities they just didn’t have,” Sohi said of his parents. “My dad used to talk about that all the time. One of the most amazing things was when you had choices in life, and education gave you choices in life. It opened doors for me. That’s kind of how I see my role. How do I open doors and provide [students] opportunities in life?”
When Sohi looks back on his childhood, he remembers feeling lucky “just to have the opportunity to go through the system.” In seventh grade, he and his classmates took a class trip across Canada. They loaded onto a train and spent three days traveling some 1,100 miles, and concluded the trip by staying with a family in Ontario. For Sohi, not yet a teenager, it offered a vivid demonstration of “the vastness of the country,” and instilled in him a lasting sense of wonder about the world.
Sohi struggled with school. “His path kind of meandered a bit,” as his sister put. Sukhi, like her brother and their other two siblings, also works in education, as a counselor at a university in British Columbia. She sees his early struggles as fundamental to his personna as an educator. Sohi, she said, can empathize with students for whom school is a challenge, and sees not just grades and scores, but “the real person behind the student.”
“He wasn’t the student at the top of his class. He wasn’t somebody where things came easily; it took him a bit to find his path,” she recalled. “I remember when he decided to become a teacher, there was such a big shift in him. He had found his niche.”
He began his teaching career in the public school system in British Columbia. He spent eight years as a teacher, then moved into administration, eventually rising to principal. The years in the classroom gave him a special fondness for the sixth and seventh grades, when students are undergoing often challenging changes in mind and body.
After 17 years in public schools, Sohi moved into private schools, or “independent schools,” to use his wording. The world he entered was international both in location and in the students he served. Whether in the United States, China or the Arab Emirates, the schools were filled with kids from countries all over the world.
Sohi’s globe-trotting background fits in with an increasingly outward-looking focus at Chadwick. The school opened Chadwick International, a campus in Songdo, South Korea, in 2010. The Palos Verdes school’s telepresence room, where Sohi did some of his initial interviews for the Chadwick job, is linked to a similar room in Songdo. Though the time difference can be tough, it lets students separated by the Pacific Ocean feel like they are working together in the same room.
Jeff Mercer is Director of the Middle School at Chadwick. He previously headed Chadwick International. (The South Korea campus is now helmed by Ted Hill, who was Head of School at Chadwick for 18 years.)
“I think, certainly by nature of his previous experience, he has a global perspective on things,” Mercer said of Sohi. “When we think about the development of our students as global citizens, of developing perspectives that are different from one’s own, I think that has a place.”
The term “global citizen” comes up a lot at Chadwick; Sohi used it, not unfairly, to describe himself. He also used it when asked about his goals for Chadwick. His answer sounded practiced; later I went back and checked, and found that he had recited Chadwick’s mission statement, word for word.
Like most people in positions of authority, Sohi delights in seeing things under construction. While we walked through the turf of the campus’s baseball diamond, his attention was suddenly drawn to the first base line.
“Are these the new dugouts? I hadn’t realized they’d arrived!” he said giddily, walking over to run his hands against the structures.
Few places generate more excitement than the Center for Innovation Research, known as the CIR. It will eventually be a hub for robotics, coding, and programming. It will include both a “maker space” and an “ideation space,” and will be accessed by roll-up garage doors, in order to encourage students to draw inspiration from the world around them.
Chadwick’s resources give Sohi an enviable flexibility when it comes to facilities planning.
“I start by asking, what’s the infrastructure we have to have to provide the kind of learning we want to deliver? We start with the program — robotics, coding — and then we ask, What’s the building have to look like to support the learning?” he said.
Sohi is less than a year into a place that is about to turn 85. Along with committing the lore of Chadwick to memory, he said he relies heavily on institutional knowledge, including some administrators who have been around for decades.
Erin Nordlund is the curriculum specialist with Chadwick’s Village School, which serves younger students. She is in her 15th year at Chadwick; both of her children attend the school, and she previously headed the English Department at the Upper School, akin to high school. She has daily conversations with Sohi about educational strategy and the future of the curriculum, and said she has been struck by his leadership style.
“He’s a really good listener. He’s not one to get in his opinion right away, which I’ve really appreciated. He wants different perspectives, and to gather a lot of perspectives,” Nordlund said. I thought back to Sohi’s description of being lost in wonder at a theater exercise. Later, he described something similar happening during a debate in a history class. “The past is really important to him, the history, but also looking ahead, projecting out where we want to be.”
Sohi’s strolls don’t always lead him into a performance space or a classroom. Sometimes he’ll bring work with him and hunker down among the students at one of the desks in the library. He also makes time for walking across the campus’s main lawn during breaks in classes.
“If the kids are out here, they’ll come up to me. Sometimes it’s the smallest thing, but sometimes it’s a huge thing,” he said. “They’re never going to make an appointment to come and see me. But if they see me here, they’ll go, ‘Hey, Mr. Sohi, I heard this,’ or ‘What’s our plan for this?’”
The lawn, he proudly points out, is a place for students of different age levels and academic paths to mix. Sohi is an adherent of the idea of “collisions” from the worlds of business and design, in which structures are designed to facilitate interactions that are beyond the conception of their creator. It’s an approach that emphasizes opportunity and serendipity; it’s also one that downplays the influence any single individual has on an institution.
When Schmitz visits the campus, she invariably finds Sohi out on a session of what he calls “observing.” Schmitz and others might give it a different name.
“When he’s walking around and sees students sitting on the lawn, he sits on the lawn. He wants to see through their eyes,” she said.