Meet Director of Studies Chance Sims

Chance Sims

Branson’s new Director of Studies, Chance Sims, is ready to talk about the environment, tackle the pandemic, and profess his love for John Coltrane, Spotify—and to a lesser extent, the 90s blockbuster film “Independence Day.” He has family ties to San Francisco and Mukilteo, Washington, and professional experience on both coasts, most recently at The Northwest School in Seattle, where he was Upper School Director. Chance arrives with nearly two decades of independent school experience, and completed his own post-graduate studies with masters degrees in Historical Sociology and Women Studies from DePaul and University of Washington respectively. He spoke with Connections about the unprecedented global challenges and opportunities facing Branson, not judging educators by a Google search, and the importance of a dictionary on a desert island.

What drew you to Branson? When I decided to look for a new job, I really found myself at a point in my career where I wanted to be part of something important. I just felt like I needed to put my experience, skills, and insight to the work of improving the world — broadly speaking — with particular commitments around educational justice and environmental sustainability, two issues I care deeply about.

I had heard of Branson over the years. I’ve been in independent schools over 18 years and have family in the Bay Area, so I was familiar with the school, but didn’t know much about it. Someone sent me the posting and said, “you should really look at this, I hear good things.”

I went online and looked at the strategic plan, which I found to be a really unusual document in that it explicitly identifies the challenges facing the planet as a call to reimagine the program here. In fact, one line in the Strategic Plan is there’s a climate crisis that we can’t ignore, that our school must be responsive to.

Through the interview process, I really found this to be a compelling place. I found the leadership team to be committed to doing important work, really building on a legacy and more, to create a truly excellent school that’s responsive to those larger issues. And then I was fortunate to get an offer.

What are you most looking forward to in the 2020-2021 school year? The challenges facing schools are unprecedented. There’s a part of me that is excited by that challenge. And then, at times, I feel overwhelmed by the reality of a pandemic, and the limits it puts on what we can do. There’s a certain reality that we can’t avoid, which is that given the elevated risk, what does it mean as an institution to call people back? So as an administrator, I’m intellectually curious about how we find our way through this pandemic. This is the future; this won’t be the only pandemic, in fact, previous projections have us facing a pandemic about every four years. This could be the new norm. That’s interesting intellectually. On a personal level it’s terrifying. So the things I would normally look forward to, like coming into a new community and a new job, I’m having to rethink and reset expectations every day.

I am looking forward to building new relationships as best I can virtually. I think this is a pretty special place, and it has the potential to be a really exceptional institution at a time when the country and the world needs exceptional schools. Being part of thinking about that and building that is pretty exciting. Not all schools are poised to do that. It’s my sense that Branson has something to contribute at this moment. Finding out what that is and shepherding that is exciting.

What’s something people are surprised to learn about you? In a work context, that question might seem like a softball, but it’s actually a serious question when I think about my career. This isn’t unique to me, but I think in this digital age, people form impressions of others based on their digital profile, based on how they’re represented on a google search, or where people went to school, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done. And I think that it’s really hard to look at my profile online, or the various narratives of that, and reconcile that with where I’ve worked, positions I’ve had, professional and personal choices I’ve made.

I’d say that, particularly in this current movement towards racial justice, people are reading me differently. My first job in independent schools was rewarding, complicated, and a permanent part of my online identity. I credit that first school with creating the space for me to develop my craft as a teacher. I really learned how to teach there, and it was also a very difficult place to work as man of color. And that’s part of my professional history that is captured online. I think because of that, people are quick to form ideas about me. Many of those ideas are that I’m a social justice crusader, or that I’m a racial justice crusader, or that I’m progressive because I have a graduate degree in women studies. I think most people are surprised to find that I’m actually a really easy going person, who is very open-minded, very approachable, very nuanced in my own political and social thinking. I think that’s what surprises people, the mismatch between how they imagine me — and a lot of that is racialized — and how they experience me on a day-to-day basis.

Favorite creative work? John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Every time I play that album I’m changed. And James Baldwin’s Another Country. It’s a book I’ve taught, which I’ve gone back to over and over again, and it’s particularly relevant right now.

What three things do you bring to a desert island? I love music, so I would need Spotify. I feel like I can’t live without Spotify. Oxford dictionary, Spotify, and ... Wow. My favorite hobby right now is paddle boarding, so a paddle board. For the dictionary, there’s so much to know that is discovered through language, through words. One thing I talked to my students about when I was teaching was how we imagine the world is entirely determined by the size of our vocabulary, because we see through language. If you’re deserted on an island, you’ll need to reimagine yourself, and the only way to do that is through language. Hopefully you would develop new ways of thinking and knowing, but at least initially to move beyond the paralysis of the present — which is, you know, you’re on an island — you’d have to expand your vocabulary. Otherwise you’d be trapped in nihilism and hopelessness.

Movie/book/tv show you’re kind of embarrassed you like? I’m embarrassed that I like blockbuster films. I don’t share that widely. They’re one of those things that I usually watch when I’m alone. The most embarrassing blockbuster I really like… this is embarrassing because it’s such a problematic film, but I’m a sucker for Independence Day — something about that movie, I don’t know, it’s so stupid, and yet I can’t look away.

The opposite of that, going back to pieces of work that really matter to me: the movie Amelie. I would put that on there only because that completely changed my relationship with film. Even now to hear the soundtrack, which I’ll play from time to time, that is an incredible movie.

What’s the first thing you’ll do post-pandemic? Travel. Two places: Oaxaca. I was planning to go this spring. I love food. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, but I’ve never made it down there. Friends have said it’s a must for any foodie. And Paris. I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world in my previous positions, and yet I’ve never been to Paris. I have a very close friend who I initially formed a relationship with through an imagined Paris. She has spent time in Paris, speaks French, but I’ve never been there, so I’d love to go to Paris with her.