Pilot Towards a Great Vision: Emily McCarren moves to China to fulfill responsibilities in education

By Amelie Wan

After taking a short break at the slope, the skier glides down without hesitating, leaving elegant strokes on the snow. From a bird’s eye view, the skier appears like a dolphin sailing through the storm. Wherever the skier goes, the snow gains momentum like a wave rushing down the mountain.

Time, space, and sound disappear, creating no distraction and obstruction. What lies ahead is one curve right after another. The skier seems to be falling into a spatial and temporal spot where a few minutes feel like an eternity. The skier blends effortlessly with nature where the whistling wind, raging snow, and clear sky form a rhythmic flow, becoming a part of the mountain. This moment is nothing short of pure freedom.


From the top slope, it takes only a couple of minutes to glide down to the mountain base. The same adrenaline rush that envelops the skier soaring toward the finish line is the same surge that spectators feel as they watch the athlete break what seems to be the limits of gravity. This breathtaking moment, shown in the acclaimed episode of National Geographic Extreme, explains the riveting appeal of skiing.

It takes years of practice, perseverance, and purpose to make skiing, and many other things, look and feel effortless, and Dr. Emily McCarren knows it very well. She has enjoyed sports: she was an equestrienne in her teenage years in Middlebury, a captain of her university lacrosse and alpine ski teams in Maine, and a surfer on the wavy coasts of Hawaii.


“Some people think of these sports as dangerous. But that’s not always the case,” Dr. McCarren says. “Every time before a ski race, I was taught to study the run by climbing the slope to figure out the dangers along the trail, thus giving me a solid understanding of the terrain. You have to go slow before you can go fast. To me, sports like alpine skiing and surfing are a combination of exercising wise caution and taking calculated risks”.

Sports like skiing have pushed Dr. McCarren beyond her limits and helped her target and achieve goals. These attributes frequently overlap with the components that make a great leader. But leading is not a rosy job; for someone who has been thrust into the role, they need to tackle challenges while defusing risks in order to bring an organization closer to its aims.

In July 2022, Dr. McCarren became a captain once more—this time, of Keystone Academy as its Executive Head of School. She took over the reins from founding Head of School Malcolm McKenzie, who retired in June 2022 after his celebrated four decades in education. Dr. McCarren stood out as the ideal candidate during a year-long, globe-spanning and rigorous talent screening.


Dr. McCarren comes to Keystone from Punahou School in Hawaii, where she served as Academy Principal (Grades 9-12) from 2015. As the largest single-campus private school in the United States, with a student population of over 3,700, Punahou School is also notable for its esteemed student and alumni body, including the founding president of the Republic of China Sun Yat Sen (who attended a semester in 1883), and former United States President Barack Obama (Class of 1979). Punahou is a college prep school with an impressive university and college admission track record.


Having lived in Hawaii for 16 years, Dr. McCarren deeply understands mana‘o, a Hawaiian word that, as a noun or a verb, closely relates to contemplation, reflection, or insight. Beyond its literal meaning, however, mana‘o is a way of being, a practice, and a spiritual power activated whenever people come together to make decisions. The driving force of mana‘o, combined with her commitment to education and physical and mental prowess, energizes Dr. McCarren as she takes on and expands the dream of Keystone Academy as a foremost world school.



Every summer, Vermont teems with young people enrolled in a three-week language program at Middlebury College. These learners sign an agreement with the institution that requires them to speak the new language as frequently as possible during the period. So, what happens is these students, keen to hone their French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew language skills, communicate with other like-minded youths in social settings, transforming the small town of Middlebury into a mini-United Nations. As a Vermont native, Dr. McCarren recalls directly seeing the eagerness of these young people to learn a different language. In high school, she worked part-time at local shops and sports outlets, using that chance to connect with people in other languages. In turn, these guests introduced her to diverse environments and fascinating cultures that opened her perspectives and made her “realize that there is a wider world waiting for me to explore.”


Indeed, exploring the world became a recurring theme in her life. During her first virtual meeting with Keystone’s faculty and non-teaching staff in April 2022, Dr. McCarren showed her “global CV”, or a snapshot of where she has worked or studied. From Vermont, she traveled across the country and the world for study and work, and then found her footing in Hawaii. Now, she moves towards her next stop: Beijing, China, “a place that feels at once eternally old and constantly new—a place of great energy and possibility.”


Dr. McCarren holds two bachelor’s degrees in biology and Spanish from Colby College. She received her master’s degree in Spanish Literature from Saint Louis University Madrid campus, and another master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the Teachers College Klingenstein Center at Columbia University. Her Ph.D. in Learning Design and Technology comes from the University of Hawaii.

After graduating from college, the young Emily joined the Swiss Semester, a school in Zermatt, Switzerland, dedicated to providing an academic and outdoor learning experience for high school sophomores from the United States. She taught Spanish and math, alongside being a boys’ housemaster and outdoor travel lead teacher. In the morning, students studied academic courses; in the afternoon, they skied, hiked, and cycled in the Alps. They also joined short-term weekly study tours in Europe. The courses, which happened between September and December, were taught by retirees or newly graduated teachers, like the young Emily at the time. In addition, she saw the power of the school’s boarding community, providing students with extensive support, training, and challenges that were rewarding and instrumental for students’ success.

“This school started my passion for teaching,” she says. “And I met educators who had devoted their whole careers to teaching and learning, and kids and who were fun, happy, and seem fulfilled. I thought: ‘This is worth exploring more.’”

After returning to the United States, Ms. McCarren joined The Thacher School as a Spanish and biology teacher and a boarding instructor. She also coached the girls’ lacrosse team and the school’s hallmark equestrian program where instructors “place students with the right horse and in a riding group that matches their level of experience and skill.” These students look after their horses from the beginning of the semester, in addition to tidying up the stables regularly. At Thacher, the gentle equines are considered “four-legged teachers” from whom students learn resilience, confidence, humility, and patience. Ms. McCarren easily identified with that teaching philosophy because she grew up on a farm and understood that “all nature—plants and animals—teach humans so much.” She recalls Justin Time, a retired racehorse that she took care of for four years, which became a transformative experience during her high school life. Just like a person, Justin Time had its personality and quirks, from which Ms. McCarren learned about empathy and the limitations of human will.


“Justin Time was a nice horse, but he rarely did what I hoped he would do. Over the years that I spent time with Justin Time, I understood the proverb ‘the outside of a horse is good for the inside of man’—there is definitely some enduring truth in it, because people feel better when they ride a horse, in addition to learning so much more from being around animals.”



One month before Dr. McCarren stepped down as Academy Principal at Punahou School in Hawaii, she graced a wide-ranging exit interview by the school’s student publication Ka Punahou. She was asked: “What’s one thing you want Academy students to remember about you and your time as principal?”

I don’t really care if Academy students remember me, or my time as principal, but I hope that Academy students now and in the future remember Punahou as a place where they were able to challenge their own limits and try things differently, where they were seen and known as individual human beings, where they felt emotionally and intellectually safe, and also challenged, which is a fine balance. And I hope that when people pass through the Academy, either as students or as educators, that they take from their time a sense of responsibility for making education better.

Dr. McCarren served in Punahou in different capacities for 16 years, first entering the institution as a Spanish teacher and later directing the Wo International Center. She assumed the Academy Principal role in 2015, supporting the learning of 1,750 students and leading over 180 faculty and staff from Grade 9 to Grade 12. She also serves on the boards of the Global Online Academy and the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). Dr. Kevin Mattingly, who teaches at the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College and knows Dr. McCarren very well, says she has played critical roles in developing initiatives that lead educators worldwide to “rethink what the future of education looks like.”


“She deeply understands the needs and opportunities of today’s rapidly changing educational world,” Dr. Mattingly shares. “She has been a teacher leader for much of her career and was a standout student in the selective leadership program I teach at Teachers College. She knows how to introduce the faculty to best-practice pedagogy and curriculum design based on the latest research.”

For Dr. McCarren, many teachers aspiring to become leaders “propose radical change” but operate under a “fantasy that things will click into place and go”. During her time at Punahou, Dr. McCarren learned much about the framework and values around competency-based learning (CBL) and the idea that peers and students “[are] planting seeds of trees in the shade of which we will not sit”.

The Wo International Center functions as an incubator at Punahou expanding its international horizons and leading its education innovation. For Dr. McCarren, directing the center—“a place with great potential to innovate curriculum”—was one of her most crucial career episodes that allowed her to visit many schools across the globe, see trends and innovative practices, and have a better understanding of China. “We have tried every means to ensure students have richer experiences, including afterschool enrichment activities, educational tours around the world, and overseas exchange programs,” she adds. “I’m glad to see these initiatives making an impact on the school.”


Punahou provides one of the most comprehensive Chinese language programs in the United States. Since 1982, many students associated with Punahou’s programs have come to China for immersive learning experiences through cultural exploration and community service. Punahou has also established long-term partnerships with prestigious high schools and universities in China, including Beijing Normal University, the High School Affiliated to the Renmin University of China, The Affiliated High School of Peking University, and the Shanghai-based Soong Ching Ling School, among many others.

In 2013, Tong Xiaohong, Vice Principal of Soong Ching Ling School, went to Punahou for a six-month teaching exchange. She teamed up with an American teacher at Punahou to teach a Chinese immersion program under a dual tutorial system, later becoming a success following the registration of more than 60 students from kindergarten to middle school. During this stint, Ms. Tong became friends and later forged a bond of mentorship with Dr. McCarren, whose “personal charm” and “care for students and faculty” struck her the most. The vice principal was also impressed by Punahou’s philosophy of encouraging innovation and “its tolerance for risk and failure when implementing a new program”.

“This philosophy gives students and teachers considerable maneuvering room, thus creating infinite possibilities for educational innovation,” Ms. Tong says, adding it “should be embraced by future-oriented schools and their leadership.” The vice principal also appreciates Dr. McCarren’s “way of thinking creatively and innovatively all the time”, which she believes will benefit Keystone greatly, since “innovation holds the key to greatness in the face of the challenges schools confront today.”

Much like Keystone’s Chinese Thread—a unique curriculum that promotes Chinese culture and identity in a world context—Punahou’s academic system strives to keep the school’s 180 years of history and traditions alive. This part of the school, along with Hawaiian culture, has fascinated and challenged Dr. McCarren at the same time. How could she create an open and flexible learning system that incorporates conventional and innovative courses? How could she motivate teachers to step out of their comfort zones and design courses independently? How could she incentivize administerial staff to leverage their professional expertise to diversify teaching and learning? How could she ensure Punahou could carry forward its traditions and keep innovating simultaneously? The answers eventually emerged at different stages in Dr. McCarren’s tenure at Punahou.

In 2019, she approached some local craftspeople to find experts to lead a four-day course on weaving the traditional lauhala (or “leaves of the hala tree” in Hawaiian), under the short-term, non-graded “G-Term” classes happening between the winter break and second semester. Much to Dr. McCarren’s surprise, the artisans returned a few days later with 14 eager weaving gurus.


“The artisans were like, ‘The kids want to learn?’,” Dr. McCarren recalls the experts’ pleasant surprise at these young people’s interest in a nearly forgotten traditional skill.

“During this time, we thought of generating interest in traditional ways of life for young people and figuring out purposes and pathways that create economic systems that honor and value the things students come up with. We wanted to pass on knowledge to students and, at the same time, optimize them to build better futures. It was so powerful and exciting. And for me, the coolest thing about education.”

The course opened with 20 people, including teachers and students. Now, it has become one of Punahou’s most popular G-Term programs. And what was intended to be a cultural immersion activity became a passion that she “didn’t know that she needed the most”. The weaving program not only slowed her down; it revealed yet another aspect of life different from the need for speed that she had always channeled through sports and leadership. It didn’t take long for Dr. McCarren to completely fall in love with this Hawaiian handiwork, making covers for virtually all bottles at her home because it was “so fun to make something for somebody and give it to them” as much as it offered a “powerful balance” in her life. And seeing how she was keen to learn, the artisans welcomed her into the local weaving community. Three years later, Dr. McCarren became an accomplished weaver. And now that she has moved from Hawaii, Dr. McCarren sets her sights on another kind of craft: Chinese weaving art.

“I didn’t really know that I needed that [slowdown],” she adds, “and just in the last few years, I found weaving to be a powerful balance in my life. I owe that to Hawaii and the people who have been so generous with their wisdom. And it is just another example of how wanting to learn something you never knew can totally change your life. Isn’t that amazing?”



Kamaola, the first wa‘a kaulua or a traditional Hawaiian double-hulled canoe made at Punahou, made her maiden voyage in October 2021 after two years of preparation. In the following month, teachers and students from the Punahou Voyaging Club sailed with Kamaola, becoming a milestone as the school embraced and connected with history, and when the local community carried traditions forward and revitalized Polynesian voyaging.


The wa‘a kaulua, consisting of double canoes fastened by a twisted cord, is a sailing and paddling vessel mostly used for travel between islands within the Hawaiian archipelago. Before the 14th century, ancient Polynesian seafarers positioned themselves by stars and adeptly maneuvered wa‘a kaulua amid strong ocean currents and gale wind across the Pacific Ocean. This technique, however, has been dying out.


The idea of reviving wa‘a kaulua sailing was raised by a high school student who wondered: why did Punahou have none of its own? Dillyn Lietzke from the Punahou Class of 2020 was inspired by her volunteering experience in 2016 aboard Nāmāhoe, a canoe on the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i, where a crew member encouraged her to build her alma mater’s wa‘a kaulua. She initially shrugged off the idea, but eventually raised the concept to her teachers and Dr. McCarren upon returning to O‘ahu Island for her tenth-grade year at Punahou in 2018. At the time, 44 years had already passed when the canoe Hōkūle‘a, made by five Punahou alumni and a teacher, made her historic voyage to and from Tahiti.

Dr. McCarren gave Ms. Lietzke the green light as her project fused local history and culture with students’ experiences. She supported Taryn Loveman, Director of Design Technology and Engineering, to make a voyaging schedule and build a consulting team. Science teacher Adam Jenkins proposed to open a voyaging course. In the end, Ms. Lietzke was surrounded by teachers who were willing to turn her idea into reality.

To build this double-hulled canoe, Punahou teachers and students indeed went the extra nautical mile. They mobilized almost all the school’s resources and consulted experienced local sailors. Several teachers and students set up pop-up tents on campus to complete the project before the deadline and amid the pandemic shutdown. Construction on the canoe concluded in December 2021. Afterward, a teacher christened the vessel Kamaola, a Hawaiian word that means “the life of a child”.

What started as a simple query turned out to be a special moment for the Punahou community, one that combined Hawaiian traditions with the school’s history and experiential learning. “Kamaola is one of Punahou’s projects that I am most proud of supporting,” Dr. McCarren says of the program.

“I love figuring out how to create great opportunities for smart and caring people. I love to make things happen, especially those that these people believe in. And don’t just assume that you know the answers; instead, listen carefully to the questions. If you figure out how to convene people around those questions, and have people agree on the questions, the community will point towards the answers because it holds so much wisdom.”

Now, as the Punahou community awaits the official launch of the program, Kamaola has already made waves and inspired explorers of different ages. Many students have already signed up for voyaging courses introducing them to Hawaiian star compass navigation and the local voyaging history. Some have even contemplated the meticulous process of weaving a traditional lauhala canoe sail. Science classes, meanwhile, started to develop automated solar-powered watering systems and aquaponics to simulate a process that might be used to grow edible plants aboard vessels.


The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary since the Punahou graduation of Nainoa Thompson, the first Hawaiian navigator to master traditional Polynesian pathfinding skills under the tutelage of indigenous pathfinder Mau Piailug. Mr. Nainoa opined that Punahou teachers “understood the story of the wa‘a kaulua —including how it became instrumental in exploring the Pacific Ocean in olden times. He shot a video while navigating a wa‘a kaulua in the middle of the Pacific to celebrate the occasion with the Punahou community and noted that:

the most important contribution of Punahou is the teachers … who make stories for young children. [These stories] reframe the world of navigation that we have forgotten and lost. [These teachers] reframe the hearts and minds of young children [to listen to] the greatest feats of exploration by humankind, ever: the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. This canoe is about taking the chance: you go into the unknown and explore ways where you don’t know what you will achieve out there but you know you will achieve nothing if you don’t go.

Mr. Nainoa’s sentiment is shared by Dr. McCarren, who believes that the ocean is a teacher itself. For her, Punahou’s programs and activities related to voyaging prepare students to face difficulties squarely, objectively evaluate risk, and maximize resources to realize their goals.

From the spring semester of 2022, the voyaging program was arranged on afternoons in the open sea. She draws some metaphorical parallels between voyaging and education:

It’s like traveling in the ocean. The sailor must have a firm belief, and make the most of available talents, resources, and facilities to realize the goal, even if there lie uncertainties ahead. Polynesian legends on voyaging and exploration contain mana‘o that we need.



“Fulfilling a broader set of responsibilities for education represents the most important step along my career path, a critical factor for me to leave Punahou and join Keystone. I can see that Keystone has an educational vision: not only transforming its own students, but also exerting positive influences in a wider context. I want to share this vision and accompanying responsibilities. I hope all members of the Keystone community will strive toward this goal.”

——Dr. Emily McCarren


It was a humid morning in mid-August 2022, and Dr. McCarren was waiting at the Keystone South Gate with her backpack on. She would go on a tour of the Central Axis of Beijing, or the part of the capital where historical monuments and structures from China’s Ming and Qing eras still remain. She would be led by five Keystone high schoolers Annie Geng, Hank Zhou, Amy Wang, Roy Zhao, and Richard Gao.

The idea for this trip sprung from Annie’s tenth-grade Personal Project product, a manual that introduces the history and heritage of the Central Axis to more people while the Chinese nation prepares for and awaits the landmark’s inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Upon hearing about Annie’s project during a virtual conversation with Keystone Marketing and Communications team editors while she was still in Hawaii, Dr. McCarren couldn’t wait to learn more about this impressive architectural and urban planning marvel.

Organized by the Keystone Marketing and Communications team, the trip not only welcomed the new leader but also became an opportunity for her to become uniquely acquainted with Keystone students. The ride started from Zhengyangmen Gate and continued to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Di’anmen, Wanning Bridge, and Gulou (the Drum Tower) and Zhonglou (the Bell Tower). During the trip, they went to the Hall of Military Prowess for a porcelain exhibition and made kites at the workshop of the Cao family, a renowned kitemaker clan.


Prior to this, Dr. McCarren had been to Beijing on numerous occasions and had visited the Forbidden City four times. This time, however, felt completely different, because she toured with students who took turns to explain the capital’s history and culture in a nutshell, making her feel that her knowledge of Beijing has considerably gone up.

Before the trip, Keystone’s student-led publication The Voice gathered questions from students from different grades for Dr. McCarren. Annie and Amy, who are also key members of the virtual journal, took the chance to invite the new Head to become their guest for an upcoming issue. And on the way back to campus, Annie and Hank began an impromptu interview with Dr. McCarren, recording and taking notes using their mobile phones.

Just a week before the trip, Dr. McCarren attended a small welcome gathering hosted by the Keystone Dean of Faculty Office, which allowed teachers and staff working during the summer to meet her in person for the first time.


A school’s lifecycle is punctuated by changes, growth, stability, and challenge. When it reaches a pivotal moment, it must find the right people at the right time. Keystone Academy Founding President Dr. Edward J. Shanahan remarked that Dr. McCarren is what the school ideally needs at the next stage, as she

[has] the mind of a scholar, the instincts and skills of a seasoned administrator, the heart of a teacher, and the vision of an educational leader who cares deeply about her responsibility to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities they will face in their individual and public lives, whether today or tomorrow, whether at home or anywhere in the world.

Dr. McCarren expresses her readiness and confidence to lead Keystone, especially “as it evolves from its remarkably impressive early years to a more mature organization, developing systems and pathways towards further increasing its reputation for excellence and innovation.” Based on her outstanding academic and professional experiences across the globe, Dr. McCarren shares Keystone’s dedication to synergizing worldwide educational essences. When establishing extensive partnerships with schools around the world, she has found the same expectation for the younger generation. She observes that the way to “integrate the best ideas around the world is to realize an ideal education. That’s why I feel excited to join Keystone.”


She also refers to Keystone’s hallmark residential program as another important reason for joining the school. “It takes only one week for boarders to have a sense of close-knit community,” she says, “but in contrast, at a day school, it takes several months.” She believes that a boarding program can better accomplish her mission as an educator, as it “provides more learning opportunities which can complement what day school lacks.” The boarding programs at The Thacher School and the Swiss Semester gave her a deeper understanding of the difference between education and nurture. While a day school provides academic education, a boarding environment nurtures a close-knit community that builds students’ character and cultivates lifelong bonds with teachers and peers.

The combined efforts of founding Head of School Malcolm McKenzie and community members have demonstrated Keystone’s position as a world school since its establishment in 2014. This achievement boosts Dr. McCarren’s confidence that Keystone is poised to become better and stronger in the years to come.

In a letter to the community, Mr. McKenzie stated the school’s goal of “becoming a thought leader”. Dr. McCarren responded that “Keystone should build on the present achievements and strive toward a broader set of visions and responsibilities”. She adds:

Keystone’s vision for education is so appealing and I am ready to work with other members to realize this grand vision. My past experience in a big school motivates me to raise important and core questions and focus on how to best develop the school. These aspects are of critical importance to Keystone. Malcolm’s leadership has led to this extraordinary current reality of Keystone. In the future, we will continue to build on our responsibility to share generously in the field of education, and present greater possibilities for education in China and the world.




For what purpose humanity is there should not even concern us: why you are there, that you should ask yourself: and if you have no ready answer, then set for yourself goals, high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.

——Friedrich Nietzsche (1873)


Facing uncertainties in the future, we can liken the head of school to a captain who leads a ship amid stormy waters. Punahou Junior School Principal Paris Priore-Kim, who worked with Dr. McCarren for six years, was overjoyed upon hearing the appointment of her dear friend as Keystone’s new leader. She said:

Emily is the bravest and the most innovative person I’ve ever seen. She can see potential opportunities in any challenging circumstances, and tackle challenges head-on. She never flinches from them. Or putting it in another way, these challenges energize her. At the same time, I can see gentleness beneath her personality. She is good at listening and reflecting on what she has done. These attributes make a perfect mix of character.

This is Emily in our friendship, in work, and in leadership. When thinking about piloting a ship for a voyage, and preparing for storms, you will find that it is fortunate to be led by such a captain who faces difficulties fearlessly, addresses challenges calmly, gives all members a sense of serenity and security, and encourages them to believe in themselves.

Dr. McCarren has found a place to realize her ideals for education. On the other hand, Keystone has also found a suitable person to lead the community to the future. “Punahou is the only secondary school to have educated heads of state from two different nations: Sun Yat-Sen and Barack Obama. They are the school’s eminent alumni. So, I am proud to stand up and say that perhaps ‘Keystone will be the next.’”



Special thanks to Blaine Bolibol, Robert Gelber, Paris Priore-Kim, Ezra Levinson, and Yong Zhao

Translation: Allen Zhu
Editor: Andy Peñafuerte III


Works Cited:

McCarren, E. (2022, May 13). Exit Interview with Dr. Emily McCarren. (E. Levinson, Interviewer)

McCarren, E. (2022, June 5). 87. Weaving Together Mastery, Competency and Relevant Learning with Emily McCarren. The What School Could Be Podcast. (J. Reppun, Interviewer, & E. Kurohara, Editor) @WSCBPodcast: 1000 Points of Light.

Punahou School. (n.d.). G-Term. Retrieved from Luke Center for Public Service: www.punahou.edu/luke-center-for-public-service/programs-and-initiatives/g-term

The Thacher School. (n.d.). It’s Not (Just) About the Horse: What It Really Means to Ride. Retrieved from The Thacher School: www.thacher.org/horse-program

Thompson, N. (2022). Special Message from Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson ‘72 [YouTube video]. Retrieved from Punahou School YouTube account: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmT88zxzt-o

Wianecki, S. (2021, August 2). The Story of Kamaola. Retrieved from Punahou School website: bulletin.punahou.edu/the-story-of-kamaola/

Zhao, Y., Tavangar, H. S., McCarren, E., Rshaid, G. F., & Tucker, K. F. (2016). The Take-Action Guide to World Class Learners (Vols. 1-3). Corwin.