So long, Mr. Springer

LIHUE – Robert Springer is a firm believer that schools are not built on rules, but based on relationships.

It’s that theory that’s guided his 17 years as headmaster of Island School.

“It’s a family here,” he said. “We try to recognize teachers as professionals. If they have a good idea, we try it. We have meetings with the teachers every week where we talk about students of concern as well as students’ accomplishments.”

After 55 years dedicated to teaching and administrating in schools in Hawaii, Springer is retiring next year. He likes to quote Robert Frost’s poem, “Home Burial,” about a relationship. It reads, “Two that don’t love can’t live together without them. But two that do can’t live together with them.”

The 78-year-old is convinced that Frost’s musings are a necessary theory in school settings – respectfulness in all relationships. And he’s been successful. In 1997, the population of the private school was 169 students. This year, it’s 370 students.

Arts and academics are strong at the kindergarten through 12th grade school. The ratio of teachers to students at the high school level is one to nine. On average, students score in the upper two-thirds nationally. Last school year, more than $736,000 in college scholarships were offered to 31 of their graduates.

“We have teachers here with degrees from 40 different schools, a few internationally,” Springer said.

An important component is their 6 Rs: reliable, responsive, respectful, responsible, reflective and resilient. The characteristics are emphasized and developed in all students as a sign of success.

“We develop human potential,” Springer said.

Well-rounded learning has also been crucial for Springer. His jobs, from his early days teaching music at Kamehameha School to teaching history, social studies, philosophy and humanities, have offered him opportunities to build on his education. He also helped establish the Good Beginnings Alliance, testifying before the legislature in Washington D.C., for the good of keiki.

“I think the dullest thing you could do would be a job where you’re not learning anything new,” Springer said.

Springer had aspirations early in life to be either a physical education teacher or a professional football player, but it turned out his strength was providing support for teachers.

“Schools are places to change behavior,” Springer said. “And if you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job. My job is to not get into the spotlight. It’s teachers who matter.”

He oversees 42 of them, including third-grade teacher Lynda Liesse.

“I’ve worked under a lot of headmasters – seven before him – I really like how he tries to listen to people and never takes the power away from the teacher,” she said. “He always gives as much as he asks you to give.”

That generosity extends to his commitment to also teach at least one class himself each year.

“If you don’t continue to teach in the classroom, you forget the pressures the teachers are under,” Springer said. “When administrators don’t, I feel there is a gap there that is unfortunate.”

And while he pauses to splurge with his occasional indulgence of pancakes and bacon at a weekend breakfast in Poipu with his wife, Springer will continue to challenge himself to learn even after he retires in June – reading biographies, essays and novels and maybe an occasional poem or two. And then there is his cherished 40-year marriage to his wife.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said.


Lisa Ann Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at


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