Self-described “school people” through and through, Elissa and Bill Wolf-Tinsman retire in June 2023 after dedicating a combined 37 years to Colorado Academy. They trace their connections to the school—and to each other—all the way back to the late 1980s, when they were both at the start of long and distinguished careers in education.
Elissa was a first-year teaching intern and field hockey coach at CA, and Bill was teaching history and coaching tennis and soccer at the Kent Denver School when, in 1988, they met playing pickup basketball with colleagues in CA’s old gymnasium. Over the next five years, their partnership blossomed, with Elissa quickly earning a full-time position in English and history and Bill becoming the Assistant Head of the Middle School at Kent Denver.
The two educators’ rapid rise would take them away from Colorado—but fortunately, not from each other. They married in the summer of 1993, and that fall, they moved to Cambridge, Mass., where they had both gained admission to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Yes—the now-married Wolf-Tinsmans went to grad school together, and then, Masters in hand, they both found positions at schools in Greenwich, Conn., where they stayed for 13 years and started a family.
“When we left Denver to go to Boston, I was so sad to leave CA,” Elissa says. “I felt so lucky to have found a calling here. I think I said to Bill at the time, ‘I’ll go, but only if you promise we’ll come back.’ And Bill replied, ‘Absolutely we’ll get back here.’”
In 2007 they did, landing jobs, together at the same school for the first time, at CA—Elissa as an Upper School English and social studies teacher and Bill as the new Middle School Principal. “Our children were school-age then,” Bill explains, “so we were very selective in terms of wanting to end up at a wonderful place. It was always clear that place was going to be Colorado Academy. What a compliment to Elissa’s first experience here and to what a great school CA is, that we really were very targeted on this one place in the entire country.”
A school and a family grow up together
As Elissa and Bill watched their children grow up at CA—their daughter, Story, attended from First Grade all the way through Twelfth, and their son, Chase, from Fourth through Ninth—they also witnessed, and influenced, the growth and evolution of the school itself.
“When I started in education, there was more of a ‘sage-on-the-stage’ model, which is predicated on every child learning in the same way,” Bill recalls. “But at CA, though the school has a rich, hundred-plus-year history, we’re always thinking about what we can do better for our students and families. So I’ve been privileged during my time here to be part of forward-thinking changes that recognize how different one child is from another.”
Bill was part of the team that developed CA’s “Six Cs”—critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, cultural competence, and character development—and worked with colleagues to see these essential 21st century skills integrated throughout the curriculum in every grade.
“Having the opportunity to think about what kids will need 20 years from now, and then working with administrative peers and teachers to help turn that vision into reality in the classroom—for an educator, it doesn’t get better than that,” he says.
Elissa, too, feels lucky to have played a role in CA’s evolving approach to teaching and learning. “As we’ve increasingly tried to address issues of race, gender, and political division in our social studies classrooms, I’ve felt so supported here in approaching these in a way that I think works best for our students. I value the participatory nature of our classes and the diversity of materials and viewpoints that we strive to include in our teaching. I’ve felt so trusted as an educator.”
Elissa’s student-centered approach to deep learning provided the model for one of CA’s newest initiatives—Advanced Studies and Research (ASR) courses, which go beyond the traditional AP curriculum to offer Upper School students the chance to pursue original, collaborative, multi-disciplinary research. “Through ASR,” she says, “we’re really asking what are the ways that we can help our students grow for the future. It’s about working together and learning together.”
Both Bill and Elissa point to making it through the COVID-19 pandemic as an important milestone in their careers as educators.
“The pandemic had such a huge impact on schools. Huge,” says Elissa. “I don’t know how CA could have done a better job with it, supporting us as faculty, students, parents—it was monumental.”
At the same time, she acknowledges, COVID-19 forever changed the way she sees her work. “You realize some of the stuff you take for granted, like teaching without a mask. In a good way, the pandemic allowed me to be so grateful for how special the relationships we have with our students really are.”
Bill is equally circumspect when reflecting on the impact of COVID-19. “It taught us how flexible we could be when we knew we truly needed to be there for the kids,” he says. “I remember one meeting early on with the Middle School faculty. We all agreed right off the bat that no matter what, school still needed to be fun: Even if it’s on screens, even if it looks different than it used to, these are kids, and helping them enjoy being young people is part of our job.”
A dual legacy
Being part of the community of faculty and staff that ensured CA could thrive through the pandemic is just one of the accomplishments that colleagues chalk up to the Wolf-Tinsman team. According to Elissa’s fellow teachers, “She was the intellectual pioneer of the Upper School, architecting our American Studies program and then teaching the first ASR course. She guided her students with equal measures of hard truth, tough love, reassurance, and affection. And Elissa inspired numerous teachers on long walks around campus that turned into profound and unexpected life lessons.”
Lizzie Welborn Rockmore ’90 was a CA Junior when Elissa first came to CA in 1988, and now Rockmore, a Second Grade teacher at CA, counts her former mentor and coach as one of her dearest friends. “Elissa pushed us to think and set us all on the lifelong search for truth. But she also took her role of caring for her students very seriously. That’s what makes Elissa such an exceptional teacher—she understands that knowing your curriculum is just one piece of being a master teacher. It’s also knowing your students.”
Of Bill’s legacy at CA, Head of School Dr. Mike Davis has said, “Bill Wolf-Tinsman has long established himself as someone with great compassion, empathy, high expectations, and exceptional moral character. He models so many aspects of the CA mission. He puts kids first, he rallies behind faculty, he takes on hard conversations, and he remains curious about teaching, learning, and those around him. As he helped to push this institution onto a path that embraced innovative, student-centered learning, Bill inspired so many to take on new challenges.”
There will be no escaping from challenges for the retired Wolf-Tinsmans, whose shared lifelong commitment to young people is sure to keep them involved in one way or another in something that’s “education-adjacent,” as Elissa puts it.
“I feel that I’ve learned so much here that I now have the ability and the time to consider what I can do to take some of the ideas and skills I’ve gained here on to some other endeavor,” she says.
“For me,” Bill adds, “there may well be a ‘So You’re Thinking about Being a Principal?’ book, for new principals or new administrators. And maybe I’ll get involved with schools in a supportive way, although I’m not exactly sure what that might look like.”
In the meantime, they’ll enjoy each other’s company, and for the first time in decades, not spend most of the summer planning and prepping course materials. “Knowing how much we love that work, it will be interesting to see how that goes,” Elissa observes.
Indeed, the Wolf-Tinsmans will probably remain pretty much who they are for the foreseeable future: partners, educators, and parents grateful to have been at home at CA.
“We are so fortunate to have been able to come back and spend the years here together,” Bill says. “It’s been great for us professionally; it’s been a great place for our kids. How lucky are they to have had such great experiences with caring, thoughtful teachers and administrators all the way through? How lucky have we all been?”