Why a Nurturing Community Matters in College and in High School

Charles Blow of The New York Times recently wrote an op-ed that captures well what great boarding schools doand what I’ve seen here these last two years. Blow writes in response to a study about colleges but I would argue that a learning environment like the one he describes is even more relevant in the high school years than in college and is more likely to happen in a boarding school than in a day school:

—teachers who go the extra mile, because they love to, not because they are forced. That extra mile takes the form of teachers getting to know students individually and knowing and thinking about what makes teenagers tick. Great teachers are often like sociologists and anthropologists in the way they approach their classroom, their advisee group, their cast, dorm or team. Boarding schools, particularly those that hold on to the teacher-coach-dorm parent/advisor model, create more opportunities for faculty to learn about students and “earn the right to be heard” by them

—develop student confidence that creates a positive feedback loop—which great teachers and coaches intentionally disrupt to point out, firmly and clearly and gently, that not everything that comes out of a student’s mouth, pen, or computer is great just because the student said or wrote it (it’s not good for students if we become a place where everyone gets a blue ribbon just for showing up, trying out, or auditioning)

Here’s an excerpt from Blow:

surrounded by professors who were almost parentally protective and proud of me — encouraging me to follow my passions (Yes, start that magazine, Charles), helping me win internships, encouraging me to go away and work for a semester, and cheering me on as I became a member of a fraternity and editor of the student newspaper. And, because of them, I emerged from college brimming with confidence — too much at times, depending on whom you ask — and utterly convinced that there was nothing beyond my ability to achieve, if only I was willing to work, hard, for it.

And here is the study that prompted the column in the first place.

Poetry Month

As a fitting tribute to the end of national poetry month, I share with you a poem by Isabel Martin, daughter of English Department Chair, Richard Martin, and Laura Martin ’90, Co-President of the Alumni Association. It speaks for itself. If you grew up on a boarding school campus, either as the child of a faculty member or as a student surrounding by faculty children, you’ll relate. Enjoy!

I am from The Gunnery

By Isabel Martin

I am from the round table,

Covered in food,

Surrounded by smaller kids,

I am from the dining hall,

I am from the loud shouts of Go Gunnery,

The tree with the big swing,

And the crack of a bat,

I am from the Baseball field,

I am from falling asleep with the sound of shouting,

The creaky old stairs,

And the TV so loud that it sounds like it’s in my room,

I am from an old dorm,

I am from a village of students,

So many I can’t count,

Dogs in every house and screaming kids running in bare feet,

I am from the Gunnery.

Failing Well

I found myself on ice regularly this winter. At the school’s rink, to be more precise, every Sunday afternoon with my three year old daughter taking advantage of the town’s “Family Skate.” I don’t really know how to skate so it’s overstating it to say that I was teaching her to skate. What I could do was get her out to the middle of the rink and encourage her to try to move. Of course, the first few times she tried to do so she fell down, which came as a bit of a shock. Eventually she wanted off and eventually I complied. Absent the ability to instruct any more specifically about what to do, I found myself repeating, “But if you don’t fall down, you’re not learning.”

The unwitting truth in that phrase reminded me that it applies to people who are thirteen and thirty as much as it does to three year olds. Falling down on the ice—failing—hurts. It hurts physically (I put myself in the infirmary as a boarding school student trying too aggressively to learn to skate…and hadn’t skated again until this winter) and emotionally (I haven’t yet met the person who enjoys falling in public). And the same goes for falling down in other contexts—whether learning in a classroom or leading a school. But, at the risk of a cliché, it’s from the process of attempting and failing that we learn. Which means that one of the most important things we can do as educators, parents, and leaders is to create the context within which it is safe to go through this process and to do so publicly.

A book about leadership that I’ve been reading recently, James Kouzes’s and Barry Posner’s The Truth About Leadership, makes this point nicely at the adult level:

Whenever you’re challenging the status quo, whenever you’re tackling demanding problems, whenever you’re making meaningful changes, whenever you’re confronting adversity, you will sometimes fail. Despite how much you see challenge as an opportunity, despite how focused you can be, despite how driven you are to succeed, there will, no doubt, be setbacks. Think again about leaders throughout history who are remembered for their greatness. Some lost battles, some were imprisoned, some saw their businesses shut down, and most were ridiculed while trying to achieve the extraordinary. Mistakes happen. Defeats occur. Failure is inevitable. None of these are dirty words to leaders. Rather, they are signs that you’re doing something tough, exacting, and out-of-the-ordinary. That’s why you need grit. It’s also why you need to see failure as learning.

I argue that this can apply equally well to students, which means one of the tasks of teachers is to teach towards this—something that is perhaps more complicated or nuanced than teaching towards a test. In this same chapter, Kouzes and Posner quote now-famous University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, and her work on grit. Defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” grit “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

This is not to condone mediocrity or poor performance. Failing continually at the same thing is closer to madness than to learning. Instead, this speaks to the importance—for adults and students alike—to cultivate the willingness to grow, learn, experiment, and, yes, fail, even if your mom isn’t there to pick you up.