What Teachers Learn from Students

Any teacher worth his or her salt can tell you stories about inspirational students–and there’s something special about the independent school experience that creates these inspirational moments on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s because so many independent schools place a special emphasis on values. Whether they call it ethics, character education, or something else entirely, these schools have the time, the resources, and the drive to help students develop into generous, determined, and kind young men and women.

At Fessenden, we focus on three core values: honesty, compassion, and respect. We intentionally weave them into our curriculum and our culture, and share stories of our community members demonstrating these values. The following story, from Middle School Division Head Lulu Kellogg, illustrates just how special it is when our students remind faculty of these values.

I officially presented a basketball spin club as a spring offering. Unfortunately, the club did not form because signups were limited and another club happened to need my help. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my idea. I asked the boys who possess basketball spinning skills to demonstrate their expertise at a Morning Meeting. They did so and the Middle School cheered wildly. Then I attempted my spin, and the results were feeble. No cheering, but lots of encouragement. My “coaches,” the boys who did the demonstration, continue to be helpful and give me tips. […] We as adults are often the experts: teaching, correcting, and encouraging our boys. Sometimes the roles are reversed. As Anna in The King and I notes, “When you become a teacher, by your pupils you are taught.” I think Middle School boys relish the idea that we, too, are learning. We try new skills and sometimes the ball teeters and falls…. We try again. If we are brave enough, we make our attempts public. In other environments, where success trumps failure, our attempts might be considered laughable. Here at Fessenden, where failure is seen as a chance to grow, our boys support us in our efforts. How refreshing it is to work in a place where a twelve-year-old says to me, “Keep trying, Ms. Kellogg. I know you’ll get it someday!”

At many independent schools, failure is seen not as defeat, but as a chance to grow. And in a single-sex educational environment, students have even more freedom to take risks and try new things. Because they’re not posturing for the opposite sex, boys are far less inhibited. And they support each other, cheering each other on even when their efforts are still works-in-progress.

As adults, it’s sometimes easy to forget that failure is an integral part of our eventual success. No one gets it right on the first try. Patience, encouraging others, perseverance, optimism: these qualities are contagious. It’s a cycle; when teachers allow themselves to take risks or appear vulnerable, students see that it’s OK to not always have the answers or look like a pro. They internalize this message, trying new things and taking risks themselves–and, in turn, inspire and remind teachers to continue doing the same.

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