January 2019 Upper School Principal Column

Jon Leef, Interim Upper School Principal

One of the reassuring aspects of life as an educator is the cycle of school years. Student orientation leads to the first day of class, which leads to the first athletic contests, which lead to the fall play, which leads to the first marking period, and you get the idea. Sometimes I forget that our students and their parents and guardians don't go through as many of these cycles as my colleagues and I do!

Now we are two weeks away from wrapping up a semester. In a few weeks, grades and comments will be sent to you through the parent portal. That is a part of the school cycle with which I have empathy for you. Currently, my two sons are in college, and when I log onto the parent portal I find invoices, but no comments. But when they were in high school, at semester's end, when comments arrived, I had to remember to take off my teacher hat and wear my dad hat. Getting my two adolescents to reflect on the semester in conversation was difficult. Is it challenging for you, too? I would remind myself: "Don't ask yes or no questions!" "Don't lecture." "Make sure to leave them in a 'good place.'"

Ask your students about something from the semester that they are particularly proud of or something that they might do differently during the second semester. Which comments resonate most strongly with them and why? Ask your students whether there were any surprises in the comments and what made them surprising? Ask good questions and wait patiently for the answers. Listen to understand and not to respond.

This stage of the school cycle sees the beginning of a transition for my colleagues in the College Counseling Office. Seniors begin to make decisions, and juniors begin to wonder about opportunities. For seniors, the pending separation inches closer. Second semester milestones seem to approach suddenly and quickly disappear in the rearview mirror.

Many years ago, I was talking with two mothers at a second-semester reception for the parents of seniors. One was the mother of Michael, one of the better football players that I have ever coached. The other was the mother of Geoff, a young man that I had the good fortune of teaching in two math courses during his high school career—though Geoff had the ability to teach himself math! These moms told me that their sons had been best buddies during the elementary and middle school years. As the teenage years progressed, the boys had moved to different social groups. They considered themselves friends, but did not have much to do with each another.

Michael's mom then confided in us. "I can't tell you how many times Michael cried while struggling to do his homework. He used to ask me why he couldn't be more like Geoff." Geoff's mom followed by telling about the numerous teary conversations that she had with Geoff as he lamented not being able to "throw the ball like Michael can." We laughed and got a bit sentimental.

I will always remember the passion that these young men brought to the table. Michael liked his intellectual pursuits even if they were a challenge. Geoff knew more about the minutia of athletics than most hosts of sports-talk programs, even though he couldn't heave the ball downfield. Michael was thoroughly loyal to the teachers who challenged him most, and Geoff loved the coaches who worked with him on throwing the elusive spiral. One thing they had in common were loving, nurturing, patient moms who asked great questions and then listened. I learned a great deal from them.

As you have your conversations reflecting on the first semester, please remember that we are ALL lifelong learners, and our children are works of art in progress, not finished products. The cycle continues.