Letter of the Week: Engagement
Letter of the Week: Engagement

Yesterday I visited various classes in all three divisions. There were a number of observations that stood out, but none more than the engagement between students and teachers in all three divisions. And truthfully, on only the sixth day of classes, this level of absorption was hard to fathom. That is, during this brief time back at school, our students have already adjusted and engaged with multiple teachers.

Analogously, I cannot imagine taking a new job and making similar adjustments in terms of comfort, engagement, and focus over the same period of time. Of course, when one probes just a bit deeper, the "how" and "why" of this becomes clear. As you have often heard me speak of what we call the Three Excellences—the essential integration of academic excellence, emotional intelligence, and character development—the quick acclimation to new teachers, classes, and classmates that I witnessed is a direct outgrowth of this integration. It is the emotional intelligence of our teachers, along with academic engagement in their courses, that inspires comfortable learning in our diverse student body from the get go.

Later that day, I heard from some teachers about how they specifically accomplish this level of comfortable and focused involvement so quickly. Here are just a few examples to give you a flavor of the diverse and creative approaches our faculty employ:

Lower School

  • In 1st Grade, students collaborated to come up with how they want to feel each day (loved, happy, and proud) and we created our class promise to be kind, follow directions, listen carefully, be respectful, and have fun!
  • As the 6th graders begin reading The Giver, they are asked to respond to the concept of sameness in a Utopian society. This opens up a wonderful conversation about our society and its advantages and disadvantages. Students are then asked to create, with zero expectations or boundaries, what their own utopia would like in a written response. Many of them write about universal kindness towards others, equality of rights and responsibilities, and mandatory acts of service within the community. The conversations, along with the written response, are very much student driven giving them a sense of ownership over their learning.

Middle School

  • In math, the very first thing I show the students on the first day of class is a big, colorful heart with the words "I CARE!" underneath it. I explain that I want them to put it in their hearts and minds, and keep it there. I go on to explain that I not only care about how they do in my class, but how their overall school experience goes, and their lives as a whole.
  • Besides presenting myself with a smile and a friendly demeanor, I used a slide and gave a mini-lecture on "safe space," including the fact that some colleges have been criticized for their safe spaces. Students in my class, however, must feel protected sharing their opinions because, like a democracy, if we are to choose the best ideas, we must first hear all those thoughts.

Upper School

  • I have all my students write me a letter. For example, I ask the 9th graders to tell me which middle school they attended, if they have interests in specific topics in history, what they feel their strengths are as students, what feels challenging or worrisome for them academically, and finally I ask them to give me a bit of insight into what their life is like outside of my classroom (long commutes, sports, outside activities, expectations, hobbies, etc). Then, I respond, very specifically, in an email to every single student.
  • I have the students take a multiple intelligences assessment and then share the results with me, allowing me to discuss how I can shape my teaching and lessons to better engage them.
  • In the first two weeks of school, I meet individually with each of my AP students to go over their first writing assignment on summer reading, and more importantly, to get to know them as individuals. We talk about their goals for the year in our class, what they see as their strengths and weaknesses in terms of writing skills and reading comprehension, what they did over the summer and something about their college plans. These conversations provide a very rewarding experience, giving the students and me an opportunity to make a connection right from the beginning.

Have a wonderful weekend and give your children the emotional space to unpack these first couple of weeks for you. Whether a walk, drive in the car, cooking a meal together, or any other type of informal engagement, give them both the time and the attention. They will surprise and delight you.

Dr. Mike


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