Assistant Head of School

It’s prime hiring season at Berwick, and one of my favorite aspects of that work is the moment during an interview when I’ve exhausted my questions, and I turn it over to the candidate for any questions he or she might have. In some cases, the individual is “questioned out” after running the gauntlet of our full day process, which admittedly, can be exhausting. Others offer what appears to me to be a fairly run-of-the-mill question that they prepared because they feel it’s a requirement of the interview process to have questions for every person they meet. But the best moments, the ones I enjoy most, are when candidates challenge me with a question about school culture or about our collective educational philosophy. I’d much rather try to wax poetic on those big picture ideas than to simply provide them with concrete, logistical information that they could easily find on our website.  

Recently, one candidate looked across the table and asked me: “It’s clear that the faculty and administration have been working hard to implement the goals of Curriculum 2020, but what role do the students play in making that vision a reality?”

It was a great question in that, while we often survey students about their school experiences and have recently engaged them in open conversations about our schedule, about new pinnacle courses in our Upper School, and about student life initiatives, more often than not in schools, implementing a vision is the work of the adults and not the kids.  

I found myself in the midst of an uncomfortable pause as I contemplated the candidate’s question. Suddenly, I was in the hot seat. But after a moment of stammering, I realized that our students’ contributions to implementing Curriculum 2020 reside in the approach they bring with them to Berwick every day. I explained to the candidate that I attended a large public school in Rhode Island, and was always a strong student, but that I did everything in my power to ensure that that information remained a well-kept secret because I was worried about being teased or picked on for earning good grades.  

“At Berwick,” I explained, “our students come to school every day ready to engage.  They don’t drag their feet. They don’t keep their head down in the back of the room, hoping not to be called on by their teachers. Of course, they’re kids and they look forward to weekends and snow days like any other students would, but by and large, when they arrive at Berwick in the morning, they come prepared to immerse themselves in the opportunities afforded them. They get involved in class discussions. They volunteer for Innovation Pursuits. They seek out opportunities to get on stage and push outside their comfort zones.”  

All the time, I see students walking from Fogg to lunch with their peers, but I also frequently see them walking alongside a teacher, extending a discussion beyond the bell that signaled the end of the previous class period. This sort of thing simply doesn’t happen in schools everywhere. As a tenth grade English teacher, I’ve savored those moments when they occur: class ends, but a student remains behind to share some research they’ve done on their own about the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth or to show me a story on the internet which uses one of our recent vocabulary words.

Going back to my teaching candidate’s question, I believe that the role our students play in making the vision of Curriculum 2020 a reality is the way they take ownership of their learning.

Independent and public schools all over the country have been touting student-centered learning for years now. It’s the right model for contemporary times. Gone are the days of teachers simply lecturing and spouting information for students to retain while sitting passively. Any school worth its salt is taking a more constructivist approach in which students learn in collaboration with their classmates and their teachers. That is the essence of student-centered learning. And while I believe we do this well at Berwick, I don’t believe it is unique to the Hilltop. But our Curriculum 2020 goals don’t challenge us to simply be student-centered in our approaches, Berwick has intentionally chosen the term student-directed, which speaks to ownership and positions students as stakeholders in what happens in the classrooms and on campus.  

Not long ago, a colleague shared with me that she feels guilty at times because her students can become so engaged in a group project that they will work for an entire class period and beyond without needing much in the way of guidance from her. Of course, she’s there to answer questions, facilitate the process, and make sure the kids remain productive, but the traditional model of kids waiting at their desks for the teacher to give them the next instructions doesn’t exist in those moments. The students are driving, rather directing, their learning. And we are seeing this kind of ownership all the time. Recently, an educational consultant visiting campus challenged our faculty to reject the common misconception that student learning can only happen when the teacher is present with them in the classroom. Kids learn, he shared, in the halls, over the internet, at lunch, during common periods – in moments when we as the adults are not present. This truth brings us back to the critical nature of fostering student-directed learning.

I don’t mean to suggest that teachers are no longer necessary – of course that’s not the case.  However, I do believe that the role of the teacher has shifted significantly. Our work is as much about designing and preparing learning experiences beforehand as it is about what happens during the actual class period. Student-directed learning asks teachers to be facilitators rather than fountains of information. It also asks students to come to school ready to buy in and immerse themselves in what we offer. And in that light, our students are ready, willing, and able to lead us forward as we implement the vision of Curriculum 2020.

-Ryan Feeley
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Serving Maine, The Seacoast of New Hampshire, and the North Shore of Massachusetts

Berwick Academy, situated on an 80-acre campus just over one hour north of Boston, serves 600 students, Pre-Kindergarten through grade 12, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Deeply committed to its mission of promoting virtue and useful knowledge, Berwick Academy empowers students to be creative and bold. Berwick strives to graduate alumni who shape their own learning, take risks, ask thoughtful questions, and come to understand and celebrate their authentic selves.  Founded in 1791 and rooted in a tradition of college preparation, our culture of innovation prepares students for a complex and dynamic world.