Berwick Mission: Berwick Academy, founded in 1791, is dedicated to promoting virtue and useful knowledge among the rising generations.
The timing is opportune to write about our mission as we bade our seniors farewell this month. If our mission is appropriate and effective, we should have 77 virtuous seniors filled with useful knowledge spending their final hours in Berwick classrooms. Can I sit here today and state, “Mission accomplished!” for our soon-to-be-graduates? I can say that we have promoted virtue and useful knowledge, but both are tough concepts to define, much less teach. We can model our interpretations of them, give examples of them, discuss them, and create opportunities for our students to engage in them, all with the goal of “promoting” them as our mission states. Teaching virtue and useful knowledge, however, is a trickier endeavor.
“Useful knowledge” is an easier concept to tackle, and Berwick is ahead of the curve with our focus on skills over content. Unlike when you and I grew up, content on any topic imaginable is now available at our fingertips. Some useful knowledge has not changed – very briefly and broadly stated, we all need to know how to read and write (both in a couple of languages, hopefully!), analyze passages and historical events, use our musical and creative talents, conduct experiments, and do math. It is not as important, however, to retain the details of certain content areas that were once the primary focus of a curriculum. For example, rather than recite Civil War dates and battlefields, it is now more important for students to understand the factors behind the start of the war, or the research process that goes into writing a paper about the war. Rather than retain the nuances of every character from a great American novel, it is more important for us to grasp the skills of deciphering a passage or writing an analytical paper. Content still matters, but skills are more useful in preparing students for college and beyond. At Berwick, we promote useful knowledge now more than ever.
Can virtue be learned, or is it something that we are just born with (or without)? I asked a similar question about leadership a few years ago for an article in the Berwick Today. One could argue that virtue, along with leadership, ranks among certain characteristics that come inherently; textbooks and roadmaps do not exist for these subjective traits. In one attempt at such a roadmap, three years ago we adopted a new Honor Code in the Upper School, which was generated after a full year of work by a student/faculty committee. Each September in a class meeting, the Grade Deans, Class Advisors, and Student Government review this statement with the students in each grade and every student signs the code, which is then posted in that class’ traditional “hangout” space all year long. The teachers all do the same and our framed version of the Honor Code hangs over our water cooler in the Fogg faculty room. Here is our Upper School Honor Code:
“Members of the Berwick community recognize the important role each of us has in maintaining the values and spirit of our school both on and off campus. We strive every day to handle success and failure with honesty, perseverance and a growth mindset.
We believe that:
Valuing academic honesty means completing and handing in work that represents one’s
own learning and thoughts.
Honorable behavior is reflected in one’s choices and in taking responsibility for one’s
Respectful behavior includes a positive attitude, generous spirit, and a genuine concern
for ourselves, for others and for the community.
Everyone actively participates in ensuring our campus and grounds are treated with care.
Personal integrity is what most governs our community.
As a member of this community, I believe that we all have a shared responsibility to uphold these ideals.”
There is a classic story (whose origin I do not know – this is my rough recollection) of a mother and her two young children on a crowded subway in a big city. The children are behaving abhorrently, running around, bumping into passengers, and creating chaos on a packed train as the mother texts away frantically on her phone, seemingly oblivious to her children’s poor behavior and doing nothing to correct it. The other passengers are glancing at each other and glaring at the woman, wondering why she is not dealing with her ill-behaved kids. Finally, a stranger who had been observing the scene passively, approaches the woman and simply asks, “Can I help?”.
We talk a lot about helping each other in the Upper School, and a big part of virtue is exactly that: reaching out to support someone in need. Whenever I address the school ahead of – or in the midst of – a significant moment for the community, a consistent theme in my comments to the students and faculty is, “Let’s support each other.” Let’s help each other to navigate whatever challenging situation we are in; that personal outreach is one measure of virtue, a trait that affects others. Virtue is not a selfish or self-promoting characteristic. Rather, a virtuous act will positively impact someone else, often leaving no tangible result for the virtuous person. And like many important qualities, virtue often goes unseen.
Back on the subway train, the mother bursts into tears when the man asks if he could help. She explains to him that they’ve just been at the hospital and received terrible news about the kids’ father and her husband, that the children do not know how to handle the information, and the mother is relaying the bad news to her husband’s family via a group text. That admission by the woman is not what the other passengers assumed as they watched the scene unfold.
Among the challenges of a PreK-12 school that espouses a mantra of “three divisions and one school” is finding common goals, philosophies, and pedagogies applicable to all in our community. Those challenges are one reason our revamped mission statement is effective. It is straightforward (though not simple) and broadly applicable to four year olds, 14 year olds, and 64 year olds: virtue and useful knowledge. Nothing fancy in there, but virtue rarely is. While hard to define, we all know it when we see it. Just like leadership – easy to spot, hard to articulate, and even harder to teach.
Traditionally, elementary schools have focused as much on kindness and doing the right thing as academic fundamentals. Our Lower School has its own mission of sorts, with “Be kind, be honest, be safe” posted on the walls throughout the building. Mr. Hawes and his faculty talk about those words, which could all be summed up on one simple word: virtue. Our Middle School Social and Emotional Learning program (SEL) across each grade is ultimately the same idea: promoting virtue for our students on a regular basis. One of the culminating courses for our eighth graders is Ethics, a course where they unwrap the word virtue on a daily basis.
However, only a generation ago, high schools tended to focus largely, if not solely, on academics, trusting that virtue was learned from a dusty handbook, an honor code or a stern master teacher. All of those different sources would drive arguments rooted in subjectivity, making a common mission all the more challenging. When we developed our Honor Code in the Upper School two years ago, it took a committee of students and faculty wordsmithing and verbally sparring for months ahead of a final document. The bottom line, really, is that we hope the tenets of our Honor Code mean one thing: virtue.
Is it possible to teach virtue? Professional development workshops for “teaching virtue to a teen”do not exist. You can lay out what you believe are important virtues, but again, that will be a largely subjective lesson and even there, teaching a person to abide by those virtues is entirely different. Even teaching the importance of being virtuous would drive us further down the subjective road. Perhaps they got it right on 227 years ago when our mission was written and “promoting virtue” is the best we can hope for. Or perhaps instilling virtue is a more achievable goal, and this is where our School thrives.
We place value on virtue in all forums of our community. Virtue matters in our classrooms above all in terms of academic integrity, but it comes across in subtler ways, too: allowing everyone an opportunity to express their opinion on a topic; active listening when a teacher or classmate is speaking, even if their comment may not interest you; respectful and measured responses to a comment, even if their opinion differs from yours. These things matter in and out of our classrooms which is why things like “Disrespect” and “Behavior Detrimental to our Community” are listed under our major infractions in our Handbook.
Virtue matters in our extracurricular pursuits, too. My favorite Upper School social event is our Coffeehouse, which I have chaperoned regularly for all of my years at Berwick. It is a warm, welcoming environment where students share their wide-ranging talents. Sometimes, a polished duo gets up to play a song they have practiced and honed over weeks and months. The more compelling acts, though, are the first-timers, the younger students who get up and admit that they have never once played in public. And while the audience can tell the difference in skill and experience of those two acts, the louder, longer applause invariably goes to the rookies. I have never once heard a “boo” in our theater and I have witnessed some pretty awful class dances or forgotten cues. On our athletic fields, courts and rinks, Berwick has won the league sportsmanship title repeatedly over the years. As a soccer coach, I have sometimes had to beg our players to “get edgier” and stop being so nice to the opposition. All of this kind behavior comes from the promotion of it by our directors, coaches, faculty, and staff.
Even over in our school-wide library, a place where virtue may not appear to have a role, there is a sign over the water fountain outside the restrooms used by PreK-12 students and faculty all day long. It reads: “Stop before you speak and T-H-I-N-K,” written as an acronym that asks “is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Nice, Kind.” Virtue matters to us in every corner of our campus, at every age level.
On the subway, the man places his hand gently on the woman’s elbow, expresses his sympathy, gets up to help rein in the boys and brings them back quietly to the seats. The rest of the passengers go back to their own phones and back into their own lives, shaking their heads in disbelief rooted in their assumptions about this woman and her children.
There is a lot in that story, which could be the basis for an entire essay in and of itself. I share it here because there is no teacher or book that taught the virtue the man showed in several ways: first, in not judging the woman and making assumptions about her behavior or her children’s. Simply, he saw a person in need and reached out to help and support her. Second, he listened to a complete stranger’s personal story, and empathized with her. He comforted her in a time of need. Finally, he did what he could in that moment to help, giving this struggling parent a brief respite in a challenging time. Virtuous acts, all of them, and ones that are difficult to teach, and also went virtually unnoticed by the other judgemental passengers.
At Berwick Academy, across all divisions and in every building and on every field, we have a lot of people like the man on the train. People who go out of their way to help others in subtle ways, and who make a difference in fellow community members’ lives. I return to our Honor Code, and my favorite tenet: “Respectful behavior includes a positive attitude, generous spirit, and a genuine concern for ourselves, for others and for the community.” From our three year olds to our 18 year olds, we promote virtue and useful knowledge the way we have for 227 years. I can think of no better mission for a school in 2018.