Letter from Quarantine

Full-Strength Watkinson

This wasn’t what any of us expected. But we know where to hold fast.

by Teri Schrader, Head of School

When we began this period, a few long months ago, our goal was to keep being our real selves for as long as we could. Full-strength Watkinson. We knew that we didn’t want to water down the curriculum. We didn’t go pass/fail, in spite of what many other schools were doing. There’s a kind of stress we want to alleviate for our students, and there’s a different kind of stress, or expectation might be a better word, that we actually do want them to feel. We still want kids to think carefully about the quality of their achievement. Good writing still needs to be good writing. How much of the good writing is required, or the deadlines for good writing… now, those things might change during this time. But our standards are still the standards. That’s why people are coming to this school, after all. At the same time, we know that we have to stay iterative and responsive, to make appropriate acknowledgements to new realities. If we’ve implemented a plan and all the kids and all the parents are saying “Ouch,” then we’ll listen and change; we won’t just cling to the policy. But, in general, on principle, we’re going to try and keep bringing the real Watkinson.

What makes it especially challenging is that a Watkinson education has never been about completing worksheets or packets of assignments. The kind of teaching we do here is nuanced, demanding, and based on trust in relationship. How do you maintain trust when you don’t have the feel of the room to rely on? Because when teachers are doing their best teaching, they are going to be making their students uncomfortable. We know that discomfort is required for intellectual growth and for courage to emerge. And Watkinson is a place where you’re consistently asked, as a student, to move beyond what you thought were your limits. Historically, what has made that possible is that your teacher is standing right there by your side, saying, “I know you don’t think you can do it, but I know you, and I know you can. And I’m here.” The teacher is there to pay attention to the collective and the individual energy of the room. How do we give that support when we’re not there? How do we maintain trust, and continue to build it?

google hangouts

Different kinds of trust

And we’re talking about trust on a couple of different levels. At the first Jack Chatfield Speaker Series Evening, a few years ago, our alum Richard Plepler, former chairman of HBO, said, “You have to trust your talent.” That’s what we do here. As a collective community, you set parameters and then you trust your talent. As a leader, it’s essential that I be trusted. And then, as the head of Watkinson, I know that I trust the teachers in this school to do great work. It’s not that they go off on their own and have 50 different mini-schools, because they’re each a different person. Rather, we build a tent together and then let people move freely, exercising their best professional judgement.

Secondly, teachers have to trust themselves during this time. This situation has stripped teachers of some of their most important props. It’s laid them bare. There’s no room, no materials, no kinesthetic active experience in a space designed for learning. It’s just little boxes on a screen. So teachers have to trust their curricula and their educational practices. They have to trust that bringing their best will work in this diminished environment — and they have to trust their own judgement and response as to what is working, and what needs to be revised or adapted or added or scrapped.

Then, students have to trust their school and their teachers. They have to trust that technology will work, and that we’re doing the best we can do to approximate being together. And they have to trust that their work will be looked at carefully and that the dyad they’re in with their teacher will persist, that they can continue to be who they’ve been.

Remember, what we’re doing now is what we had to invent on a dime. It’s kind of inspiring to wonder what it will be when we have a little time to plan it.

Partially this is possible because, by springtime, we have six months of school under our belts and can draw on a tremendous existing well of trust, which has been growing since the beginning of the year. It’s a multi-way contract. Together we’ve developed a collective trust that the relationships will hold, that teachers will listen and respond, that students won’t let themselves be intimidated and turned off, that they won’t rescind their agreement to ascend to the work they’re being asked to do. And our families trust the school to hold a safe space that supports intellectual growth.

Trust is also made possible by the beautiful fact that students and teachers want to be in relationship here. That desire and intention goes a long way toward allowing healthy discomfort to flourish in spite of the lousy kind of discomfort we’re all currently enduring.

Learning as we go

We’re iterating. The first thing we learned, on day four, was that we needed synchronous time, live interaction, for Watkinson to work. So we determined that, on every day your class would normally meet, your class will actually meet — no “good luck with that, see you later.” Because there is no trust without proving that you’re up to it. You can’t break the promises of being with your kids. So classes meet on their usual schedule on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Sometimes the online part might be a check-in at the beginning and a check-in at the end of the block; sometimes it’s a longer lesson. But they’re meeting live, one way or another, every block.

Wednesdays have become an opportunity for student initiation and leadership. Clubs and affinity groups meet on Wednesdays; athletics is running RamFam workouts for the community to do together. We also hold an online All-School Meeting.

There are times when, like everyone else, I am just experiencing the poignancy of all this, grieving the loss of so much of what we think is magic about this school. We grieve the loss of All-School Meeting in person, of walking between the white trees outside the theater in spring, the river of daffodils in memory of Marcia Buch, the impromptu cookouts on the front lawn. Those losses are almost unbearable. And of course it’s because we miss each other but it’s also because there’s a collective beauty to our school when it’s up and running. You can’t be aware of the sadness and also not try to look for how we’ll come back from it.

And we will come back — or, more accurately, come forward. It will be different. We have moved into a strange new world. We don’t navigate it perfectly every minute or day or even week. But we’re getting better at it because we allow ourselves to acknowledge how hard it is. We also keep asking: What’s the right hard? Is it hard because there’s a pandemic going on? Nothing we can do about that. Is it hard because it’s too much work? Let’s adjust. Is it hard because it’s difficult material? That’s the kind of hard we want to keep, the energy and heft our students deserve.

The keepers

As well, some aspects of our new setup are really working. For instance, some of our kids are doing better than ever, because they’re able to move themselves into a place free of distraction. So we look at what can we be grateful for, what we can harvest from this experience. This virus is probably going to be with us for a long time to come, and we may have to repeatedly toggle back and forth between on-campus and virtual distance schooling. So what insights can we glean, what instructional protocols can we develop, regarding ways of thinking and collaborating and honest ways of connecting? What are the keepers? Remember, what we’re doing now is what we had to invent on a dime. It’s kind of inspiring to wonder what it will be when we have a little time to plan it. If any school has the capacity to reflect the heck out of what we’ve just done and carry it productively into the future, that school is Watkinson. Inventive learning is what this school has always been about.

When you have committed, creative, honest people with integrity, people joined by purpose, you can’t help but emerge a smarter version of yourself. What we’ve come to understand, over the last few months, is that we can learn when we’re uncertain. We can think when we’re afraid. We can be Watkinson when we’re distant. In discomfort, curiosity, and trust, we move forward together.

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