Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter

November 2014

Nobles Parents' Newsletter November 2014

Preparing Students for the 21st Century by Head of Upper School Michael Denning

One of the privileges of my new position is that it allows me to talk about Nobles with lots of people—faculty, students, parents and guardians, graduates, and prospective families. While I have been at Nobles for some time, the lenses through which I now view and evaluate our community are more wide-angled, and I have spent much of the last few months speaking with folks about our values, programs and people. In these anthropological exchanges, I have come to expect the following question: “What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Nobles today?” In one sense, I believe people use a question such as this one—or perhaps “What keeps you up at night?”—to gain some insight into my values, priorities and ways of thinking about schools and education, in general, and Nobles, in particular. And given my new responsibilities, this seems fair enough.

In another sense, these are nice questions for me to hear because, frankly, if the answers aren’t obvious, then things are probably going, on the whole, quite well. Certainly, we have our day-to-day challenges and difficult situations through which to work. And nothing keeps us up at night more than thinking about the safety and well-being of our students. However, by many quantitative and qualitative measures, Nobles is thriving. We are attracting and retaining outstanding students and educators; our students are enjoying excellent academic and co-curricular careers, ones that include many successful athletic contests, amazing instrumental, choral and theatrical performances, acceptances to outstanding colleges and universities, and many thousands of hours of work in the service of others. Most importantly, we know from our work with graduates that our students’ careers at Nobles are, in many respects, best understood in terms of the friendships they develop with their peers and the mentoring relationships they form with faculty, both of which continue long after graduation. The tremendous spirit of community that attracted me to Nobles 17 years ago is as strong and as palpable as ever, and there is no greater indicator of this than the myriad, substantial ways our graduates return to celebrate and support the school. 

Providing students with a great place to study and learn, make friends, and prepare to be excellent college/university applicants is an essential responsibility. However, it is not our only goal. Implied in our mission “to inspire leadership for the public good” is an obligation to ready our students to take responsibility for the health and prosperity of the communities they will live in long after their years of formal education have ended. We care deeply about the kinds of adults our students will become, and herein lies what I believe to be among the greatest challenges confronting Nobles: in an era of hyper-competition, specialization and individualism, how can we offer students all they need to become exceptional adults: professionals, partners/spouses, parents and community leaders? How, indeed, do we continue to simultaneously provide talented young people—ages 12 to 19—with:

  1. A safe, nurturing, kind community in which to spend their adolescent years;
  2. The rigorous academic training they will need to become competitive, successful applicants at the most selective colleges and universities and in the most challenging professional endeavors;
  3. The values, attitudes and habits of heart and mind that will enable them to offer leadership for the public good in an increasingly diverse, complex, dynamic and challenging world?

Achieving any one of these objectives is not easy. Yet, we must succeed in all three areas, even as we acknowledge how challenging it is and how the means for attaining any one goal will, at times, jeopardize another. Adolescence is a challenging, dynamic period. The physiological changes that occur in people from ages 13 to 19 are astounding, and our children must have a safe environment in which to experience these changes, and the challenges that tend to accompany them. Here, we lean on the relationship-based pedagogy that has been the foundation of our community since the school’s inception. It is not just the 5-1 student-faculty ratio that creates our nurturing community, but also the scaffolding and infrastructure we provide. Our faculty’s multifaceted involvement in their students’ lives—at Nobles, the same people who teach in our classrooms during the morning and early afternoons are also coaching, directing and supervising our afternoon program—is also an essential ingredient. Moreover, each student has an advisor, a class dean and, in the junior and senior years, a college counselor. And we have a student-life team of deans, counselors, nurses and learning specialists whose mandate is to look out for the health and safety of our community and its members. Simply put, we are proud of the ways in which we nurture and keep safe our students. 

In our academic classrooms, we must inspire excellence and prepare our students to compete and succeed both in the college-admission process and in whatever professional fields they enter. Indeed, we support our students as they strive to earn the highest possible grades and to achieve the greatest level of competency (and in many cases, mastery) in our classrooms, labs, art studios, practice rooms and performance venues. But while outstanding intellectual abilities are necessary for many leadership endeavors, we know they are not sufficient.

For nearly 150 years, Nobles has understood that leaders come in all forms and leadership training happens both in and out of our academic classrooms. Two years ago, the board of trustees affirmed these core beliefs by asking us to consider our many co-curricular offerings—in athletics, the performing arts, community service, service learning and academic travel—as part of an Experiential and Community Engaged Learning (EXCEL) initiative, arguing that in order to inspire leadership for the public good, our students needed:

  • The ability to solve complex problems;
  • The wisdom and empathy to recognize and appreciate the importance of context;
  • The confidence to take appropriate risks and to tackle difficult challenges;
  • The humility to know when and how to ask for help;
  • The ability to interact and collaborate with individuals from diverse backgrounds;
  • An understanding of the importance of persuasive, effective communication;
  • The ability to innovate;
  • A belief in the importance of ethical decision-making;
  • The desire to make a difference for others and to have greater community engagement.

In short, through working collaboratively as part of service groups (locally, nationally and internationally), athletic teams, theatrical and musical ensembles, and community-leadership responsibilities, our students would develop the attitudes andcompetencies essential to 21st-century leadership.

Helping students to find the right balance between intellectual depth and breadth, specialization and diversity, hard work and rejuvenation—these are big challenges. Helping to develop healthy kids, excellent college applicants and outstanding adult leaders—these are big challenges, too. And in an era where colleges and universities seem more and more to be looking for specialists and valuing, in the words of the late Princeton Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon, “only that which they can measure,” we—educators and parents—have to meet the challenge of helping our students to become the healthy, wise and impactful adults we all will need them to be.

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Dedham, Massachusetts
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If you have questions, comments or suggestions for this newsletter, email Kim Neal at