From the Middle by Dean of Students Marcela Maldonado
A colleague recently asked what has been most surprising since going from full-time teaching to being dean of students. My response was that, interestingly, I spend far more time talking to adults than I do to kids. This is hardly a complaint; indeed, getting to know my colleagues in new ways has opened up a window into the heart of this school that I simply had not anticipated.
My primary role as dean of students is responsibility for all issues of well being in the lives of our students, but this is hardly a solitary venture. Many kids assume that I am the enforcer of the rules – and while true to some extent, it is (mercifully!) only a small part of what I do. I primarily help to create and implement both short and long-term plans for various aspects of student life and programming. Nice enough… but I am a teacher at heart, and so finding new ways of what it means to “teach” within the parameters of this role has become a primary objective for me.
I have spent a lot of time these past few weeks watching and listening to students, be they in the Peer Help Program (PHP) that I co-lead, or in my Personal Development class of sophomores, or in my Politics & Ethics class filled with seniors. And I have certainly been conscious of those I have witnessed and heard from the assembly stage. This is no different from what I’ve been doing in the various meetings I’m involved in daily with colleagues, in large groups or individually, casually in the hallway between class periods, or those contrived to discuss some issue at hand.
In each of these settings, I’ve been quite conscious of the notion introduced by Bridget Johnson, former dean of students at Milton Academy, this summer to a group of “newbies” in this field, that “being a dean of students means knowing how to be adept at leading from the middle.” Bridget was harkening back to William P. Robinson’s book, outlining that to lead from the middle means to influence from among and positioning ourselves alongside, working shoulder to shoulder, and living at the center of our mission.
To do so is to work at consciously building a well-functioning community, in and out the classroom, and to look for the teachable moments in each interaction. Working with an extraordinary group of devoted teachers, learning the depths of care and concern by the adults in this community, and together comprehensively attending to the whole child in our midst, has been a real privilege to witness. But our students are no different in that regard, as they seek to understand what honesty, compassion, and commitment to community looks like, even as we enjoy the surprises and unpredictability of these years in their lives.
So in thinking about what it means “to teach”, it has to also include that which is necessary for students to walk away from here, fully able to face the world in front of them. And this would be impossible to do without instilling in them a sense of self-reliance. “Self-reliance” is an old-fashioned, Emerson-inspired concept, often used as a synonym for the idea of “independence.” But these are not, in fact, the same thing. Independence is a state of being, while self-reliance involves possessing concrete tools and skills, and knowing how and when to access these to solve the inevitable challenges ahead. These are not just tools to persevere, but also the emotional skills and coping mechanisms necessary to respond to tough moments.
Teaching kids to be self-reliant, of course, isn’t easy. It goes against that which has become normative in our culture today. We all think failure is good…but not on our watch! And so we hold them back from the stumble. But adolescents are deeply invested in identity formation, and rely on our influence to help them figure out who they are and what they need to effectively traverse the high wire of life.
So as I continue to look for new ways to “teach,” I’m also finding out that to be a good teacher you have to be an even better student: attentive to what’s in front of you, listening to the nuances of conversations, hearing for what is not said as much as what is clear. It means not getting ahead of folks or lagging behind to what is at hand, but allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to sit in the middle and in their midst, be it a student or colleague, and let them tell you what they need. And for our students, what they need may not always be what we’re ready to give them: not just wings, but the opportunity to leap.