Almost There: The Challenges of Finishing Well by Head of Upper School Michael Denning
May is finally here. After the longest, snowiest winter in memory, the brilliant light, the longer days and the promise of spring’s bloom offer some measure of rejuvenation for nearly all of us. For those of us working in schools, however, the rebirth one sees and feels in the natural world is sometimes juxtaposed with the transition and fatigue-related challenges we see students, teachers and school communities encountering as they endeavor to conclude a busy and demanding academic year. Finishing well takes hard work, fortitude and discipline, and developing and maintaining the right attitude can make a big difference in achieving these. So, too, can students be bolstered when they recognize and acknowledge some of what they are feeling and see that just over the horizon is summer break, a crucial time for rest, reflection and rejuvenation. Many students will work hard throughout this final month, skipping nary a beat. However, if you are a parent or guardian of a student—even a senior— who is starting to lose a bit of steam, these ideas may resonate with you.
For seniors at Nobles, the transition process is already in full bloom. Indeed, commencement does not begin and end with the festivities and rituals of graduation week. Inasmuch as there are final games, performances, assessments and senior-project presentations preceding graduation exercises—and plenty of senior-spring events sprinkled throughout April and May—much of the real work of the spring for seniors is learning to finish well—to continue to nurture the relationships they have built over weeks, months and years while preparing to leave for the next stop on their educational journeys. For many seniors, this is a learning experience laden with emotion, and therein lie some of the challenges.
Because of the emotional obstacles that come both with transition and the challenge of finishing, the final weeks at Nobles will not and should not be any less demanding than the ones that preceded them, and it helps when the seniors are reminded of this. If the relationships formed during a Nobles experience and education have been all that we hoped for at the outset, then leaving Nobles should be as difficult as it is natural and appropriate. Celebrations of friendships and community and nostalgia and sadness must go hand-in-hand, and so it goes for many seniors. For those seniors who are able to acknowledge and embrace the emotional challenges, who understand that they are in a transition, and who work to take care of their relationships by trying to finish well, the experience of leaving is that much richer and rewarding.
For students in classes VI through II, the period from May 1 to the end of school is replete with challenges, including final tests, exams, essays, presentations, recitals, performances and exhibitions. End-of-year assessments feel different because after months of working collaboratively and closely with teachers, advisors, mentors and peers, students are often asked to demonstrate their learning, proficiency and growth on their own. As you might imagine, as finals approach and this reality sets in, a fair amount of pressure mounts. Indeed, for many students, these days can be longer and less temperate than those of this past February. When Shakespeare was writing about “the winter of our discontent,” he wasn’t commenting on the weather. And as I write about the challenges that come each spring, you can rest assured that I am not either. The kids are tired, and finding the energy and courage necessary to finish well is easier said than done.
Maximizing one’s preparation for final projects and exams takes organization, planning and determination. Although we can (and will) help with the former two, the latter is more challenging for all of us. Part of this has to do with what I believe is a relative lack of emphasis American culture seems to place on finishing a school year well. I find it ironic that while we do not hesitate to encourage actors to try so hard during a performance that they might risk “breaking a leg,” and we are quick to entreat athletes to invest so much that they “leave it all on the field,” we often refer to finals as something to “get through” and the school year as something that “winds down.” School years do not and should not “wind down.” Vacations wind down; nice dinners sometimes wind down; disappointing seasons often wind down. However, in my experience, very little learning happens at—and even less inspiration, confidence and resilience is derived from—events that simply wind down.
One of the most valuable aspects of an academic year is its finality. Exams and other end-of-year, culminating challenges offer students opportunities to synthesize and solidify the knowledge and skills they have learned and practiced throughout the year. And those who are able to rise to the occasion and strive to finish as strongly as possible gain—almost regardless of outcome—the ineffable benefits to character that come from completing what they started as best they were able. So, as we enter the homestretch, please work with us as we endeavor to help students to see the challenges of these last few weeks as just that—a stretch run—the last few feet of a long, amazing race whose end is in sight and whose finish line is well worth running through.