People who work in schools often speak of challenges, especially in terms of helping students learn to make the best of them. “Every challenge is an opportunity,” we say to students and to one another. But no one could have imagined the challenges that are facing every school these days.
In the case of Suffield Academy, the first plan was how to get international students home quickly. The next was, as in most other schools, how to organize distance learning programs, especially tricky when there are students from 20 foreign countries in at least a dozen different time zones. The school week and the school day were set up to be as convenient as possible for as many as possible, but inevitably some students were attending virtual classes in the middle of the night or the wee hours of the morning.
Suffield Academy has always focused on the well-being of its students first, so after seeking feedback, the schedules were reorganized and adapted to new circumstances. For example, each class meeting is filmed and recorded so that it can be reviewed later, although all students are expected to attend as many classes as possible in real time. The goal, of course, is to provide distance learning that is as close to possible as on-site learning would have been.
And what about grades, especially for juniors and seniors who need a strong GPA on record? Along with many other secondary schools, the Academy is using pass/fail/distinction as categories for grading. And the number of interesting and creative projects that teachers have developed is impressive: “living history” journals, for instance, that encourage students to record their experiences for their own children and grandchildren.
Graduation is another challenge. Knowing that seniors are already experiencing a major loss of one of the most important parts of a four-year high school experience, Suffield Academy has planned a “remote” commencement ceremony, one which doesn’t sound remote at all, given the circumstances.
But some things just can’t be reproduced or duplicated. Extracurricular activities of all sorts are one example; the typical college visit by juniors is another. And the various standardized tests that colleges require are not within the control of the Academy. On the other hand, Headmaster Charlie Cahn reports that student investment of time and energy in distance learning has been exemplary. The faculty have stepped forward to provide not only classes and meetings of quality, but also personal support for each student. Parents have been unanimously supportive of, and grateful for, the teaching and learning that they observe. The academic semester is in no way lost.
Going forward, the school is planning for several contingencies for the 2020/2021 year, not knowing what will happen by that time and not knowing when the decisions can be made. Charlie Cahn, the school’s headmaster, reports that the work now is a team effort in ways more meaningful than ever, and he is fortunate and proud to have a strong team of colleagues with whom to share decision making. The school will not offer its usual summer programs this year, so there may be a chance to take a breath before the next phase of coping begins.
The challenges facing a Head of School are always numerous and sometimes heavy. But when asked what weighs most heavily on his shoulders during this unprecedented and unexpected crisis, Charlie Cahn’s answer is thoughtful and considered: it is not glib, it is not a public relations statement. A school leader must first do what he or she can to keep the spirits of the adults strong and positive despite the anxieties that confront all of us, he says. For students, this year is one of many in their educational careers; for the adults at the school it is a more earth-shaking phenomenon, undoubtedly more worrying. However, schools are by their very nature forward-looking institutions, so he moves ahead with the certainty that things will be better soon and that many good lessons will have been learned by this experience. Every challenge, after all, is an opportunity.