Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin on How to Have a Great School Year

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Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin on How to Have a Great School Year

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Q&A with Head of School Will Laughlin on How to Have a Great School Year
September 16, 2019

As we prepare for the start of another school year, we asked Head of School Will Laughlin about what he thinks makes a school year great.

Q: What is your definition of a great school year?

A: That’s something every student and faculty member has to answer for themselves — but also something we try to answer as a school. Every year, I have some important conversations with my leadership team and with students, looking for clues as to what we can do better. 

A big part of that for us this year is ensuring that every student has a “champion” — somebody to have an informed and ambitious vision for them, to believe in them, and to go to bat for them. 

Q: How are you ensuring that every student has a champion?

A: Oliverian has always been a place where faculty members champion their students — we hire and cultivate people who connect deeply and naturally with students. But to be more intentional about that, we’re redesigning our teams so that each team leader has a smaller group of students to support.  This will allow team leaders more bandwidth to really get to know, and champion, their advisees.

Q: What role does goal-setting play in preparing for a great school year?

A: Goal-setting is critical, but you need an overarching why first. Our students are very smart, and they’re smart in deep, intuitive ways. They all have struggled, and with that comes a sort of hard-earned insightfulness and sensitivity. Because of that, these aren’t students who can just be told what to do — our students need to know why. Without that driving sense of purpose, goals can fall short and be frustrating, but with it, they can be a tool for moving forward. 

Q: What role do faculty, counselors, and parents play in helping students create a great school year?

A: Adolescence is a time of enormous change; everyday, an adolescent wakes up a different person. So, it’s easy for teenagers — particularly the smart, sensitive ones we work with — to lose track of who they are. It’s our job to create a safe space for them to ask some fundamental questions: Who am I, what can I be good at, what’s special about me, what are my challenges, what are my gifts, and how do those things work together? It’s also our job to be curious along with them so that we can be trusted partners in the developmental process of identity formation, which is part discover and part invention.

Q: What steps would you recommend for students who aren’t sure what kind of person they want to be?

A: I think that’s probably most of us most of the time! I recommend paying close attention to the type of people you naturally gravitate toward–especially the adults who are maybe a few steps ahead of you in life.  What do you like, respect, admire about that person? That’s how people start to gather clues about what and who they’d like to be like. 

Q: What sort of structure does Oliverian provide for students to reflect and grow over the school year?

A: During orientation, we have students reflect on their goals and objectives for the year, starting with that key question: “How do you define a great year?” Their team leader, who is also their champion, will remind them of those goals and help students adapt their goals as needed throughout the course of the year. Identifying growth objectives is a collaboration between parents, faculty, the team leader and, most importantly, the student.  It is tracked in that student’s “Plan A”, a document that serves as our guide for supporting their growth.  

We see growth as a product of both failures and successes, and we try to have the mindset that every experience can be productive. That’s our real goal for each student: that they learn to engage every experience as an opportunity for growth. 

Q: What do Oliverian faculty and staff do when students seem to veer off their intended path?

A: We expect that to happen at some point! Our students are here in part because — despite all of the wonderful things in their lives and their incredible qualities — they’ve hit an obstacle hard enough that it’s disrupted their forward progress. 

To resume that progress, students have to feel safe enough to authentically be themselves — struggles and all. When the struggles show up, it doesn’t alarm us, throw us off, or surprise us. As long as the student is as engaged as we are in their growth, the struggles will be productive. If they fall into old patterns, they do so surrounded by people who care about them and understand their potential. That’s when they start to have breakthroughs and begin to learn that they can overcome those obstacles. Without that struggle, without those left turns, there’s really not a whole lot of opportunity for growth.

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