Early in my teaching career, I quickly learned that time spent outside of class with students is a powerful teaching tool. Whether it is silly conversations in the dorm, floating down a river on an 8-person raft, or working together on the basketball court, getting to know students from multiple perspectives is invaluable. Co-curricular experiences allow students to draw upon their strengths that may not always be recognized in a classroom. Such experiences are important for all students, but they are especially important for students who are deep into the adolescent task of developing an identity of their own.
Community service placements offer an opportunity for me to work alongside my students. We are a team in the truest sense of the word. Over the last year, 29 Upper School students have volunteered in an afterschool program in Framingham. The program staff rely upon the Dana Hall student volunteers to help with homework and enrichment activities. The student volunteers shine in this environment, often bringing to bear skills and competencies that the adults do not have. Their ability to connect and work with 3rd-graders is essential for the success of this academic-based afterschool program. Our Dana Hall students become mentors for the younger children, and they are indispensable as we try to wrangle the 8- and 9-year-olds into doing their homework at 4:30 in the afternoon after a long day. Over time, I have learned that when one of the 3rd-graders is unhappy or misbehaving, it is often wisest for me to let a student volunteer handle the situation. They have the wisdom and connection with the student; they are the right person for the job of helping the 3rd-grader to get back on track. The student volunteer is the expert, not the teacher. This shifted dynamic adds a dimension to the student-teacher relationship that increases the volunteer’s confidence in her own classes.
As a result of their time at the afterschool program, Dana Hall students are able to see themselves as leaders creating positive change in the real world, and they can translate this self-concept back into the Dana Hall classroom. On multiple occasions, on the van ride back to campus, students have reflected on their own work in the classroom, particularly in frustrating moments. Their work as mentors gives them a new perspective on their own roles as students themselves. Their sense of agency in the classroom grows as a result of working with the 3rd-graders.
These experiences are not unusual. Every year, faculty connect with students over their dance performances, their work on the Model UN team, a piece of their artwork hanging in the hallway, or their prowess on the athletic fields. Every time we connect with a student in a new dimension, the work in the classroom becomes more robust. The culture of Dana Hall is such that faculty get to know their students on a personal level. Opportunities for doing so are built into our job descriptions: smaller class sizes, the advising program, and extracurricular responsibilities for faculty allow us natural opportunities to make these connections. So much is gained when students and faculty are expected to work together in multiple arenas. I am grateful that I choose to teach at Dana Hall where this kind of work is valued so highly.