It’s a philosophy very much in keeping with Deerfield’s academic culture. Peter Warsaw, academic dean, says that with so many exceptional students—not to mention exceptional teachers—it can be a tricky balance, making sure the kids can pursue their passions while still getting a rigorous, classic high school education. “We’re proud that we have students doing extraordinary things,” he admits, “but we’re also conscious of the risks of early specialization.” That applies not just to academics but also to arts and athletics.
Warsaw offers up an example: “Fifty years ago, you’d see varsity athletes in three sports—that kind of generalist is almost extinct now. We lament that.” High school is the time to play the field, so to speak—and the Deerfield faculty wants students to do just that.
Faculty wear many hats at Deerfield: teacher, coach, dorm parent, and role model.
To that end, faculty members act as models for students by being “triple threats.” (“That’s a term we can’t get rid of,” Warsaw says sheepishly. “It would be better to refer to it as ‘triple hats.’ But that term has stuck.”) Whatever you call it, it’s the norm at Deerfield; it’s expected that teachers will play several roles. “It’s a model that has eroded at many schools, but we’re committed to it here. It’s a healthy, albeit demanding, lifestyle for the faculty,” Warsaw maintains. “But it’s also tremendously helpful for the students. It offers multiple opportunities to connect.”
That being said, it is difficult to find men and women who are willing to devote the majority of hours in a day (and night!) to teenagers who are not their own, and consequently, Deerfield appreciates and strives to retain those who do make that commitment.
When Cullinane came to Deerfield, this was new territory to him. He was fresh from a stint as assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine; prior to that he’d taught at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and at Cornell University. The curricula in these programs were top-notch, but schooling at this level isn’t usually focused on providing students a well-rounded education. Teaching the whole student, rather than a single compartmentalized aspect of the student, was a challenge at first.
“I was not a seasoned high school teacher,” Cullinane confesses. To tackle his learning curve, he took his cues from other faculty members, like health and science teacher Kristin Loftus (“she has really amazing classroom organizational skills”), Science Department Chair Ben Bakker (“he’s not afraid to let his students tinker in his classroom”), and especially science teacher Andy Harcourt, a longtime faculty member with a stellar reputation among his peers and students alike. “He’s an entertaining teacher, as well as a vigorous one who takes his subject very seriously,” Cullinane says. “I watched, learned, and copied all the other teachers here when I arrived.”
By all accounts, he caught on fast. “We met Mr. Cullinane on Mia’s first day freshman year,” Mia’s dad, Julian Hecht, says, “when he was a brand-new faculty member and Mia’s advisor. Little did we realize he would have such a huge impact on all our lives.”
Characteristic of most faculty/student relationships at Deerfield, Cullinane knew who Mia was before he became her teacher. And when Mia had to spend a month in the infirmary with a chronic illness during her sophomore year, Cullinane, who was no longer her advisor or her teacher at that point, came to visit (and, ever the scientist, capitalized on the teachable moment). “He explained to me what was happening to me physiologically,” Mia remembers fondly. And that’s exactly what Peter Warsaw is talking about.
“All these intersections help to develop more trust, more caring, and more comfort in the Deerfield community,” he says. And that kind of trust and comfort leads to the kind of quiet morning in the lab two autumns ago, the kind of morning where a diligent student stumbles upon something unexpected, turns to her mentor, and asks, “What’s this?”