A Conversation with Peter Warsaw, Academic Dean

Interview by Julie Alexandre P’06,’08,’11,’13

Peter Warsaw has been the Academic Dean at Deerfield since the summer of 2007. He spent twenty-four years at Phillips Andover Academy where he was an instructor in Music and Chair of the Music Department.  At Deerfield, he directs the Chamber Music Program and the Orchestra. Peter has a BA from Harvard University and a Masters in Music (MM) and a Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA) from Eastman School of Music. He and his wife, Ada Fan, are the parents of two grown daughters. 

Q.  What are your responsibilities as Academic Dean?

A.  I am responsible for the academic program at Deerfield.  The bulk of what I do revolves around curriculum development, academic performance, and academic integrity.  My office manages midterm and end of term grades and instructor reports, and course registration.  We also administer standardized tests (SATs, ACTs, APs), advise students on NCAA eligibility, and facilitate academic accommodations for students with documented learning differences. The Dean of Students and I also oversee the advising program.

Q.  As Academic Dean, do you have interactions with individual students?

A.  Yes.  In addition to teaching, coaching, serving as a dorm associate, and heading sit-down tables, I co-chair with Margarita the Academic Standing Committee. This Committee reviews the records of struggling students and then devises plans for supporting them. In a few cases, the wheels are not turning quickly enough–in other words, the student lacks motivation. In most cases, the wheels are spinning but they are not gaining traction. The road to better performance often leads to Peter Nilsson, Study Skills Coordinator and Assistant Academic Dean.

Q.  What do these plans for better performance involve?

A.  Really we are talking about the nuts and bolts of studying. And this applies to a broad range of students here. It is amazing how often a student gets into Deerfield on the strength of being absolutely brilliant and yet has difficulties here. Sheer intelligence may have made for an easy path through prior schools, but it does not guarantee that a student is prepared for the rigorous challenge of Deerfield. Why assume that high achievers have developed tools for studying when those tools may never have been required? At every school I’ve known, there were students struggling who came in with 99s on their SSATs.

Q.  What are the key ingredients for academic success here at Deerfield and how can we parents help?

A.  First and foremost, sleep is critical. Students learn and perform better when they have enough rest. In the past, schools like Deerfield were elaborate, albeit unintentional, hazing rituals often celebrating students averaging just five hours of sleep per night. The notion that students should try harder by cutting into their sleep is just wrong. The health of students must be primary. Lack of sleep is bad for students’ health and undercuts their skills across the board.

Q.  What has been done to increase the amount of sleep for students?

A.  We moved the start time for classes from 7:55 to 8:30 and moved bedtimes up by half an hour–lights out at 10:30 for freshmen and a 10:15 weeknight room curfew for others. This gives students an hour more for sleep and breakfast. We talk about the importance of sleep at school meetings, and during every rotation as a Table Head I ask each student to report on his sleep. I think the sleep culture has flipped in the three or so years since we made these changes: students often now take pride in getting enough sleep rather than wearing their deprivation like a badge.

Q.  So, parents should encourage their children to get enough rest.  What else can we do to help our children succeed at Deerfield?

A.  Refrain from helping your child with academic work. I chair the Academic Honor Committee which reviews violations of academic integrity. Recently, we had a case in which a mom contributed to her new Deerfield student’s homework journal by proofreading and editing, a routine they developed at their previous school. At Deerfield, though, this is a violation of academic integrity. But more than that, this is a problem for the student.  Parents do better to focus on the long-term growth of their children rather than the short-term grades, and let their children figure out things for themselves. If faced responsibly, the academic challenges at Deerfield prepare students for college and life.

Q.  Are you saying that a parent should stay on the sidelines if his/her child is struggling?

A.  No. We are happy to hear from parents if they feel their child is struggling in ways we are not aware. But chances are we will have already noticed. Teachers are watching and supporting and giving feedback all the time. Everyone is here to help support the individual student. For juniors and seniors, we try to watch from more of a distance, letting the student take the lead a little more. If we assist too much, our assistance may be preventing the student from learning important skills that are essential for college and later life.  People learn by doing.  When parents or teachers do what children can do for themselves, we deprive them of valuable opportunities to learn.

Q.  That all sounds good in theory, but aren’t the stakes terribly high given the realities of today’s college admissions process?

A.   The college admissions process is potentially a phenomenal learning experience for students in which they can take responsibility for their choices and live with the results. And this builds on my point about parent involvement–or over-involvement.  Our College Advisors have seen college essays written by parents. Here’s a key to success: students should write their own college essays. Parents–or college “advisors”–writing these essays is just wrongheaded. College admissions people can tell the difference between essays written by an eighteen-year-old and an adult, so, ironically, parental help could reduce a child’s chances of getting in by stifling student voice and investment in the process.

Q.  The possibility of our children being rejected by their favorite college or getting a failing grade is scary for parents.

A.   The message that over-involved parents send to their children is “I don’t trust you to succeed on your own.” Reality is that failure is an essential ingredient in becoming successful. Parents cannot take away every pebble from a child’s path. We do not want any man-sized potholes, but I think that parents should tread lightly. A child’s threshold for dealing with setbacks is higher than most parents would believe.

Q.  Let’s get back to keys to success.  What other suggestions do you have for parents?

A.  Stress around the college process is extreme right now and parents should be careful not to add to it. I spent an hour yesterday with one of our brightest seniors who had just received a C on a paper. This is a highly successful student who has been appropriately focused on learning and growing prior to senior year.  But college pressures had distracted him, and this one C had thrown him into a tailspin.

Q.  How might we parents be a positive influence in the college process?

A.  Parents and students often behave as if a quality education can only be found at two or three colleges. There are lots of great colleges–at least fifty to one hundred good strong ones out there. This means wonderful choices for our students.

Q.  That’s easy for you to say–you went to Harvard for goodness sakes!

A.  Be careful what you wish for. I believed Harvard would be the right college for me, but coming from Exeter and a Harkness style of learning, Harvard was not what I was expecting. I had few conversations with adults after my first week there, and there was little guidance or feedback. If you thrive on engaging with teachers, it may not be the place for you, as Harvard’s priorities seem to lie more with research and graduate schools. There are many colleges and universities whose primary focus is undergraduate education.

Q.  OK, let’s assume that I do not subscribe to the three-college view of success. I am still anxious about my child being in a position to have as many wonderful choices as possible.

A.   Deerfield seniors know they are in competition with a tough pool of other students right here, never mind worldwide. Parents should resist pushing on the accelerator. Instead take a deep breath. Assess what is important in the long term. Ask your child how he or she is doing. Be positive. Encourage him or her to get sleep. You don’t need to be saying, “This is really the time to bear down.” Believe me, seniors know that and live with that pressure every day!

Q.  Peter, I am taking away from this conversation that you are a big believer in letting the student take the lead in shaping his or her Deerfield experience.  Am I right?

A.  Absolutely, let’s look at some research. Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University has posited two distinct attitudes towards adolescent intelligence in her book Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success. The first approach assumes that people have a fixed level of intelligence, and that intelligence is the key to success. The second approach is based on data that people can grow intelligence, not to mention other capacities. Recent research even suggests that adolescents can raise their IQ.

Why do these two different attitudes matter?  People with a fixed mindset shy away from challenges as painful reminders that they don’t have enough of what it takes to succeed. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset welcome challenges as opportunities to learn and grow their capacities. This mindset creates confident and successful adolescents.

Deerfield is very much a “growth mindset” kind of place. It allows students to grapple with real challenges and to grow in a supportive environment.

Q. Thank you, Peter, for taking the time to talk to us.

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