A Conversation with Amie Creagh, Dean of Students
This fall Amie Creagh succeeds Toby Emerson as the Dean of Students, after serving as an Assistant Dean for five years. Since coming to Deerfield in 1999 she has also worked in the Admissions Department, taught Spanish, and coached field hockey and lacrosse. Amie is a graduate of Andover, where her father was the Dean of Students, and Haverford College. She and husband Brendan, a science teacher and hockey and soccer coach, are the parents of two young children.
Q. Right now every parent is thinking, “What are those first couple of days going to be like?” Please describe how the first week is going to work for new and returning students.
A. A quick overview: proctors, peer counselors, Green Keys, and International Student Orientation leaders arrive on Tuesday morning, September 4, as do peer tutors and members of the Disciplinary and Academic Honor Committees. They attend a leadership training session and luncheon. International students arrive on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning new students arrive and in the afternoon varsity candidates. On Thursday the 6th returning students move in, and on Friday classes start. With the opportunities offered by the revamped “opening days,” we have put particular emphasis on the “new student experience” and leadership training for those named leaders.
Q. Last year for the first time there was a camping trip for ninth graders. Is that happening again this year?
A. Yes, on Wednesday night. We realize that for ninth graders arriving in the morning and then departing in the early afternoon can make for a disconcerting first day. However, the upside is that everyone is fresh and open to a broad array of new friendships. Overall we feel that the overnight away from campus is an important bonding experience for our ninth grade class. Last year’s ninth graders noted that it was a formative experience for them both individually and as a class.
Q. That is a whirlwind first week. When my children were new, each was assigned a Green Key to shepherd him from place to place. Is that still the case?
A. Yes, new students will be assigned to a Green Key, who is a returning sophomore, junior, or senior, but this year for the first time each Green Key is going to be responsible for three to four students. And the Green Key will be linked to housing. In the past we did one on one assignments with varying degrees of success depending on how well the two students got along. Last spring we decided that selecting fewer Green Keys would benefit new students by giving them an easy way to meet each other. Green Keys are expected to be proactive in their commitments and show empathy for new students as they make the transition to Deerfield life. For many boarders, this is their first time away from home. That’s a big deal.
Q. And what about parents who are new to Deerfield, do you have a program planned for them?
A. Yes, we are offering an orientation program for new parents on Wednesday afternoon. While new students are involved in games and activities, we will run a session with members of the DPN and other returning parents. This two hour New Parent Orientation will be a condensed version of what their children will experience, with fewer “trust falls” and “human knots”! We really want students and their parents to feel like they’re involved in a shared experience.
Q. Classes start on Friday the 7th. In previous years classes began on the Monday. Why the earlier start?
A. This year all our students will attend Academic Orientation sessions before classes begin, and then after one day of classes will have time to debrief and put in place the tools they need to manage their workloads. We hope this will make everyone better prepared for the first full week of classes. Many thought that our previous opening days schedule lacked a clear emphasis on academics. We are a school, after all! For some students, the first day of classes felt like jumping on a moving train. The Friday start coupled with the Academic Orientation sessions should set a more reasonable and appropriate pace.
Q. Is there going to be time set aside for students to meet with their advisors?
A. Yes, all students will meet with their advisors before classes start to review their schedules and again during the first weekend. New students will be introduced to their advisors soon after they arrive on campus.
(To learn more about advisors, please see the Fall 2011 article “The Fine Art of Advising.”)
Q. Are the Dorm Olympics going to happen during the first weekend?
A. No. The first weekend will have a more academic focus. Also the Olympics, while fun for many, were sometimes difficult and overwhelming for new students. Our mission during the first week is to have all our students feel connected and prepared.
Q. Thank you for talking us through the first week. Looking at the school year as a whole, how would you describe what the Dean of Students Office does?
A. Again I come back to the theme of connection: the Dean of Students Office connects students to opportunities in the school and to relationships with adults and peers. We help them expand their connections in our community. The goal of our office is to ensure that students are gaining something beyond the normal high school experience from living here. So we focus on aspects of Deerfield life that are not academic or cocurricular.
We work to make sure that our residential program is running properly by managing everything from campus wide initiatives like Connect4 to issues raised on behalf of individual students. We are also responsible for disciplinary matters resulting from events that occur outside the classroom. We coordinate a wide variety of school activities from the Orientation programs in the early fall to the junior and senior proms in the late spring. And we oversee the Advising program with the Office of the Academic Dean.
Q. Having grown up on a boarding school campus, how do you think about discipline?
A. I do not separate discipline from education, as there is always an opportunity to learn from mistakes, whether your own or others’. I also harken back to what my dad as the Dean of Students at Andover used to say to his more challenging students and to me in my early high school days: “You’re doing your job by testing boundaries, I’m doing mine by putting up guardrails.”
Deerfield students are strong and capable young adults, and this is why we have high expectations for how they behave, the choices they make, and how they treat one another. We want them to practice behaviors anchored in our school’s core values that will carry them through a lifetime. However, they’re teenagers and I think they should feel like they can make mistakes and have the space to move on, with support from their friends and from adults.
And like my dad, I want students to know that I care about them and that is why I’m involved. My goal is to establish a relationship with each student such that if there is a disciplinary issue, it can be put within a broader context. I relish the informal conversations that happen around campus. This is one of the reasons I am trying to learn the names of all the new students before they arrive. It is a great springboard for getting to know them.
Q. Your office oversees the Disciplinary Committee, which is made up of faculty and students. It seems like the Committee met more frequently last year than in years past. Why did that happen?
A. We do not really have an answer as to why the number of disciplinary hearings increased last year. So last spring we did ask if for instance there was more drinking on campus or were we just better at catching it. Students did not have a clear answer either. What was most bothersome to us was that similar mistakes were made by different students. In other words we did not see the usual ripple effect of learning from others’ mistakes and not repeating them.
Q. Is there anything you are doing this year to try to make the outcomes of individual hearings more relevant to the entire student body?
A. We would like to make the connection between hearing outcomes and school values clearer, be more deliberate in making that connection. First we have updated the Student Handbook to clarify the expectations that we have about behavior at Deerfield. Second, I have worked with Peter Warsaw, the Academic Dean, to create greater consistency in structure and personnel between the Academic Honor Committee, which his office oversees, and the Disciplinary Committee. And third, we are considering having an adult speak along with a student at School Meetings about the broader ramifications of individual hearings. Right now students alone announce the outcomes. But it is important to show that adults and students agree on how to address problems and thereby maintain our community standards.
Q. Let’s talk about dormitory life, which is another big part of your job. Last year you spearheaded the Connect4 program in the freshman and sophomore dorms. How does the program enhance the dorm experience for underclassmen?
A. Connect4 formalizes the role of proctors in the dorms. The proctors along with faculty members Becca Melvoin and Mike Schloat create shared dorm experiences around a monthly activity meant to highlight issues that matter here on campus. Also Becca and Mike give feedback to the individual proctors, so this is a chance for these students to grow as leaders on their hallways. Underclassmen have better connections to others on their hallways through Connect4 activities as well as a sense of the priorities of the broader school community. And they live with proctors who through Connect4 feedback keep evolving as a resource during the school year.
Q. This year Connect4 is expanding to the upperclass dorms. How is that going to work?
A. For the first time peer counselors are going to be residentially based, and they along with faculty members Kristin Loftus and Sam Bicknell are going to lead the Connect4 program in the upperclass dorms. Leadership is going to be the theme this year with legacy next year. We hope that the program provides a format for meaningful conversations about behavior, choices, and decision-making.
Q. Do day students get a chance to participate in Connect4 programs?
A. Connect4 is a residential program geared to boarders, but we have tried to include day students as well. First, day students are allowed to sleep over in dorms on weeknights when a Connect4 program is happening in the late evening. The Connect4 schedule is published well in advance so that day students have ample time to make arrangements if they are interested in participating. Second, some sessions happen at 7:30 rather than 9:30 making it possible for day students to participate before leaving campus.
Q. Switching gears, when is it appropriate for parents to contact you or other members of your office?
A. A parent should feel free to pick up the phone or send an email to a Deerfield adult if her child is having difficulties. If you sense that your child is adrift, unhappy, or struggling, the first person to contact is your child’s advisor. Most likely the advisor has a perspective on whether your child has had a bad moment, bad day, or bad week and can meet with him or her directly. However, some situations require more input and we are always available to help.
During the last five years as an Assistant Dean, I have had many conversations with students, their parents, and their advisors (what I call “the triangle”) about allowing students to find the right balance of challenge and success at Deerfield. More than anything, I’d like to ensure that students and their parents have someone to go to when there is an obstacle to tackle or an accomplishment to celebrate.
Q. As the new school year begins, is there any advice that you would like to share with parents?
A. Not advice but perhaps an unusual perspective. I am a big believer that we should do everything we can to put the Deerfield experience on an equal footing for all students. For instance, we issue each boarding student furniture that meets our fire code and is the same across all dorm rooms. Though it may seem like a small matter I’d ask that parents maintain that uniformity by using only school-issued furniture in their students’ rooms. It can make a big difference to the spirit of a hallway!
Q. Amie, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
(For important contact information, please see “Who’s Who in the Dean of Students Office” in this issue.)
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