Uniquely Deerfield: 2023 Spring Visit Days

On behalf of faculty, staff, and students, I’m delighted to welcome you to Deerfield.

This is my fourth year as head of school, after nine years serving as Headmaster at King’s Academy in Jordan, and prior to that, 17 years as a teacher, coach, department head, and dean at St. Andrew’s school in Delaware, which is from where Monica—my wife and a teacher of English at Deerfield—and I both graduated. So, boarding school is part of my DNA.

I’m sometimes asked: What’s the greatest challenge that the 21st century boarding school faces? I’ll answer that question with another question, and then share with you a few things that Deerfield is uniquely committed to, and uniquely proud of.

The question is this: How do we create opportunities for excellence, challenge, and achievement, and at the same time forge a community characterized by joy, care, connection, and inclusion? Some schools—many schools—are very good at challenge, but in a way that can be depleting, exhausting, and enervating to young people. Other schools can be lots of fun, but perhaps in ways that don’t challenge students to stretch themselves to grow and pursue excellence. Deerfield has always aspired to be both a school of challenge and excellence and also, a school of joy, friendship, and optimism. A school, in short, where young people thrive, flourish, and develop in confidence.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, the columnist David French offered some reflections on the increased levels of teenage anxiety and depression that have been so frequently reported in the news recently. I am sure you have read some of these reports. He identified several different explanations for this rising tide of unhappiness among young people:

  • One had to do with technology;
  • One had to do with the political climate in which our children are growing up;
  • And the last had to do with us: parents and teachers.

Deerfield has developed answers to each of these.

The first explanation is what has come to be known as “the smart phone thesis”—the idea that a phone-based childhood has eroded our children’s ability to make friends and develop meaningful relationships. I recently read that roughly a third of a young person’s life today is spent on their screens. That increased time on screens comes, of course, at the expense of other things that really matter, and which Deerfield seeks to prioritize:

  • face-to-face interactions with friends, peers, and adults;
  • time outdoors in the beauty of nature;
  • time spent competing, performing, and playing;
  • time reading, and time sleeping.

Deerfield has always taken great pride in its heads-up culture—something I hope you will have seen today on campus. Because we seek to create a community of connection, we ask students to leave their phones in their rooms during the academic day, and we insist, as much as possible, that they keep them pocketed on walkways and in public spaces at all other times of the day. This commitment to connection and face-to-face interaction drives much of what we do here, and it’s reinforced by other intentional practices:

  • Our school size—roughly 650 students—allows for programmatic breath and excellence, but is also small enough to allow for authentic and meaningful connections where every student is known and seen.
  • Our commitment to sit-down, family-style meals where students from different grades and backgrounds work with our staff to set the table, serve the meal, clean-up, and sit and eat together, along with a member of the faculty, which creates a shared sense of community and closeness as a school.
  • As of 2021, our new daily schedule includes “Community Time” in the middle of the morning, and it is designed around longer periods of class time, which slows the pace of the day and places reasonable limits on the amount of daily homework, with students preparing for two to three classes each evening rather than five or six. This schedule also allows for deeper learning, more creative assessments, and the development of the habits of concentration and attention.

I should add that even as we seek to foster habits of attention, connection, and face-to-face communication though our approach to cell phones, we also seek to leverage new trends in science and technology. Next year, we’ve expanded our course catalog to include some exciting new, advanced courses in the fields of data science and engineering, and this year’s Deerfield Forum on Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Learning will feature three of the world’s leading scholars and researchers on machine learning.

The Deerfield Forum seeks to offer students a model of discourse and debate that is constructive, rigorous, engaged, and that counters some of the more corrosive and damaging trends we see in our political culture. According to the French, that toxic political culture is also damaging to the health and well-being of young people.

Our approach to learning—embodied in our Portrait of a Deerfield Student—eschews the overt politicization that characterizes so much of American life, and, instead, centers inquiry, curiosity,  complexity, intellectual diversity, and creative exploration in a way that reflects the best pluralistic traditions of American education. Our curriculum encourages open-mindedness, intellectual humility, active and deep listening, and the ability to engage constructively, imaginatively, and empathetically across differences.

We seek to cultivate in our students, not simply an openness to new perspectives and ideas but also an intellectual climate—and classrooms—where students actively seek out and engage with different perspectives and argument. In response to a deeply polarized political climate—and the despair, exhaustion, and cynicism that are its byproducts—we encourage students to assume good faith and good intentions on the part of their peers, and work to foster in them a spirit of thoughtfulness, generosity, empathy, imagination, and openness to the diverse beliefs and views that a divergent student body such as ours inevitably and always brings to our campus.

Of course, at Deerfield, everything—absolutely everything—depends upon the deep, broad, and caring engagement of our faculty and staff. As French notes in his piece, the connection between adult emotional health and the well-being of children is well established. Deerfield remains committed to a model of faculty engagement that extends across every dimension of school life. Creating a powerful sense of community where children can thrive and flourish, meet challenge, and develop in confidence, strength, and resiliency is the foundation of our work. That project is a collective undertaking that each and every member of our adult community embraces.

Our faculty and staff model empathy, optimism, and a sense of joy. In every interaction with students, they bring a bedrock belief in our students’ potential and goodness—and that commitment extends from early morning to late in the evening.

The writer and Deerfield graduate John McPhee, Class of 1949, defined our long-serving Headmaster Frank Boyden’s ideal faculty as “a group of people much in evidence all of the time.” I never tire of quoting that because it so beautifully captures the collective work of a fully, deeply, and broadly engaged faculty who are present, available, and generous with their time and attention.

I’ll close with one final thought. I suspect that even as we sit here and think together about next year and the next chapter in your children’s lives, you’re also inevitably thinking about college and beyond. Having gone through the college process three times in the last six years with my own kids, I know how important those outcomes are to parents. But a great secondary education is not simply preparation for college. As a lifelong educator, I’ve always believed that the years of high school in a residential community such as Deerfield are precious, defining, and transformative—perhaps the most important years a young person takes on that great journey from childhood to young adulthood.

I’ve heard Deerfield alumni of all ages say that the years they spent here—whether it was four or one—defined their lives, and their futures. That their “Deerfield days” have been more important to them than any others. So, on a day like this, as you think about the years ahead and the future of your children, I think it’s worth noting that Deerfield is not simply for next year—it’s for a lifetime. Or at least that is our greatest collective hope. Thank you. I hope you have a great afternoon, and I hope if you have any questions you won’t hesitate to connect with me or any other member of our community.