A Conversation with Kevin Kelly, Assistant Dean of Students

I had the pleasure of chatting with Kevin Kelly, Assistant Dean of Students, on a perfect Deerfield afternoon in mid-June.

Kevin grew up in Hyde Park, MA, which he remembers as a great neighborhood.

“I grew up in a time when everyone knew their neighbors, and looked out for one another. It was a rare event during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s for someone to move out of our neighborhood. Generations of people lived and died in Hyde Park: it was a special time and place. My father was a ‘Boston cop,’ and I was the second oldest of six kids. He still lives in our home that he purchased in 1952 and refuses to leave Hyde Park; it would be safe to say that he’s a little old school.”

Kevin’s first experience as a mentor was as a camp counselor at a program for at risk children. He then went on to work for many years as a special education teacher for students with behavioral issues in Boston, New Hampshire, and Maine. He worked in both public schools and residential programs, with the most severely challenging teens.

“Working with this population of kids can be extremely challenging, but can also be the most rewarding. There is no better feeling than watching a kid with very little support and very little hope turn their life around for the better.”

When his wife Xiaofeng was offered a position at Northfield Mount Hermon School, they moved to Western Massachusetts, and Kevin began work at the Deerfield Elementary School, first as Assistant Principal and then as Principal.

“It was a real culture shock for me. Both schools allowed me for the first time in my teaching career to see how powerful a community’s culture can have on the quality of education for students. If you look at the top performing schools, public or private, you’ll see a positive supportive culture embedded in its fabric.”

We spoke at length about the important role that culture plays at a school. We marveled at how the driving forces at Deerfield are enormously positive–the shared goals of growth, positivity, excellence, and support all combine to create enthusiastic and inspired participants–students, teachers, and administration alike. Kevin was familiar with Deerfield as a spouse and as a parent to his daughters Tianyao ’06 and Michelle ’15. When offered the position of Assistant Dean of Students at DA last year, Kevin was thrilled to accept and begin this new chapter. I assumed that there would not have been many surprises as he transitioned into his new role, but that was not the case.

“I am astounded by the unabashed commitment of both the faculty and staff: they are fully available to our students day and night. I am equally impressed with the school spirit demonstrated by our students. If you had the opportunity to watch a school meeting you could see, but more importantly feel, what Deerfield means to our students. Tradition is a word often heard throughout campus. It is quite impressive to listen to students who want to hold on to old traditions, while they strive to create new traditions of their own. Every student that I have had the pleasure to interact with this past year has been tremendously impressive. I have also enjoyed and appreciated working with our entire faculty and staff. Mrs. Creagh, Mr. Emerson, Mrs. Scarborough, and Mrs. Pielock in the Dean of Students Office have been beyond welcoming and supportive during my first year.”

While each of the teaching/administrative positions that Kevin has held have been in dramatically different settings it became clear to me as we spoke that Kevin’s motivation was always the same: to encourage students to look within themselves for the determination to do their best; to make good, conscious choices; and to seek knowledge and skills as the tools to have a positive impact. How would the skills he learned in helping teens in the most-dire circumstances apply to his role in the Dean of Students Office at Deerfield?

“Connecting with students and treating them with respect is and always has been the foundation to building positive relationships with students. We strive as both parents and teachers to raise our kids to be independent, caring individuals with a drive to pursue a life that is rewarding. At Deerfield, when a student makes a mistake we want them to learn from that experience. I have always lived by the belief that discipline means to teach, while self-discipline means to teach thy-self. It is a life long learned behavior that is mastered through trial and error for most of us.”

I asked if he had any advice to students as they prepare to begin their year at Deerfield:

“Maximize your experience. Try everything; the resources and opportunities at Deerfield are unmatched. Step off the path, even if it means risking failure.”

When I asked Kevin what advice he would give parents as they send their kids to Deerfield he replied:

“Step back and let your kid stumble a bit; we all learn from our mistakes. It would be tragic to never experience some level of failure while on the road of life. Failure allows us to cherish our victories and teaches us how to be resilient. I worry a little that over the last 30 years we’re losing the appreciation of seeing resiliency in our children.”

I chuckled a bit while driving home, reflecting on this advice from the Assistant Dean of Students. “Risk failure? Stumble?” I don’t think many parents send their kids to Deerfield looking forward to the stumbles, but my chat with Kevin made me confident that he and the entire staff at Deerfield have the skills for and intention of turning mistakes into experience, encouraging students to take conscious, positive risks so as to best navigate the choices and opportunities that lie beyond life at Deerfield.

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