Success at Deerfield: How it is measured, who gets there, and how?

How do our children define “success” at Deerfield, and how can parents play a supportive role during their teenagers’ high school years? If we ask our children to explain success at Deerfield, their answers would be predictable: “getting good grades,” “scoring higher on standardized tests to get into a good college,” or “becoming captain on sports team.” The list could go on and on. Chances are high that “learning from failure,” or “becoming more resilient” would not be included in most of our teenagers’ definition of success.

In a panel during Spring Weekend, three Deerfield faculty–Dr. Stuart Bicknell, Coordinator of Counseling, Dr. Sheila Fritz-Ellis, Counselor, and Peter Nilsson, Assistant Dean of Faculty–joined a Deerfield parent, Sharon Macey P’14, and three current Deerfield students–Adriana Lopez ’13, Teddy Romeyn ’13, and Signe Ahl ’15–to lead a discussion that may help students and their parents reexamine success. What we learned from the panel of faculty, parents, and students is that success is less about GPA and test scores and more about character development. The discussion opened with a short summary of Paul Tough’s book, How to Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin 2012), in which he concludes that non-cognitive skills such as persistence, self-control, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence are really the valuable keys to success. The later discussion by panel members supported Paul’s conclusions.

The Deerfield Environment

The transition to Deerfield for many students can be tough. Sheila Fritz-Ellis often hears from students, “Arriving at Deerfield is coming from being a big fish in a little pond to being a little fish in a big pond.” Perhaps the most intimidating part of Deerfield is being in a pool with top scholars, dancers, musicians, actors, athletes, etc. For new students, getting used to the new environment, finding his/her place, and gaining self-confidence is not easy and takes time. Peter Nilsson and his colleagues agree with Tough’s approach, that “character, disposition, and good habits help students succeed at Deerfield.” If a student possesses good habits and can learn from his/her mistakes, that individual will “find his rhythm at Deerfield over time.” Students will find their unique path to success through developing the characteristics Paul Tough touched upon, by taking advantage of support from faculty and coaches, and learning from missteps along the way. Sheila encourages parents to accept that their child is no longer the best, to trust that some existential angst is a good thing, and to let their kids find their own way.

Sharon Macey P’14 remarked that “development happens at a different pace for each child.” Peter Nilsson followed up, saying, “Lots of students are shy in the beginning. Parents and advisors can encourage our students, especially if shy in class, to seek out their teachers early in the school year. It may not happen right away, but we hope that over time students will seek out the resources available at school and at home.” Parents are not helping their children when they protect them from adversity.

Further, Dr. Bicknell sees 4 S’s, forces at play on campus each day: Sports/Service, Studies, Social, and Sleep. He said, “Successful students learn early how to balance all the challenges that are thrown at them. They recognize that no one can juggle all four of those balls at once; the secret is learning which to keep in the air and which to put down at any given time.”

Student Development

Peter later discussed “grit,” and the Deerfield faculty’s belief that they can instill grit in their students. They are confident that while some students possess the trait when they arrive, others can attain it through practice and perseverance. Two students on the panel provided anecdotes of their experiences of growth and development of grit at Deerfield. Signe Ahl ’15, a student on the panel, credits her parents with allowing her to “figure it out on her own and not bombard her with too many questions about her academics.” For example, Signe’s support system of friends and adults at school gave her the confidence to remain in a difficult class last year. She gained satisfaction knowing that she did well and will take this confidence with her into junior year. Sheila Fritz-Ellis followed up, “When a student is being challenged in a course, the decision to remain in that course or drop down a level should be made by taking into consideration the multiple factors that will facilitate the student’s growth as a learner, not how it will impact their average. For each student this decision will be different.”

Adrianna Lopez ’13, a senior and proctor, encourages students to tap resources for support. “Teachers want you to succeed. You may fall more than once, but if you get back up again, you will not only be ok, but you will be a better person for it.” She urges her fellow students “not to miss an opportunity while in high school.” Adrianna did not know how to swim when she first came to Deerfield. She took swimming lessons her freshman year, joined the JV swim team her sophomore year, and played varsity water polo her junior year. She credits her coaches for encouraging and supporting her to push herself so that she was good enough to make the team. She also learned that “there is always room to improve on your best when you are focused. Do what you need to do, not what everyone else is doing.” Her comments touched on the college process as well and the payoff of a broader perspective when choosing a college list. It is important to get away from the idea that there are only 25 schools where Deerfield students want to go. The panelists as a whole encourage underclassmen to reduce their stress about the process and talk to their older friends at Deerfield and in college, explore college websites, talk to their teachers and advisors, and remain open to a wide range of possibilities.

Support Systems

While there is an incredible support system within the faculty, there are substantial peer-to-peer support systems as well. Proctors are wonderful role models for underclass students and can also play an important role in helping students who struggle with time management or face difficulties in the classroom. They can encourage students to adhere to the quiet study hours, to turn off social media, and even to turn their computers into the hallway to reduce temptation.

Stuart Bicknell reached out to proctors this spring and asked them to list “3 or 4 characteristics/essentials for success in the academic, social, and co-curricular spheres at Deerfield.” Here are some of the responses he received: good alarm clock for a guaranteed wake up system, effective time management skills, willingness to take risks, perseverance, genuineness, compassion, positive attitude (learned optimism), self discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to change when the situation requires it.

What We Can Do

As parents, we can help our children navigate this fast-paced and competitive environment by stepping back and allowing them to experience the ups and downs of adolescence in a safe environment.  Our job is to encourage our students to reach out to proctors, teachers, and advisors at school. There are counselors available at the Dewey Health Center. There are yoga and meditation classes available in the winter as a co-curricular, as well as on Sunday mornings. Academic support and tutoring is available for those who need extra help.

Teddy Romeyn ’13 observed, “The constant characteristic of humility allows Deerfield students to get the most out of their high school experience.” Deerfield students have the opportunity to attend one of the best high schools in the country. He encourages students to take advantage of the available resources, not rest on past glory and realize that hard work does not end. He concluded by saying, “Be Worthy of Your Heritage.”

The characteristics and essentials for success at Deerfield can be summed up with the list submitted to Stuart Bicknell by Lindsay Ziglar ’13 in April. Her thoughtful and articulate response follows:

  1. Be open to different opinions/ideas (of both peers and teachers).
  2. But at the same time, remember to stay true to your own opinions and have the knowledge to recognize when someone’s argument/idea isn’t as strong as yours so you won’t be swayed to believe something else.
  3. Do your homework.
  4. Take challenging classes; they make you grow as a student and prepare you for harder tasks to come in later years.
  5. But at the same time know your limits, and do NOT overload your class schedule with difficult classes. Challenge yourself in the areas/subjects that you are interested in; otherwise you won’t be as motivated to do the work and commit yourself to the course.
  6. Get to know your teachers outside of the classroom.
  7. Don’t specialize! Still refer to #4 (take challenging classes only in your subjects of interest), but make sure to fill in schedule gaps with classes you wouldn’t consider to be your go-to subject. You never know when your interests might change.
  8. Leave your work alone on Friday/Saturday night and have a social life.
  9. Leave your social life alone on Monday-Thursday and Sunday nights and do your homework.
  10. Figure out if you work better in the wee hours of the night or in the early hours of the morning. It makes all the difference and will help you form a somewhat normal sleep schedule (maybe you can get 8 whole hours!).
Opening Days Schedule | Campus Resource: Role of Proctors at Deerfield

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