Living Up to Relationships

Waynflete School

With the intent of staying no more than five years, I started work at Waynflete in the fall of 1991.  I had become intrigued with Waynflete through conversations about schools with Bill Bennett, then the long serving Headmaster.  He and I were enrolled in an educational leadership doctoral program, and I noticed how he viewed virtually everything about school through the lens of the student experience.  I became curious: Can a school that truly prioritizes the experience of students actually function?  Does it really exist in Portland, Maine?  What is the special ingredient that makes it work?

Last fall, at the start of a new Headship more than two decades later, I decided to try to pinpoint what distinguishes the Waynflete experience.  As the Upper School Director, I focused my attention on the division that I know best.  I surveyed ten current faculty members who were teaching in the Upper School when I arrived and asked them to what extent they agreed with my assessment that while much had changed, “there is something fundamental in the current Upper School experience that was not only present when I arrived in 1991 but was then and is now integral to the the Upper School identity and success.”

Every faculty member surveyed agreed with that statement wholeheartedly.  When asked to describe what they saw as the distinguishing ingredient, they all cited the mutually respectful and trusting relationships between the students and adults.  As one respondent put it, “There was and is a warmth and trust that is extended to all students that creates an environment of acceptance and being known – mixed in with some good silliness and high expectations.  An environment that lets students (and faculty) be themselves.”

Nobody who has experienced Waynflete should be surprised by their response.  In fact, practically every person who visits even for a short time notices the strength of relationships.  In his chapter on Waynflete in his recently published book, “What Schools Teach Us about Religious Life,” Dan Heischman wrote, “In all the many years I have visited schools, I have seen few places where students make such extensive use of teachers as they do at Waynflete.  Healthy relationships between adults and students in the community are a given at this school” (34).

But while a relational culture may distinguish the Waynflete experience, in what way is it integral to the School’s success?  Creating a powerful, life altering learning environment for our students is our primary goal.  With that in mind, how do relationships between students and adults actually matter?

As the parent of two children who attended Waynflete from the age of three on, I highly valued knowing that they were growing up in a community in which they knew and were known by non-parental adults.  In an educational system that segregates students by age, I saw the cross generational connections as crucial to their healthy development as they sought to “live up” to relationships with adults about whom they care.  Lydia Maier has been the Dean of Upper School Students for the past decade and has now moved into an all-school role as Dean of Student Affairs.  She attended Waynflete in Upper School and describes the “living up” phenomenon this way:

“I arrived on campus preoccupied with finding my way around each unique building and very quickly shifted my energy to deciphering each individual teacher. I’d never had an adult ask me to sit down to ‘talk about my essay;’ I didn’t even know what an ‘essay’ was.  Here was Michele Lettiere walking me through paragraph structure and use of the ‘green’ metaphor in Lord of the Flies, then asking me to tell her what passages mattered most to me.  In that moment, more than by her illuminating explanations, I was inspired by realizing that this new teacher of mine clearly believed that I could produce a point of view, and that it would be worthy of being voiced in the world.  I would ask her a question and she would reply in a manner that I would soon become used to at Waynflete: ‘Good question.  What do you think?’”

Alums and their parents report countless examples like Lydia’s of how “living up” to relationships with adults at school inspires our students to do and be more, whether by taking the risk at the suggestion of an advisor to apply to a special program or by revising an essay one more time to get it right before submitting it to a respected teacher.

And evidence of the power of meaningful relationships to fuel learning is not only anecdotal.  It is rooted in science.  In his book, “Brain Rules,” molecular biologist John Medina asserts that “there is surprising empirical evidence” to support the notion “that our ability to learn has deep roots in relationships” (45).  In his new book “Brainstorm,” Dan Siegel, M.D. describes how teen brains are hardwired for risk-taking; suppressed dopamine levels in the brain mean a higher threshold of challenge and novelty required to activate the teen brain’s reward system, a key component in motivation and growth.  Risk-taking is a critical evolutionary task if teens are to acquire new competencies and eventually become independent (and confident) enough to leave home.  Relationships provide a key component of what is needed to manage the stress that accompanies such risk-taking and the the constant demands of school.

In her psychology class last spring, Lydia had her students explore the science of the relational roots of growth and learning:

“My students mapped neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s concept of ‘red brain, green brain’- observing how frequently they found themselves in each brain state- with “red brain” being a reactive mode that diverts the brain’s resources away from its potential for self-expression and self-soothing.  He refers to that all too frequent anxious state as one of ‘chronic inner homelessness’ that actually cuts off the brain’s access to its own higher level thinking and creativity.  Hanson, Ph.D, is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science center where extensive research is being compiled on the brain’s capacity for expressing kindness, empathy, and awe- qualities that characterize our more responsive “green brain” state.  This research underscores the notion that time spent connecting with calm and caring teachers reinforces the same circuitry through which our highest learning occurs- a win-win situation for stressed teens.”

Moreover, the power of a relational culture is mutually motivating for faculty as well as the students.  Being allowed into the lives of our students and their families makes working at Waynflete infinitely varied and stimulating.  It is a cherished privilege that the faculty honors constantly by striving to deepen and enrich the experience of our students, just as Bill Bennett described more than two decades ago.  The fact that I have stayed at Waynflete nearly five times longer than intended (and counting) as a member of an unusually long serving and notably dedicated faculty is testament to the power of relationships to inspire all those involved to “live up” to the opportunities they afford.  Our relationships demand that we give our best each day; neither the faculty nor the students at Waynflete would want it another way.