Our Dean of Studies, Mercedes Pouri-Previti, shares her teaching philosophy at WMS.
Follow Your Bliss: Teaching and Learning at The White Mountain School
Joseph Campbell gave me the best advice I have ever received: “Follow your bliss.” I know he may have also let a couple of other million people in on this secret, but his message has been a lodestar throughout my education and my career. Now I do not believe this is some hedonistic rally cry; I believe he meant that if we want to live successful lives of purpose, we must do that thing that gives us intellectual, spiritual, and personal bliss. It makes perfect sense – for that which one simply loves to do, one will always endeavor to do well – even when it becomes difficult or discouraging. I have personally found this bliss as a skier, as an outdoor educator, and now as a teacher. Yet as an educator, I have struggled to see what Joseph Campbell’s message meant in the context of a prep school education, until I started teaching at The White Mountain School.
At the heart of each classroom here is the belief that each student can succeed. As professional educators, we realize that every student will not succeed in every discipline as predetermined by external measures. And, indeed, success may not come in one of the six established disciplines measured by traditional schooling. How do you grade success when it exists beyond those core subject areas? If you count the number of different competencies a successful adult must master in one working day, the number is not only high but elusive. It is difficult to assess congeniality, social responsibility, creative problem solving, time-management, conflict-resolution, nutritional restraint, parallel parking, and mental checkbook balancing. Education has struggled to measure and reflect the real achievements of students when they exist beyond the realm of the number two pencil. The wiry sport climber’s transcript might be identical to that of the talented photographer. The student who has found himself and his soul in the ceramics studio may be – on paper – indistinguishable from the student who can lead the entire student body to a consensus before an adult has even entered the room. Yet, their success is not only real, but formative. A teacher or a school who neglects to bring these different forms of success into the classroom fails to tap into the potential that exists in each individual.
The faculty and the school exist here not only to recognize these different forms of success and interest, but to actively inspire their discovery. We want our students to explore the boundaries of our subject areas, to actively seek connections to those pursuits which excite them, and to find that one thing which for them is bliss. At this school, as at no other, that discovery is central to how we teach. We create ways for students to pursue their own interests within the “confines” of the traditional subject areas by incorporating independent projects into most classes at all levels, by encouraging independent studies for older students, and by designing projects which inspire students to think beyond the classroom and place their ideas within the context of their lives. Watching a student create connections between her love of climbing and writing, as Victoria Fura ’11 has done, or advocate for independent studies which move beyond the traditional science curriculum, as Will Mazimba ’11, did this year, truly validates and confirms the School’s mission. High school students can be active participants in their own education. They can find success and inspiration both in and beyond the classroom. At the White Mountain School we not only recognize this reality, but we celebrate it.
Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist and writer, probably would have approved of our White Mountain School community. The traditions of intellect, spirituality, and passion which resonate here are those which he celebrated. In fact, here students may find another piece of his wisdom true, that “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”