The Importance of Teaching

Tim Breen, Ph.D. P’17, Head of School, shared the following remarks at the recent Alumnae/i Weekend Dinner.

The Importance of Teaching

A theme this evening is connections – connections among alums, between alums and our School. I would add another set of important connections to the mix.

I was meeting with a current parent yesterday whose son is in his senior year. She said that she went out to dinner on Thursday night with her son and a couple of his friends and their parents. One of the parents at the table asked the students, “What’s your favorite thing about White Mountain?” She was so impressed when her son, without hesitation, said, “the teachers”.

This is gratifying to hear, but I am not surprised. A great gift of our School is the connections
students develop with teachers. Indeed, it is probably the most important thing we do here.

There’s a story about Mark Hopkins, who in the 1800’s was president of Williams College. US
President James Garfield once said, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a
student on the other.”

Schools should not worry about having the best facilities – indeed this is a misplaced focus (though perhaps we need more than a log). What we should really worry about is having the best teachers.

I am sure each alum here tonight can think of a teacher you had at St. Mary’s and White
Mountain who changed your life.

Actually, let’s take a moment. Close your eyes. Think of one or two of those teachers.

At the end of the day, this is what boarding school is about, that is what we do best.

Today, we have teachers who have lived and worked around the world, who have studied with great professors at colleges and universities across the country, who have had amazing life experiences – travel, service, raising a family. Our students are lucky that our teachers bring these experiences to our community.

But what really matters is that our teachers give of themselves.

Teaching at a boarding school means sharing your love of a subject with students. It also means
sharing your lives with students – opening your home, sharing your family life, sharing your
interests. And it means really getting to know your students. Our students are truly known, by
adults they respect.

Great boarding school teachers help students learn not just about the world, but how to be in the world.

I’ve long believed that teaching is an act of faith. This is true in at least two ways. First, we must
have a deep faith in the possibilities within each student. C. Roland Christensen, a professor at
Harvard, wrote:

“I believe in the unlimited potential of every student. At first glance they range, like instructors, from mediocre to magnificent. But potential is invisible to the superficial gaze. It takes faith to discern it, but I have witnessed too many academic miracles to doubt its existence. I now view each student as ‘material for a work of art.’ If I have faith, deep faith, in students’ capacities for creativity and growth, how very much we can accomplish together. If, on the other hand, I fail to believe in that potential, my failure sows seeds of doubt. Students read our negative signals, however carefully cloaked, and retreat from creative risk to the ‘just possible.’ When this happens, everyone loses”

The second way teaching is an act of faith is that we must have faith that our hard work will make a difference. We often do not see the fruits of our labors. Students graduate and leave, and the impact of our work might not be visible for years. Teaching reminds me of what author Nelson Henderson has said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

This is what your teachers did many years ago, and this is what our teachers do today. Please join me in raising a glass in thanks for the faith and service of the St. Mary’s and White Mountain teachers of yesterday and today.

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