Head of School Blog

September 2019

Opening Remarks to Canterbury’s Faculty & Staff

Welcome to the 2019-20 school year. It is good to start the year together once again.

It goes without saying that the year ahead is poised to be an exciting one as we watch a new building emerge at the nexus of the academic, spiritual, residential and athletic life of this community, and as the planning and program for this extraordinary space take further shape.  To be sure, the Hilltop Projects construction site is a symbol of growth, possibility, and a school loved and sustained by many.  I find it hard to believe that many other schools can tell the story of a new building by saying: We asked our students what would make their experience on our hilltop even better.  It is no small thing.

With our Hilltop Projects serving as a powerful backdrop to our day-to-day experiences this year, how shall we begin this evening to prepare for continued good and meaningful work with our students and one another? In the spirit of reflection, I would like to circle back to a day in late May that has inspired my remarks tonight. 

May 24th—yes, Commencement! Let’s take a moment to remember the joyful Class of 2019 on that bright and windy day. Our graduation speaker was Bob Castellini, CEO of the Cincinnati Reds and Chairman of the Castellini Group of Companies, father of two Canterbury graduates, and—most importantly on May 24th—grandfather (or Poppy!) of a member of the Class of 2019.

Bob’s remarks that morning were excellent—thoughtful, relevant, to the point, and from his heart.  He spoke about his own journey through boarding school and emphasized the impact of his teachers and coaches, whom he described as: “Hard-working, hard-charging men of faith who—under God’s guidance and wisdom—were dedicated to helping young men like myself become prepared for life.”

Bob’s comments to our soon-to-be graduates also included the following: “Now, I would like you to direct your attention to the group of people over here. These are your faculty and staff at Canterbury. They have much of the same resemblance and characteristics of the wonderful group of faculty that helped shape my life.[...] They are living proof in our presence that the greatest satisfaction in life is helping others. [...] It’s not how many cars are in the garage, how many credits are after your name or the myriad of other worldly pursuits that might give you wealth and fame.  No, the greatest satisfaction in life is helping others. 

Please keep that thought in mind as I continue; it is the first of three threads.

Not long after the hand-shaking and hugging along the Sheehan wall, I was headed to New Haven for my 25th college reunion. Why the rush? I had been asked earlier in the spring to join a panel of Class of 1994 peers—along with the Yale Dean of Admissions—to address the topic of the recent college admission scandal. Our panel’s title was College Admission in the Wake of Operation Varsity Blues, and I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting alongside classmates working at Princeton (professor of African American Studies), Columbia (Associate Dean of Admission) and Mastery Transcript Consortium (Chief Product Officer). With a lecture room full of fellow alumni in the throes of raising teenagers while navigating a world tangled up by far more than the recent admission scandal, the panel aimed to provide some perspective about secondary and higher education in the spirit of affirmation and rational thinking.  

We each shared a few thoughts on the current “state” of how students and parents approach the college process as well as various factors impacting this generation of adolescents, from the “normed” expectations of receiving positive feedback (winning trophies simply for participating, for example), to the alarming rise in mental health diagnoses, and the murky but significant impact of social media. Mix in the widespread use of the Common Application, and we face the reality that many high school seniors (and their parents) ignore the experienced and excellent advice of college counselors to craft their lists based on the idea of “fit” and to explore and identify how a college may meet one’s needs and aspirations. 

It will come as no surprise that the Yale Dean of Admissions received the majority of questions once we shifted to Q&A, though I did seize opportunities to ensure that Canterbury was on everyone’s radar. More to the point, however: after the panel, I wandered past my former dorms and ate a delicious slice of New Haven pizza, mulling over the questions and tone of those in attendance that afternoon. Essentially, it all came down to this: if we pull back from the irrational and unethical behaviors of families willing to fake their children’s applications and pay exorbitant sums of money to ensure acceptance into highly competitive colleges, we are still left with the rational fears of ethical parents eager to help their children find the path leading to success. We know, too, that helping our students find that path to success—however they might define success—is a cornerstone of our work.  

Thus, Thread #2: To be sure, irrational and unethical behaviors don’t pave the way to meaningful outcomes, but most of us are sensibly seeking a life of joy, success, love, or health...or probably all of those things.

Next: can data provide some clarity to these questions and quandaries?

No surprise, Thread #3 comes from the fabric of public health, a field I often turn to when seeking answers.  

I’m sure some of you have seen the 2015 TED Talk about the 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development, designed to uncover those factors that most significantly impact health, well-being and happiness. Two groups of men have been followed since 1938, and eventually their spouses and children were included in the study as well. The current—and fourth—director of the study, Dr. Waldinger, uncovers several lessons stemming from the broader idea that good relationships keep us healthier and happier, three of which are included here:

  1. Social connections are really good for us, and loneliness can negatively impact the length of one’s life
  2. The quality of one’s close relationships matter far more than the quantity
  3. Good relationships have the power to protect your brain and sharpen your memory

Thread #3: a successful, healthy and happy life is grounded, and sustained, by the strength of one’s relationships. 

Time to weave this all together. When we look beyond ourselves to help those around us, we are building critical relationships. When we approach our work with our students, as well as our own children, with rational and ethical thinking, we partner with one another and build invaluable relationships. And when building relationships becomes integral to who we are, we are on the right track.

Now let’s put this back into the context of our shared work at Canterbury.  

This is what we do every day at Canterbury.  

We model connections with one another to our students.  

We help the teenagers living on this hilltop navigate the complexities—the messiness—of building and sustaining relationships with their peers.  

We ask them to be honest with, and to lean on and learn from, their teachers, coaches, advisors, dorm parents and mentors.  

We expect them to understand and respect the differences among us and to recognize that those differences can serve as the foundation for the strongest and most meaningful relationships they will ever build.  

Yes, this is what we do.

We do not remove their hurdles, lower our expectations, or suggest that adolescence should be uncomplicated. Rather, we help them find those paths—those many paths—that set them on a course of continuing to seek self-awareness, to face their challenges, to embrace their role as part of something much larger than themselves, and to be connected to others. Quite frankly, as a small boarding school built upon values, we do this extraordinarily well and in a manner that is rarely replicated.

Tonight, as we move into this new academic year and anticipate the new relationships on the horizon, let us also celebrate those enduring friendships woven throughout this group of colleagues. It is also no small thing.

Rachel Stone
Head of School