Care and challenge aren’t in opposition; they’re linked.
This is an edited version of a talk given to faculty and staff during the opening days of the 2022–2023 school year by Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Debbie Phipps.
Students graduating in 2023 have lived through numerous hardships: the recession of 2008, the domination of social media and its effects, protests around social injustice, political polarization, mass shootings, and climate change. As a result, they have poorer sleep habits, feel more isolated and suffer from more anxiety than previous generations — and then they ran into a pandemic.
Over the past two years, we as a school have responded by adjusting our expectations and increasing our care. We found ourselves communicating with students later into the evenings and working with families earlier in the mornings. We stepped back from some content, modified assignments, and did what we could to help kids move forward. This flexibility and care reflects our true responsibility to students, which has been and remains central to Moses Brown.
When we set great expectations and indicate that we believe that our students can achieve those expectations, students grow.
As we start this academic year, I would never suggest that we simply return to “school as usual” as it was pre-pandemic. We’ve learned a lot in these last few years, and as educators, we recognize the importance of learning from this period.
The part of “school as usual” that we should remember is the demonstrated impact of teachers and all those who work in schools. We know that when we are both supportive and demanding, the effects on children are measurable and significant. When we set great expectations and indicate that we believe that our students can achieve those expectations, students grow.
This is not new. Saying “I’m offering this feedback because I have high expectations and I know that you can achieve those” is something most teachers learn to say early on. Numerous studies demonstrate that this combination can increase student achievement by at least 40% — across gender, racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic categories. Most important, this approach makes students feel capable, even if they have to work hard to reach our expectations. “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you” creates immediate, measurable, and long-term effects.
What distinguishes Moses Brown is that we add a third piece: “I will support you in this growth.” I will meet you during office hours, I will respond to your draft, I will pull you aside at recess to talk about how you handled a situation. I’ll ask how you’re doing and I’ll listen to the answer. I’ll offer an extension when you have a lead in the play and it’s production week or a grandparent is sick. But consistently, I will hold you to those high expectations, because I know you can reach them.
High expectations aren’t about adding stress — they’re about preparing our students to manage the stress that the world is already throwing at them.
Some see a dichotomy: that we can be either a “rigorous school” or “a school that cares for children.” I want to suggest that those statements are linked by an and, not an or. We can care for students by challenging them — and then helping them to excel. And while that might involve some failures on their way to building capability, we’ll be true to our mission to inspire their inner promise and to see their inner light. Care and challenge aren’t in opposition; they’re linked.
I recognize that committing to higher expectations might sound as though we’re lessening our care. Some of us have been hesitant to challenge students academically during the pandemic, worrying about the additional stress this can add. But high expectations aren’t about adding stress — they’re about preparing our students to manage the stress that the world is already throwing at them. They can’t control that outside world, but the skills they learn in recognizing and managing the stresses of school (which have existed forever) will help them build their responses to anxieties of all kinds. School today can be about increasing students’ sense of capability and agency and resilience.
The students who join or return to us this fall are different than the students we welcomed in years before the pandemic. As a Friends school, we are responsible for seeing them as individuals, responding to them where they are, and inspiring them. As educators, we need the courage to challenge them more — and challenge them consistently — while always adding “because I believe in you, and I’ll help you to get there.”
If we do our jobs well, we can help change the narrative for our students, from “The world is hard and I can’t manage what I’m being asked to do,” to “I am capable and can grow, even though doing so is hard and includes setbacks. I don’t have to do it alone.”