While Haverford School boys enjoy their final summer days, Haverford’s faculty and staff are busy preparing the School for the full community’s return to campus. Head of School Tyler Casertano began this week of preparation with the following remarks:
Good morning everyone, and welcome to the 2021-22 school year. Thank you for the warm welcome that you have given my family and me over the past few months. It has been an educational and fun summer. So many members of the community have reached out to share their experiences at The Haverford School, and their perspectives on what makes this community so special and how we can continue to grow. But, perhaps the most educational aspect of that process has been observing the way in which people have welcomed me and shared their feedback with warmth, grace, enthusiasm, authenticity, and generosity. It speaks volumes about who we are as a community.
Before I get into things, I want to say a special thank you to Candy Montgomery, who came out of retirement this summer to help with my transition. For those of you who don’t know her, contrary to what a bunch of portraits outside of our office suite might suggest, Candy has run The Haverford School for many decades now. I am the sixth Haverford Head of School she has worked with, and her infectious kindness, steady hand, and encyclopedic knowledge of the School have been such a gift. Candy, I cannot overstate my gratitude for your support this summer. Thank you.
I’m sure many of you have questions about me. Who is this guy? What’s his deal?
I’m eager to continue to get to know you and for you to get to know Annie, Mac, Bailey, and me, and I hope that our daily interactions will give you a clearer sense of who I am and what my values are. I know that this process will – and should – take time, but to help move that process along, I’d like to speak a bit about why I love schools, and especially why I love boys’ schools.
I am fortunate to have eaten the vast majority of the meals in my life in school dining halls. In fact, there has only been one year in which I didn’t, and it was the least fulfilling year of my life. That year away from schools, my first out of college, taught me that my interest in pursuing a career in education wasn’t simply born out of comfort and familiarity, but was genuine. It was during that year that I first understood what people mean when they talk about being “called” to pursue something. To me, that’s how it felt then and still feels now.
I often reflect on why I love being a member of a school community – on what it is that calls me year after year back to school.
It starts, of course, with the kids. I love childhood, and I love education. I grew up on a school campus, surrounded by teachers, students, and other faculty children. I worked at camps in the summers, coaching and teaching younger kids, and from the very first time I taught a class, I knew I was hooked. There is something about the energy of a classroom – watching students wrestle with ideas, making connections, and developing skills. To me, there is nothing more gratifying and powerful than witnessing a student become not just their best self – the person we knew they could be – but to witness them become someone they didn’t know they could be. Playing a role in that transformation, which I’ve learned happens every minute of every day in our classrooms, studios, hallways, stages, and fields, is a true privilege and a great joy. Pure magic.
It is also a privilege and a joy to be surrounded by colleagues like you. I’ve come to realize how truly remarkable it is to work in an environment where artists, writers, scholars, psychologists, philosophers, scientists, athletes, musicians, engineers, and performers, all from different races, ethnicities, and human experiences, come together each and every day with the shared goal of building better people and building a better society.
That diversity, dynamism, vibrancy, and talent nourishes and educates me every day. I can’t imagine a more stimulating and rewarding group of people to work with than those, like you, who share their talents, experiences, curiosities, and efforts every day to help make people better, and in doing so make each other better.
The pandemic has reinforced just how important those relationships and moments of community engagement are to me. This summer I read an article by psychologist Adam Grant that helped explain what it is that I missed so much when I was separated from my students and colleagues and denied the community rituals that bring us together each day. The article described a concept called “collective effervescence,” which was coined in the early 20th century by sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Before the pandemic, research showed that more than three-quarters of people found collective effervescence at least once a week and almost a third experienced it at least once a day. Grant suggests that it was this lack of collective effervescence that has led to a spike in depression, anxiety, stress, and loneliness.
Grant goes on to write that psychologists have found that in cultures where people pursue happiness individually, they may actually become lonelier. But in cultures where they pursue happiness socially — through connecting, caring and contributing — people appear to be more likely to improve their well-being. The piece helped me see that one of the reasons I love working at a school is because of the collective effervescence I feel every day on a school campus.
Lastly, I love working at a boys’ school. I did not attend a boys’ school growing up. But having spent the last 12 years at a boys’ school, I have come to see that a boys’ school has the unique capacity to create an immediate sense of togetherness and belonging that gives a student the confidence to engage deeply, to embrace the vulnerability and discomfort that are central to the learning process and to adolescence, and to bring his whole self to school each day. So much of that stems from the fact that a boys’ school presents a student with the opportunity to grow, play, and experiment within a structured support system that plays to his strengths, and that doesn’t pathologize boyhood. By removing the context and construct of femininity, we give our students permission to engage in ways that they might opt out of in a co-ed environment, thereby broadening the construct of masculinity and expanding the menu of options available to our students. In doing so, we provide them a healthier, more dynamic and inclusive understanding of what it means to be a boy and a man; one that is rooted in vulnerability, compassion, empathy, sensitivity, and engagement. In this way, our students leave us with not only the academic, artistic, and athletic habits, skills, and dispositions they need to be fully prepared for life; but with the social, emotional, and moral ones as well.
I love working in an environment where boys learn to stop posturing and to take off the masks that they might wear in other contexts where they fear being stigmatized. I have found that process creates a wonderful culture of authenticity, joy, vulnerability, growth, and togetherness. And, of course, goofiness. Let’s not forget the ridiculousness of adolescent boy goofiness.
I don’t mean to sugar coat the work. It’s exhausting and requires a degree of patience and faith that are superhuman. In our figurative garden, the seeds that need our resources the most want them the least. And those that have the greatest potential often take the longest time to take root. And yet, despite those frustrations, every day we provide water, sunshine, and oxygen, with an unconditional love and an unshakeable confidence that someday soon our plants will bloom.
Those of you who know Dr. Cox, who served as Head of Haverford School from 1998-2013, likely won’t find it surprising that when we spoke earlier this summer he encouraged me to incorporate poetry into my life and into my leadership. I am not one to disregard wise advice from those who came before me, so I will leave you with a poem. It is one that often resonates with educators, so it might be familiar to you. It is called “To Be of Use,” by Marge Piercy:
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
As educators and school people, we jump into our work headfirst, with massive patience. Our work is the work of the world. It is worth doing well done.
And it is exhausting, and not always fully appreciated. But if I can share one goal at this moment, it is that as we begin school in a slightly different, albeit not completely normal state, we are able once again to sustain ourselves in part through collective effervescence. To weave our varied and diverse talents, perspectives, experiences, and roles together around our shared purpose, and in doing so to create the sense of harmony and energy that nourishes us and nourishes the boys.
I could not be more excited for the year ahead. We have a terrific strategic plan that we will begin to implement, an exciting Equity Action Plan that I hope to release this fall that will help us continue our process of becoming a more diverse, inclusive, equitable community, and a reaccreditation process that will generate ideas for how we can execute those plans in the best possible ways. We will discuss those processes more in the coming weeks and months, but many thanks to Rhonda Brown, Brian McBride, Mark Thorburn, and Lisa Snyder for their leadership on those, and thank you to the many folks who played a role in their creation.