Letter from Steve Piltch, April 2016

April 2016

Dear Shipley Families:

Every year, as we approach the culmination of the school year, I find myself reflecting on just how much I respect, admire, and enjoy our students. The end-of-year events call for such reflection and highlight the different types of development that have taken place. When put in context, that growth is truly remarkable.

Throughout the year, I have spoken often about the development of our students as learners and as people. In fact, just last month I wrote: “Teaching both the ‘harder’ skills generally associated with schools and society, such as reading, writing, math, and science, and the ‘softer’ skills, emotional literacy, character development and other aspects of our SEED Program, is fundamental to the school that we are and will continue to be.” Over the next few weeks we’ll see this development firsthand as we attend concerts, musicals, athletic contests, and other capstone events. We’ll see the outcomes of all the work that students have put in and the skills they have developed. As we do so, we need to be careful not only to laud the products – but to also, and perhaps more importantly, applaud and appreciate the effort to get there.

While it’s reasonably easy to observe growth and development in the academic, art, music, and athletic areas, it is harder to discern personal growth that is often less tangible, yet still incredibly powerful. It is intrinsically difficult to see, measure, and appreciate the development of character, integrity, resilience, and other internally oriented attributes on a day-to-day basis. We often learn most about this area, the skills developed through our SEED program, when something has gone wrong and our children use them to deal with the challenge(s) they are facing. As a reminder, our SEED program focuses on the five cognitive, affective, and behavioral competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. You can learn more about these competencies , which are defined by CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), and better understand our goals in this important area.

Since these skills and attributes are difficult to teach and harder to gauge, we make a conscious effort to bring people in to help our students (and us) better understand how best to develop them. Just recently, we had Dr. Ken Ginsburg, author of the top-rated parenting book Raising Kids To Thrive, in to talk with our eleventh grade students and parents, and Dr.Mykee Fowlin, renowned psychologist, in to present to our Middle and Upper School students. They both did a terrific job. Ginsburg, with the help of student panelists, reinforced for everyone that, “When you approach parenting from a balanced perspective, you guarantee safety and foster independence, and you prepare your child to navigate the world and develop the parent-child relationship you both deserve.” And Fowlin, who has the capacity to play the role of almost any character you can imagine, put it succinctly and effectively when he spoke of dealing with difficult situations and making potentially unpopular decisions and said: “Don’t do what you’re supposed to do; do what you need to do.”

When students make the right decisions, we don’t always appreciate the complexity of the decision-making process. In situations where the right decision may not be popular or easy, our students and other people have to dig especially deep to determine what is most important to them. One student who faced such a situation and made the right (but less popular) decision explained: “It might have been easier to go along with the bad decision my friends made, but I knew that I did not want to get into trouble and that I would be disappointing myself, my family, and others who have put trust in me.” We need to recognize and celebrate these occasions.

Interestingly enough, even when things have gone awry for our students, and they have faced the consequences of misguided decisions, they have impressed me with their willingness and ability to take responsibility for their actions and to demonstrate their appreciation for the affirmation and support of their experience at Shipley. One student put it this way: “Learning experiences come in many forms, and… I have learned that no matter in what situation, there are lessons to be acquired. I believe that one’s character is not determined by the few actions one takes, but the way one handles and presents oneself in the midst of difficult situations.” And, another student addressed his situation in a direct, clear, and effective way. He said: “I regret the decision that I made, but when you go through with something you have to bear the consequences. I wish I could go back in time and prevent this from ever happening, unfortunately reality sets in and you remember that you can’t change the past, you can only change the future.”

While we wish no one (including ourselves) ever made poor decisions, the ability to take responsibility for our choices is one of the most crucial attributes a person can develop in life. I would suggest that students who get to this place have learned their lessons and are ready not just to graduate from Shipley, but to meet and handle the challenges they will face in the future as well. Of course, the proof will be not in what they have said or think but in what they do from here. If we can find a way to help our students consider the ramifications of their actions in advance and behave in a consistent manner, both during the times of struggle and the times of success, then we are helping them become well-rounded individuals who are prepared for the world. Although there are those who will argue that schools are not supposed to do these things, they are things we need to do and are committed to doing.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch,
Head of School
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.