Academic Lens: Chasing Our Why

Posted by Scott Allenby


The steady stream of prospective families through our Admissions Office over the past month resulted in a 20% increase in October tours over our five year average. While a far-too-early indicator of enrollment numbers for the 2020-2021 school year, it is a data point. There’s something intriguing about this random school plopped on 2,500 acres in the Blackwater River valley between Ragged Mountain and Mount Kearsarge. So what is it? Why are families interested in Proctor when all of the data shared by the Enrollment Management Association (EMA) and TABS on independent boarding school enrollment trend the opposite direction? 


Today is Halloween and faculty, staff, and students have embraced the day - even our Admissions Team as they risk humiliation while touring visiting families. And maybe that’s a piece of the magic that draws families here. The simple fact that we do not take ourselves too seriously gives license to our students to do the same. There’s balance, of course. Just walk into Alan McIntyre’s (the ghoul on the left above) AP Environmental Science class or Sarah McIntyre's '90 (ghoul on the right above) biology class today and you will see that balance in action: students diving into a longitudinal study of water quality in the Proctor Pond while in costume. 


It may seem like a small thing, but we believe adolescents have the capacity to simultaneously embrace informality and rigorous academic study. We can have fun and call each other by our first name, and are still able (some might argue better able) to have serious conversations with our students. We are unwilling to conform to the traditional notion of prep school, and instead want to live alongside our students in the real moments of their life. It is in this space where lives are changed, where we chase our why. 

Ten years ago Simon Sinek wrote Start With Why in which he explores how the most inspiring leaders affect change. Take a few minutes to watch his Ted Talk above and hopefully this line will stand out to you as it did to me, “Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don't mean ‘to make a profit.’ That's a result. It's always a result. By ‘why,’ I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” 


It is a great question. Why should anyone care about Proctor? Why should families invest significant money in their child’s high school education? Why Proctor and not one of our peer schools or a public school? Each family has their own why, but we, as a school, work daily to embrace our why. We believe learning happens best at the intersection of individualized academics and experiential opportunities within a strong, supportive community. It is within this environment where our students begin to understand themselves as learners, where a foundation of confidence, trust, and relationships is built. And we know it is on this foundation our students build the rest of their lives, lives that will require each to navigate the inevitable peaks and valleys of the human experience. 


Cody Delistraty wrote in this AEON article published this morning the following reflection on our pursuit of happiness as a society, "If we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into pining after peak experiences, then we leave ourselves open not only to market manipulation but also to loneliness, poor judgment and, ironically, an abiding sadness. Epicurean happiness might not always make us ‘happy’ in the sense that we now use the word synonymously with being in an upbeat mood. But life would not be worth living if it floated only between peak experiences." He continues, "What if, instead, happiness was something that we realised ebbs and flows, that negativity is fundamental to life and, ironically, to our happiness? What if we reconditioned ourselves: not to want but to be satisfied in all feelings?" 


Is this not our why? To teach young people the tools they need to identify their emotions, to embrace them, to reach for the broader context in which those emotions live, to recognize the journey they are on alongside others who care about them, and to walk through the varied terrain life lays before them? 


Yes, the academic pursuits that bring us together in this place matter. The arts matter. Athletic competition and afternoon programs matter. Off-campus programs matter. But these pieces of Proctor are not our why. Our why is not the product we deliver, it is the humans we produce. 

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