by Craig Ough, LL’18, LL Scholar ‘22, Math Teacher and Social Curriculum Department Chair, Rumsey Hall (CT)
When I made the decision to become a teacher at a boarding school for grades 9-12, I had not anticipated how much of my time was invested in the personal growth of students. I loved teaching chemistry and math, but not as much as I enjoyed helping kids work through conflicts and change. As hats are given and passed off in school settings, the ones I enjoyed most showed an early pattern; I gravitated toward peer mediation and outdoor education. In each, we found ways to build confidence, self-advocacy, and character in both outdoor and classroom settings as part of our students’ pathways to success.
As parenting became my priority, I started teaching at a K-9 boarding and day school so I would have more access to my son, which meant leaving those extra roles behind. I soon realized, though, that those old hats still fit pretty well and soon I was in it again. I started with our community engagement programming. In this role, we firmed up weekly service opportunities as part of the weekend residential offering. This meant I also was asked to teach a class on designing community-based projects through a global issues lens. As this program grew in both size and community impact at Rumsey Hall, so did the curiosity around whether or not we had effective and deliberate education in character, leadership, and inclusivity. In Spring 2017 I attended a conference hosted by Enrollment Management Association on the science and statistics behind their soon-to-be-launched Character Skills Scoresheet and while there, I heard yet again at an external professional gathering to check out gcLi.
My experience at gcLi in 2018 was profoundly influential. The community of learners stood out the most to me. My experiences up to this point were a bit lonely in terms of philosophy and energy. It was difficult to identify mentors and similarly inspired thinkers, and as a result, I missed out on impactful conversations around change. Finding a community of people interested in teaching leadership and character growth deliberately was empowering, and it felt like change was possible again. Weaving together brain science and group dynamics further focused on the underpinning motivation and my enthusiasm for the work. The human connections and personal experiences remain with me now, continuing to influence the core of the programming I’m involved with. gcLi’s unique way to process copious stimuli in the moment resulted in years of collaboration. I speak often with a teaching buddy about how our work progresses in our respective schools and we’re currently working on a cross-community project involving our students. The gcLi scholars and instructors were always ready to offer advice and support my endeavors.
All of that enthusiasm and vigor led to a lofty and blue-sky action plan. My goal was to establish a more formal approach to leadership, character, and community education. And, I’d have to say that the goal was achieved. However, with all of that goodness, the path was anything but linear decorated with ample conflict and experimentation. From the latter part came one of my more important lessons: no one person has to have all the ideas. Another major lesson was the power of failure, and how to turn that into a tool for change. I’ve been fortunate to have pre-existing programs to expand from, a generally healthy school culture of experiential learning and relationship building, as well as access to resources and administrative support. Much of what we’ve built came from crowdsourcing and soft polls, making it a point to check in with facilitators and mentors after events. These activities firmed up current community identity, what values we needed to teach, and those we want students to embrace as part of any community, not just ours. Most vital was identifying program strengths and weaknesses. Evolving existing programs seemed to be the key to success as it’s often more efficient and effective to use existing scaffolding rather than build another program or add another responsibility to a teacher’s plate.
One key strength was a set of pre-existing classes. We had health class for our 5th, 6th,7th, and 8th grades, and social-emotional learning classes, split by gender, for our 6th and 7th grades. The Lower Division added character lessons to their homerooms and curriculum, including monthly community conversations around specific character words. The Upper Division created a dedicated Social-Emotional Learning department to unify the scope and sequence of those classes through a student’s 9th-grade year. We added an SEL class in the 8th grade that bridged the gap in that year, creating a space to “practice” the values we desire them to model ahead of their final year. This piece is part of the academic day but also includes outdoor adventure experiences and workshops during their athletics period to highlight the importance of leadership, inclusivity, and group dynamics in that part of their lives as well.
Community Engagement is a school-wide experience. The Lower School hosts a food drive and Winter Holiday Hope chest drive, as well as having a student government that each year identifies agencies and movements they can be supportive of. The Upper School has a weekly community service offering that serves programs in the surrounding community as part of the weekend activities for boarding students. The 9th graders can choose a course named Challenge 2020, a Community Leadership course teaching about leadership and social change through a global issues and community engagement lens through the United Nations 17 Sustainable Goals. More recently we created a more organized framework for Student Organized Awareness Campaigns (SOACs). Any student in the school is welcome to give a presentation on any topic that is important to them. These have included making hand-drawn cards for terminally ill children and their families, addressing racism during the first surge of the pandemic, and a student-designed buddy program that connects our youngest kids in school to play and socialize with our oldest.
The opportunity to hear about various experiences at different schools through the personal time structured at gcLi was one part of how we structured larger ideological components. It seemed in every circle and group I was part of that there was the unanswered question of how to generate buy-in and frustratingly, yet by design, the instructors at gcLi offered no magic potion or secret pattern. Instead, we heard the refrain “feedback, feedback, feedback.” When we started applying that idea here, we saw a higher amount of validation and interest in shaping school culture. From the entire adult community, we created School Value workshops that we host in the first week of classes to teach what is important to us in this community. They identified the set of outcomes desired in the social curriculum which led to the creation of SEL pillars and more meaningful DEI practices, policies, and education.
So why be a scholar? First, I am interested in giving back. We’ve accomplished so much as a school through gcLi and other professional development opportunities. I’d love to share. Second, I’m interested in learning. This work isn’t a fixed quantity and I’d love to learn what’s new in the mosaic. Lastly, I’m interested in the gathering. All of our new programming also includes time to reflect and process in groups. A long student workshop ends with a barbecue and play so they can just simply talk and enjoy the reward of the hard work. I loved the dinners and downtime after each day of the Leadership Lab and to those of you who will join us in Colorado Springs this June, I’d love to chat with you more then!
Craig Ough is currently in his ninth year at Rumsey Hall, a K–9 day and boarding school in Washington, CT. He teaches math, runs an eighth-grade boys’ dorm, oversees the Upper School Community Service programming, Outdoor Education programming, and is the chair of Rumsey Hall’s Social Curriculum Department. Through these roles, Craig guides school-wide planning around character and leadership, which includes a ninth-grade community engagement and leadership class providing practical experience in team building, project design, and entrepreneurship.