J.R. Neiswender | May 3 | Cougar Chronicle

One of the most important aspects of academic life in the Upper School is the creation of the master schedule for each school year.  Determining what courses best serve the needs and interests of our student body is a crucial element in the development of our growing Upper School here at TNS.  Our teachers do a phenomenal job bringing their strengths and interests into our classrooms each day, and it is important for us to create an environment where our students learn meaningful content, as well as the skills that they will take with them into college and beyond.  Having the right courses available, and in the right sequence, is a process that is underway right now as we look toward the 2021-2022 school year.  And when it comes to my role - the actual nuts-and-bolts of putting together the courses, determining when in the schedule each class should meet, and how the actual schedule should work - I have found that, in schools all around the country, there are two types of people.  One kind dreads this time of year as the biggest, scariest, most uncertain part of the job.  The other kind finds it to be a gigantic puzzle, and one that’s actually fun and exciting to think about and create!  As you can probably tell from my choice of words - I’m the latter.

During the past two weeks, Upper School families have received the 2021-22 Course Catalog in their email, and students brought home Course Request Forms for families to consider, discuss, and make choices about classes for next year.  While we continue to push forward, finishing this school year as strongly as possible, there is always an energy that comes along with thinking about the future and getting excited about what next year will bring.  And as these completed forms are making their way back to me by this Friday, May 7, it is at that point that the fun really begins for me and our Director of Studies/Director of College Counseling, Marshall Gray.  Puzzle time!

From our vantage point, we see all the pieces in one place, but finding the best way to put them together takes some grunt work and, at times, some creativity.  The job for Marshall and me, as pseudo-architects of the schedule, is multi-faceted.  First, we want to make sure students are able to take what they would LIKE to take, while also keeping an eye on what they NEED to take to put themselves in the best position for future success.  Some students need greater challenges, some students need some extra time in their schedule to take on the demands of their coursework, and some students need elective classes that feed their interests and make them happy and productive individuals.  Most students need a version of all of these.  Our job is to fit the pieces together for each student to maximize these various elements.  Second, we need to do all of this with the minimum number of conflicts.  We teach in an eight period class day, but we obviously teach many, many more than eight classes in the Upper School.  So multiple courses necessarily need to fit into the same class periods, and that means determining what classes can fit together so students aren’t having multiple courses that they want to take in the same time and space.  But that’s not the only issue.  We also need to fit courses together so that we don’t have the same faculty member trying to teach all of their classes at the same time.  Needless to say, that wouldn’t work.  So Marshall and I look to balance student schedules, teacher schedules, and room schedules (because you also can’t have English II and US History taking place in the same classroom at the same time), and do so in a way that minimizes the numerous ways that conflicts can come about.  Unfortunately “minimizing conflicts” doesn’t always mean “zero” conflicts.  But we work directly with students who have any unavoidable conflicts to create the best resolution for them, allowing them to have the most productive schedule possible within our system.  These conflicts don’t happen often, but being a small school like TNS means that we have the ability to work closely with our students to create the best resolution when it does.              

The end result is a schedule where students, teachers, facilities, and many other factors combine to create an environment of productive learning and growth.  And in a constantly developing place like the TNS Upper School, it is crucial for us to do so with an eye toward not only what will make great schedule possibilities for our students for 2021-22, but also the appropriate scope and sequence of courses in all departments for each of our students throughout their entire Upper School careers.  

I am excited about this work in the service of our students, teachers, and families.  I am excited about the possibilities that it creates for our school, now and into the future.  And I am ready to get to puzzle building!     

J.R. Neiswender

Head of Upper School

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