J.R. Neiswender | September 21 | Cougar Chronicle

Dear Upper School Families,

When you work in this business long enough, one of the most common questions you end up getting asked is — what is your educational philosophy?  Although questions like this often feel far-reaching and expansive, in some ways it is also one of my favorite questions to answer since it gives me a chance to talk about all the reasons so many of us choose to get into education in the first place.

I have had the opportunity to work at a variety of excellent independent schools over the course of twenty-eight years, and it is the elements these schools have in common that have helped shape my philosophy of education.  At their best moments, each of these institutions have created and encouraged an environment where the student experience is multidimensional and combines equal measures of two crucial concepts — rigor and support.  Whether as an administrator, a college counselor, a coach, or a teacher in the classroom, I have enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside colleagues to provide clear mechanisms of support so that students are comfortable taking risks and important learning can take place.  Independent schools survive on the shoulders of multi-faceted teachers who assist students in ultimately becoming actors, artists, athletes, and intellectuals under their tutelage.  I love having the chance to collaborate with my talented colleagues here at TNS, as well as supporting them to be their best so they can do the same for each of our students.

From an academic standpoint, I enjoy the fact that independent schools like ours create an atmosphere where student engagement and faculty enthusiasm combine to form an outstanding classroom environment.  Successful upper schools provide a venue where students are fully invested in their own education, and opportunities exist for students to develop intellectual passions and take on these challenges alongside an energetic faculty and thoughtful, engaged classmates.  Rigor can be seen through both the breadth of offerings that students have at their disposal and the depth to which students can investigate those subjects.  Fostering intellectual curiosity like this requires faculty who are passionate about their own field working alongside students while demonstrating the possibilities that exist within each field of study.  Meaningful learning is an active, engaged process, and students are never more enthusiastic about a subject or their relationship to it than when they are working with a teacher who clearly loves the material, but more importantly, clearly loves working with students.  

But if schools are to create for students academic challenges and demands, the second aspect of an excellent upper school must be equally present — support.  Students will not take on the challenges set before them or undertake the risks necessary to aspire to these lofty goals without knowing that there are support mechanisms in place to help them attain their goals. Their support systems should prop them up to recover when they initially may be unable to meet those challenges successfully.  Faculty and administrators at schools are charged not only with the long-term success of their students, but also the short-term care of them as well.  While faculty should feel empowered to create an environment where the exploration of material they love allows students to take on challenges of high-level work, it is also the responsibility of the faculty to create for the students an environment where taking on and learning from those challenges is a reward unto itself.  Students who feel that they are able to take academic risks in a supportive and nurturing classroom with faculty who care about them as individuals will be much more likely to meet those challenges successfully with an eye toward future growth and development.

TNS is a place where this combination of challenge and support takes place for our students in our academic classrooms, in our athletic arenas, and in our artistic studios and stages.  I love seeing our talented faculty work with our amazing students to create excitement and foster student learning each and every day.


J.R. Neiswender

Head of Upper School    

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