From the Headmaster

Relational Learning

Alfred (Rik) F. Dugan III

When it comes to bringing out the best in boys, relationships matter... A lot. Knowing this to be true, Princeton Academy places relational learning at the center of our educational philosophy, as articulated in our fifth Learning Principle for Boys: "boys learn best through relational experiences." To build meaningful relationships that will serve as the foundation for a young man's growth, one has to be present and devote intentional time to getting to know the boy. This is why we frontload the beginning of the academic year with experiences that foster the building of strong relationships. I can think of no better way to commence the transformational journey of a Princeton Academy school year than by starting with events that focus on building relationships, and if you have experienced our first week in way, shape or form, you know there is no shortage of these moments. One has to invest with care and respect in the building of relationships, which will serve not only as a foundation for growth in the year ahead but for a lifetime. This explains why PASH alumni return home to Princeton Academy (some playing John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads as they walk through the hallways, true story), even in the opening days of their respective secondary schools, colleges and universities. Our boys long to be in a safe and welcoming environment where some of their most meaningful relationships are forged; a happy home that provides stability in an uncertain world.

We are always striving to enhance how we fulfill our mission on behalf of our boys. Thus, this past summer all Princeton Academy educators read I Can Learn From You: Boys As Relational Learners, from Harvard Education Press. Years of researching students and educators from boys schools around the world lead authors Michael Reichert (executive director of the Center for the Study of Boys' and Girls' Lives) and Richard Hawley (headmaster emeritus of Cleveland's University School) to assert that "boys and teachers made it clear...that relationships mattered to them - and was indeed the very heart of their common endeavor" and that the "establishment of an affective connection is a necessary condition for the successful conveyance of scholastic material." Citing the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Reichert and Hawley affirm "positive student-teacher relationships" are essential to a boy's development and boys need teachers who "really listen" and are genuinely "interested in their well-being...when a classroom climate is characterized by warm, respectful and emotionally supportive relationships, students perform better academically in part because they are more emotionally engaged in the learning process." In addition, "boys respond most warmly to teachers who knew and addressed them by their names, who were aware of their personal interests and circumstances, (and) who made an effort to know them as whole beings…"

At Princeton Academy, we begin each day with a morning handshake and greet each child by name. Educators are involved in all aspects of our students' lives: they coach sports teams, lead co-curricular clubs, teach across disciplines, stay connected beyond graduation and engage in the whole lives of our boys. Being an educator at Princeton Academy is not a job, it is a calling - one that prioritizes the building of healthy relationships: student-educator, student-student, educator-educator, educator-parent, and the like.I Can Learn From You reminds us all that we can learn from each other.

According to Reichert and Hawley, what differed in the accounts of the successful teachers was their "openness to continuous reassessment of their relational approaches." Being a relational school is an essential priority for Princeton Academy - it is Sacred Heart. This means that school leadership will continue to build a relational culture premised on "trust, inspiration and encouragement" within a "culture that explicitly...provides regular professional development opportunities for faculty to share their relational successes and challenges with colleagues." This is why Princeton Academy has proudly launched its One School Growth and Reflection Process for educators this year. Inspired by our Learning Principles for Boys and the Sacred Heart Goals and Criteria, this strategic initiative within Epic Vision will allow educators to reflect and grow according to those mission-driven standards that we value most at Princeton Academy, with relational learning at the heart of it all.

If you want to get to know a boy, go for a hike with him in the woods, paddle a canoe with him on a lake, play a board game with him at a table or sit around a sacred fire and create a safe space where he can talk about his hopes and dreams. Having had the privilege of being present last week with the Class of 2019 on our inaugural Eighth Grade Overnight Experience to Princeton-Blairstown Center (the Class of 2019 has exclusive naming rights for this trip - stay tuned!), I can confirm that the aforementioned experiences are true. Relationships matter and so does how we cultivate them. When done right, we can ensure that our young men will form healthy and constructive relationships with others in the future. This is what we value as we seek to provide a transformational experience for our boys to develop (the essential verb in our mission) into creative, compassionate and courageous young men.

  • boys' development
  • boys' education
  • boys' learning
  • Learning Principles for Boys
  • relational learning

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