Chapel Talks at Hackley

By Andy King, Upper School Director:  I am often asked by prospective families as well as current parents and students how Hackley’s Upper School engages in character education. I love being asked about this because the people who care enough to ask are deeply interested in the enterprise of character development and have a clear sense of Hackley’s mission. Hackley’s ambitious mission conspicuously places character ahead of scholarship and accomplishment in that trinity. And though the Upper School does not have a Character Education Department, nor are their course offerings such as “How to Be a Good Person” or “How to Make Sound Decisions,” character education is at the heart of what we do.

In their book The Students Are Watching, Theodore and Nancy Sizer write that “moral education for youth starts with adults: the lives [they] lead and thus project.” And as the title of the Sizers’ book suggests, “the students watch us, all the time. We must honestly ponder what they see, and what we want them to learn from it.” The Hackley faculty and staff engage in character education each day through such acts of modeling. They model the “unreserved effort” we extol in our mission in their preparation, hard work and commitment, through curiosity and passion for learning, respect and civility in their treatment of students and each other, appreciation for each other’s talents and quirks, and in many other ways. Such modeling may not be overt to the students at all times, but it’s happening as we affirm what we value and reject what we don’t.

One forum where Upper School teachers are very intentional and transparent in their communication of important messages about character is in our Chapel Talks program. Chapel Talks have been taking place for several years now, thanks to the efforts of the last few senior class deans who spearheaded the program. Once per 7-day cycle, seniors head to King Chapel where they are treated to a Chapel Talk delivered by a member of the Hackley faculty, staff and administration.

The senior dean invites colleagues to think of stories or experiences that shaped them and that they think might be of interest and/or assistance to these students now or in the near future. Each year, we have many more offers from eager colleagues than available Chapel periods. This enthusiasm to deliver Chapel Talks testifies to the popularity and resonance of the program and the community’s recognition of their value. Seniors look forward to them each cycle (they also love the element of surprise since we don’t tell the students ahead of time who will be speaking), as do the teachers who join the audience to hear what their colleagues have to say.

To say that I have been impressed and moved by the power of my colleagues’ stories would be an understatement. I still carry around the memory and messages of so many of these talks.

We heard from one teacher about the importance of his family through poignant stories about his grandparents. Another teacher encouraged the seniors to be their best selves in high school by telling of his chance encounters with former high school classmates who felt obligated, years later, to share their regrets with this teacher about not being particularly kind people as high school students. One teacher shared thrilling and, in some cases, high-flying stories of her personal travel adventures in a talk that encouraged the seniors to take calculated risks, not careless ones. I shared a story about my senior year of high school where my “senior slump” had some harmful, unintended consequences of which I was and am not proud. Several teachers shared accounts of their respective odysseys to the classroom. We heard about one teacher who walked away from his law career to become a teacher. Another talked about how tutoring college students at one of his day jobs got him thinking about becoming a high school teacher.

As I reflect on several years of Chapel Talks, the various virtues that my colleagues have extolled and promoted are impressive: honesty, resilience, tenacity, courage, perseverance, patience, forgiveness, acceptance, kindness and many more. Certain themes have also emerged as key takeaways from different speakers.
  • Don’t be in a hurry to plan your life when you are seventeen years old since you never know where life will take you.
  • Be broad in your definition and understanding of success.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks.
  • Disappointments can be as instructive as moments of apparent triumph.
The content of Chapel talks has been rich and the messages are inherently didactic, yet not pedantic. The students love to hear their teachers’ stories, to learn more about their lives and the experiences outside the classroom that shaped them.
They especially love to hear about their teachers’ missteps since we tend not to share our vulnerabilities and yet it’s often the mistake from which we learn the more enduring lesson.

In his book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles writes about the power of literature and stories. Coles writes, “Stories are renderings of life; they cannot only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course. They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisors — offer us other eyes through which we might see.” The aim of our Chapel talks mirrors Coles’ vision of stories as vehicles of advice, encouragement, inspiration, and empathy.

While the focal point of Chapel talks is the powerful message communicated by that week’s speaker, the audience’s experience during these Chapel talks is also vitally important. Chapel talks present a rare moment for quiet reflection during our busy school days. All too often, students and teachers speed from class to class and appointment to appointment with our phones in hand to see what communications we might have missed.

An amazing thing happens when the seniors stream into the Chapel at 10:45 a.m. on Day 6 for that cycle’s Chapel talk. For those ten to fifteen minutes, the seniors and the teachers in the audience are afforded a space where all of us can pause, listen and think about the value of someone else’s experience and how it might affect our own. As we think about community well-being, I see Chapel talks as a very healthy element of the Hackley experience.

So if you are ever on campus at 10:45 a.m. on a Day 6 and you see the senior class heading towards the Chapel, you will have a better understanding of what awaits them. And finally, the next time that you see me on campus, I hope you will say hello and ask me how we teach character in the Upper School.
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