Head's Message

Each Child, Every Day

I was at lunch one day about ten years ago, sitting with members of the Middle School faculty and talking, as teachers at lunch often do, about teaching. At the table was a thirty-year veteran public school teacher and administrator who recently had accepted a position teaching Middle School English at my former school.

She’d been teaching for decades, but had only been teaching in an independent school for a few months; nevertheless, I could tell from her enthusiasm that she was finding her new job rewarding. So when the conversation paused, I asked her about her transition as a teacher from public school to independent school.

“Here’s the best way I know to describe it,” she said. “Over there, my job was to teach the curriculum, no matter who was in my classroom. Here I teach the students in my classroom, regardless of what’s in the curriculum.”

Head of School
Cobb Atkinson

Her comment was not meant to suggest that curricular content was unimportant; her students certainly left her class with a keen understanding of the fundamentals of English grammar, well-developed reading and writing skills, and significantly broader vocabularies than when they arrived.

Strong content knowledge has always and will always be a fundamental part of our work in independent schools. But that teacher's move away from a big, bureaucratic, state-run school system to an independent school invited her to redefine the terms of her work as a classroom teacher, moving from a curriculum-centered mindset to one in which the individual student was always at the center.

Gone was the mad rush to cover content in a set amount of time; instead, she found great joy and promise in the ability to slow down, curricularly speaking, to dive more deeply into a particular text or concept, or to change gears if, despite careful planning, a lesson was not working out as well as she had hoped. Her classroom had shifted from a space in which students marched with her in lock-step through that day’s prescribed material to one in which she and her students were given the latitude to explore, consider, marvel at, or grapple with ideas, texts, concepts, and questions as needed.

Like my former school, Westchester’s mission calls upon us to “educate each child toward moral, academic, artistic, and athletic excellence.” At the end of the day, curriculum standards, while important, are one set of tools that great teachers call upon to help their students learn and grow. Our hope is that they will leave us upon graduation having come to understand the great rewards to be found in a life lived in pursuit of excellence. Such a life as this emerges not simply because of what our students know, but because of who they become during their time with us. Our hope is that they will grow into young men and women who never stop learning, growing, questioning, wondering, and grappling, for these habits sit at the heart of the joy of lifelong learning.

For this reason, our primary focus as independent school teachers at WCDS will always be our students and their individual needs. Our school—with its small classes, reduced teaching loads, emphasis on relationships and community, and strong school and family partnerships—is built to enable and enrich this kind of student-centered teaching.

Cobb Atkinson

Head of School