Before students returned to campus for the spring semester, the faculty welcomed consultants David Wolowitz and Quincy McLaughlin. Wolowitz, an attorney and consultant to independent schools on the evolving standard of care for protecting student health and safety, spoke to the Emma Willard School Board of Trustees and leadership team earlier this year. For this session he was joined by Quincy McLaughlin, the dean of student well-being at The Hotchkiss School, where she provides oversight and leadership in all areas of student well-being, with special attention to creating consistent, equitable practices across the school.
Wolowitz and McLaughlin presented Guideposts for Healthy Student-Teacher Relationships, a compass for both teaching and non-teaching faculty to engage with students in ways to promote healthy childhood development.
They stressed the major role relationships play in a student’s success or failure, and discussed ways to keep students on an upward journey and how to identify when an adult at the school may be heading down a slippery slope in behaviors that are harmful to the student’s growth.
While instances of sexual abuse and misconduct are oft-discussed cases, Wolowitz and McLaughlin stressed that there are a number of ways that students and educators can head down a slippery slope, even while having good intentions. They noted how this can be exacerbated by changing standards of care and social and cultural norms.
Their presentation identified four guiding points: roles, boundaries, power, and accountability. When working with adolescents, awareness and adherence to each of these is critical for developing relationships with students in order to promote their healthy social and emotional growth.
Role awareness is key, and is the responsibility of adults to set as it is not always obvious to students. In boarding schools in particular, faculty play many roles in students’ lives. It is crucial for faculty to be professionals and role models at all times, without appealing to students on a personal, peer, or familial level.
Having clearly defined roles that are not self-serving to adults helps in setting and maintaining clear and appropriate boundaries that benefit students. Wolowitz and McLaughlin discussed the many ways to establish boundaries through use of space, attire, language, time of interaction, place, and more.
In addition, understanding the power imbalance between students and faculty is essential for promoting positive developmental growth. Faculty must consciously avoid mishandling their influence, and acting in ways that meet their own needs or could lead to a power-dependent relationship with a student.
Finally, Wolowtiz and McLaughlin stressed the need for accountability. They noted that while it is human nature to want to avoid critical feedback, faculty must not be defensive or focus on the intent of their actions. Acceptance and understanding of the impact of words or actions are what leads to healthy relationships.
After discussion of their guideposts, Wolowitz and McLaughlin presented a number of real-life scenarios of cases from other schools to talk through with the group. There were several themes across the scenarios, including why role awareness—our own and others’—and asking for help from experts in other roles at the school protects students and faculty members alike; how unclear boundaries can be misconstrued; and the danger of confiding in students as professional peers.
The scenarios were met with many audible groans and discomfort from Emma faculty as they quickly identified the missteps in each case, and discussed the correct actions that should have been taken. It was elightening and educational to see how the adults in the scenarios, because they focused on intent and not impact, were unaware as to how their lack of role awareness and appropriate boundaries negatively impacted students. In one scenario, a teacher overstepped a professional relationship with a student who was experiencing bullying by her peers, and quickly started to interact with her as a peer and friend, which created a harmful situation for the student who needed other tools to navigate the situation.
The presentation and scenarios provided a lot of talking points for the faculty. We appreciate David Wolowitz and Quincy McLaughlin for leading such an interactive and engaging session, and will continue exploring these topics moving forward.