There are certain lessons that can be missed in the course of a liberal arts education, topics that fail to arise in history, mathematics, English, biology, German, and jazz band. Holden Caulfield probably shouldn’t be a student’s only point of reference, for instance, in understanding healthy relationships.
At many day schools, there are life lessons that can be left to parents to teach, and there are some that are trundled into a mandatory health class one semester. But at a boarding school where many of our students depend on the faculty and staff for more than just guidance in grammar, jump shots, and calculus, Wayland is expanding its efforts to guide students in life beyond the classroom.
The school’s new Life Skills program is led by Dean of Students Linda Tyranski and aims to provide students with information and lessons in everything from assertiveness to time management
and even yoga. The impetus for the program began a few years ago as a result of conversations during the faculty retreat about how to fill some of the gaps in student knowledge in a variety of areas. Tyranski said, “We really are tasked with teaching kids with what they need to know outside the classroom, because, especially for boarding students, we operate in loco parentis.”
While many of these conversations happen between students and their mentors, faculty, coaches, and the school’s nurses, they were happening on an ad-hoc basis, said Tyranski. “We were teaching them on the fly,” said Tyranski, “but we weren’t making sure that every student was getting a consistent message and that we were covering some really important bases with all students before they graduated.”
The initial attempt to bridge these gaps across the student body was limited to guest speakers who spoke to students about different topics such as resiliency, stress management, assertiveness, and time management. In order to encourage students to ask questions, the program added small group meetings last year where students were divided by class and sometimes by gender. Tyranski noted these small group meetings are, “designed to have students in a safe setting where they can freely discuss important topics without fearing that their responses would be more public. A place that establishes trust and encourages them to be more open and ask those burning questions they have.”
The small groups have also allowed the program to gear Life Skills topics towards students in the most relevant fashion. For instance, homesickness is a topic that no longer speaks to most seniors at this point in their careers at Wayland, but students new to Wayland truly benefit from that discussion. Likewise, a small group of recent graduates will be speaking with the seniors this semester to talk about their own transition to college and answer questions. Tyranski describes it as College 101. “These are things you’ll face in college, things that are challenging coming out of Wayland,” he said. “It’s a ‘Things I wish I had known’ session.”
The smaller sessions have been helpful in allowing faculty and students to discuss complicated and sometimes uncomfortable topics including bullying, drugs and alcohol, romantic relationships, sexual assault, and personal hygiene. “In the two Sex Education sessions, the students had so many really good questions,” said Tyranski. “It teaches us what they don’t know. Despite the fact that we have very mature, well-traveled students, they’re still young people and they have a lot to learn. We have a responsibility to help them learn and guide them to the right resources.”
One of the most popular Life Skills meetings in the fall semester was a yoga session for the seniors. “The first thing the students said to me afterwards was: can we do this every week? When can we do this again?” said Tyranski. Visiting yoga instructors Ali Szarzynski and Ryan Ogburn from Yama Yoga in Milwaukee led this introductory yoga session. In addition to the physical benefits, flexibility, and core strengthening inherent in yoga, Tyranski said the instructors spoke with students about the holistic benefits of the practice including, “paying attention to how you breathe, how to relax, and how to be mindful of the moment and stop focusing on things that stress you out. The timeliness of the moment was good. It was a stressful point in the semester,
and this was an amazing opportunity to be in the present, to be thoughtful and mindful, and to lie back and breathe.”
Funding for some of the Life Skills program has been provided through the generosity of the Mark A. McMillan Memorial Fund, an endowed fund established to support mental health counseling and substance abuse and prevention programs in memory of Mark McMillan who took his own life at the age of 33. The McMillan family and Tyranski have worked together to expand the program’s offerings.
Tyranski is excited for the future of the Life Skills program, and said that it has broken the ice on some difficult topics and opened the door to her office and others on campus for students to talk about sensitive subjects. “When you have a program that gives us insights into what our students are thinking or feeling, and what makes them tick, it is so rewarding,” she said. “It’s why we’re in education. Having these honest, in-depth discussions with students is such a positive experience.”