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Putting caring and kindness at the center of the educational experience

An interview with Ted Chen

Catlin Gabel welcomes Ted Chen as the new Head of Middle School

Interview by Ken DuBois

“What does it mean to be nice? What does it look like to be respectful? With our help, students can define what it means to them, what it looks like, and continue to strengthen those actions and mindsets, making them habits.”

How did you get started in education? Did you always plan to work with students?

I studied history in college, and when I graduated I was convinced I was going to be a history professor. I decided to take a year off before applying to grad school, and I thought I’d teach middle school history for a year and have some fun doing that. I was fortunate to find a teaching internship at the Park School, an independent school in Brookline, Massachusetts.

From the moment I set foot in the classroom and had my first class, I knew that the whole idea of being a professor in history was out the window. I just loved working with sixth through ninth grade students. It was so much fun—their energy, their quirkiness, their excitement for learning—that was really inspiring to me. It was such a joyful experience that I knew I wanted to become a middle school history teacher.

What aspects of the early adolescent stage are the most challenging and interesting for you?

One of the most interesting stages of adolescence is identity development of middle school aged students. This is a time when students are figuring out, who am I and who am I in community? They’re experimenting with the idea of their individuality and what they believe in and value. My interest in this is informed by my experiences growing up in the north shore of Chicago in a village that demographically was around ninety-seven percent white. I went through the process of finding myself, my identity as an Asian American, and coming to understand who I was and who I was in that community and how I fit into it. My adolescent years were looking at my identity development through the lens of race because that was the biggest factor for me in thinking about who I was in community. For others, their lens might be different—there are many different ways that adults and students are viewing themselves with intersectionality. Our students think about lofty topics like race, gender, and socio-economic status and their intersection with identity. I believe it is our responsibility to provide opportunities for our students to not only explore their identities, but also to share and learn from others about theirs, leading them to positive identity development and fostering a better understanding of each other.

Another aspect of adolescent development that interests me is helping students develop metacognitive skills and capacities. Helping them be able to step back, reflect, and understand their strengths and areas for growth enables them to be better learners. Being able to do this will help them with their academic pursuits, but also with important life skills like interpersonal skills, understand what it means to have healthy relationships, how to regulate their emotions, what healthy coping strategies they can utilize, and how to self-advocate. Metacognitive skills will help students with all of these topics and also with their identity development and their overall sense of self. So we need to help them and facilitate their journey with our guidance, our help, and our safety nets.

Tell us about your transition from teaching to school administration. Why were you drawn to that aspect of the education profession?

At each point in my career, from the Park School to Kingswood Oxford to Lakeside, I’ve always taken the approach that I wanted to experience it all. I wanted to understand how things work, I wanted to be in the room to hear how decisions are being made and take part in that process, I wanted to help out in any way that I could. Understanding how schools worked really fascinated me. I started to think about the school as a whole, and to ask, what role can I play in helping to make this the best community and the best learning environment possible? That led me down this path to school administration where I get to intentionally think about building, sustaining, and fostering a sense of community and culture where high level teaching and learning is taking place, developing the whole student and the whole child.

What aspects of school culture do you feel are most important for student development, academically, socially, and emotionally?

I think that having a caring, kind, and ethical school community is the foundation of education. Even as schools adapt and change, this is something that will remain. Because when you have a safe learning environment, and safe for everybody, learning will take place at its highest levels. The foundation of this is creating an environment where teachers, administrators, and staff are helping to build relationships with students that allows them to feel comfortable, feel supported, and feel safe taking healthy and appropriate risks in their development as adolescents.

One of the best ways to build a safe and caring, ethical community is to be proactive. We have to do a good job of messaging that we value a caring community, that we value each and every single student and community member. Once this is known, we have to give students the opportunity to practice what it means to be caring and ethical in a community—through large and small actions. One thing that I’ve enjoyed doing over the years is to engage in fun activities centered around the community values—whether they be inclusion or caring—and having the students engage with those topics in low stakes situations. Through this, we help them process these concepts and practice them, giving them more tools and skills to give back to their community. They know that caring means being nice, but what does nice mean? What does that look like when you are nice to somebody, when somebody’s nice to you? What does it look like to be respectful? With our help, students can define what it means to them, what it looks like, and continue to strengthen those actions and mindsets, making them habits and helping to build the ethical spirits that the world needs from its future citizens and leaders.

  • Catlin Gabel Head of Middle School (started fall 2019)

  • Lakeside School (Seattle) Assistant Director of Middle School (2013-19) and Department Chair (2016-19)

  • Lakeside School middle school history teacher (2009-2017) and grade level coordinator (2010-2013)

  • Kingswood Oxford School (Connecticut) middle school history teacher, coach, and advisor (2003-08)

  • The Park School (Massachusetts) history teacher (2002-03)

  • B.A. in History from the University of Michigan

  • Ed.M from Harvard Graduate School of Education