Director of Student Life Connor Fahey understands that teenagers’ behavioral issues usually stem from somewhere deeper than just defiance.
Director of Student Life Connor Fahey, who is going into his fifth year at Oliverian, believes that mistakes are also valuable learning opportunities. That’s why he’s passionate about Oli’s approach to discipline, which offers students a valuable opportunity to grow as individuals within a larger community and prioritizes reflection over restrictions.
We sat down with Connor to talk about Oli’s unique perspective, and why our students and faculty are especially equipped to help each other overcome mistakes.
Q: What is Oliverian’s approach to discipline and supporting students through mistakes?
A: Our approach is really progressive. Not many schools are doing what we do, and our student to staff ratio is so small that we can really give individualized attention and help students grow when they make mistakes. We teach students that consequences come with any decision you make, and sometimes those consequences are positive, but sometimes they’re negative. After students make a choice that has negative consequences, we’re able to have conversations with them, and that’s really a big part of who we are. We’re about relationships: talking with the kids and finding out why they’re making some of the choices that they’re making.
Our approach to discipline is two-pronged. One of the prongs is what we call a “re-engagement plan.” If a student has a major discipline problem or chronic problem come up, we’ll talk to the student and try to determine what’s causing the behavior. Then, we’ll create a supportive plan, which doesn’t have a lot of restrictions or punishments that come with it. That plan might be something like independent counseling or check-ins with a couple of staff members each day for a week. If they took away from the community in some way with their actions, the re-engagement plan might include community service. Alternately, we offer the student a punitive option, which might be something like campus restriction or getting their allowance taken away for three weeks.
The student can then choose which they’d prefer, but our students are here because they want to grow and learn, so I wouldn’t say I’ve run into many students who choose to take the restrictions to just be done with it. Most choose to have those conversations, instead, so that they can grow from their mistakes.
Q: What do you think is missing from more traditional approaches to discipline?
A: The connection with the kids. Public schools, traditional boarding schools — they have so many kids and so few staff that they can’t really get to know the kids the way we do. Our staff lives here, so they see these kids in and out of school for months at a time. We’re not trying to guess what’s going on, we can sit down and have a conversation with the kids. No matter how many things we all have to do, there’s always going to be someone who can take the time in the middle of the day to have a conversation with a student.
Traditional schools often don’t have that flexibility. When you’re managing over 100 students, you don’t have time to have all those individual conversations and provide the wraparound support of multiple people checking with the kid during the day to make sure they’re doing okay. Also, a lot of us are raised to think, “If I do this bad thing, that bad thing will happen,” and many places still operate that way and miss a lot of opportunities for growth. Even with something as simple as being late to class a few days in a row, we have a standard response of giving detention, but we don’t leave it at that. There are going to be a lot of conversations. Maybe that student had a big test and was really anxious and couldn’t get out of bed. We’re going to talk to them about that. At bigger schools, you do your time and then you move on.
Q: What’s your favorite aspect of the culture at Oli?
A: I love the community. I’ve enjoyed working at a place where I live, where other families live, with a built-in support system. And another thing that we do at Oliverian is give students a chance to be who they are without judgment. A lot of times, you see a kid with blue hair and people are like, “Oh my god, blue hair! What an oddball!” Here, we’re like, “Okay, you have blue hair. Are you doing your work and being respectful of others?”
I really like to watch kids grow from when they first get here. Their parents drop them off, and then you can watch throughout the year as they grow and form their own opinions and start having conversations to support those opinions. That doesn’t happen everywhere. That’s what I really love about the school: we accept everyone for who they are and treat others as humans. I think that’s what attracts some of the kids here too. That’s what makes our community our community.