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Academic Lens: Learning, Unlearning, and Re-Learning About Adolescents

Scott Allenby

Whether we have taught for one year or thirty years, there is a newness that accompanies cool August nights. We enter our first meetings and professional development training with anticipation of the yet-to-be-written prose of the school year, wondering how we, and our students, will contribute to the narrative that unfolds over the next ten months. 

As educators, we model the lifelong learning that we hope to instill in our students. By kicking off each school year with two days of intense professional development, we learn, question, and reframe the work that we know so well. We were incredibly fortunate this week to welcome educator, author, and neuroscientist Allison Posey to campus for an all-day training and to engage deeply with our Student Experience team around training as advisors, dorm parents, and how to best become trusted adults for our students. 

Proctor Academy Professional Development

Over the summer, our teaching faculty read Allison Posey’s book Unlearning in preparation for her workshop. Posey discussed her own journey as an educator and shared research on how our brains change based on how we use them, challenging us to think more deeply about our students’ journeys to and through Proctor. Among the many nuggets of wisdom Posey shared with us was her presentation of jagged profiles of our learners. There is variability in cognition and emotion, but should not be labels. When we label students with a specific learning difference, we underestimate their neuroplasticity and our creativity as educators. We must continue to hold expectations high, even for those students for whom learning is most challenging, while supporting their uniquely jagged learning profiles along the way. This concept of balancing rigor and support is not new for Proctor, however, Posey’s work provides a new context through which we can apply it across learning environments with our students. 

When our students arrive on campus, they come with brains and hearts eager to connect with their friends and the Proctor community. Posey helped us understand that their brains are both plastic and deeply ingrained in the neural pathways they have developed over the last 14-17 years of their lives. Our brains can change based on how we use them, but our neurobiology parallels our lived experiences. Emotions activate physiology, drive attention, and impact cognition. Therefore, we must design our learning environments so we can reduce our students’ cortisol levels by understanding the emotions tagging along in their backpacks and developing clear, tight goals for our classrooms. We strongly encourage you to read Posey’s book and to learn more about how our brains function so we can help our students understand how their brains impact their behavior, emotions, and learning. 

Proctor Academy students

Posey’s work connected directly to our professional development led by the Student Experience Team related to how we best serve as trusted adults for our students. Research unequivocally supports the fact that when a child has a trusted adult in their life, it is the single most preventative factor for bullying, substance abuse, and mental health issues. (The same actually applies to us as adults!) We build relational trust over time, however, and when our new students arrive on campus starting next Friday, they will be operating on calculated trust, not relational trust. They will be making judgements based on what they think is going to happen rooted in their past experiences. 

Proctor Academy Professional Development

For adolescents, their lived experiences, emotions, and cognitive loads play a critical role in their overall educational experience. Each student steps onto campus with a unique learning style, past educational experiences (positive or negative), cultural norms, and even language barriers. Feelings are facts for adolescents, regardless of how illogical we may think those feelings are, and our role as advisors, dorm parents, coaches, and teachers is to simply be an accessible, boundaried, and caring presence in their lives. 

The past two days of professional development cut to the core of Proctor’s educational model: celebrating a neurodiverse community that keeps trusting relationships at its core. Thank you to all who contributed to these workshops, training, and deep thinking. We cannot wait to put it all into practice. 

Read more about Professional Development at Proctor HERE!

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