Leadership, Responsibility, and Stewardship
by William Street, class of 1980
I still remember the first time I walked into Wooster School. I was a ninth grader, attending Ridgefield High School, when my parents and I arrived at New Building (now Grover Hall) and asked the person sweeping the floor where we could find the admissions office. I, in my naïve, pre-Wooster ways, assumed we were asking the janitor. I remembered this vividly a year later when, as a Wooster tenth grader, I was sweeping the floor as a family came in and asked me where to find the admissions office.
Self-help is most simply and probably most frequently described by student tour guides as “the students clean the school.” This simple phrase hardly begins to describe the responsibilities we require of the students. As one student who came to Wooster told me, “At my other school, we had jobs. But if you didn’t do them, the janitor would. At Wooster, you are it. If you do not do your job, no one will.”
“The students clean the school” also leaves out an important aspect of what Self-help is about. As students grow older, they grow into more and more responsibility. In the Upper School, seniors run Self-help with only limited adult supervision. If an adult must step in, it is usually because something has gone wrong. Adult supervision is the exception, not the norm.
As Wooster has evolved to become a Pre-K to 12 day school, Self-help has evolved along with it. At its core, it still involves students taking on fundamental responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance of the school.
Self-help does more than clean the school. Former teacher Donald Schwartz, in a speech to a junior class about to take over their senior responsibilities, said that Self-help at Wooster builds morals, builds morale, and cleans the school. It teaches us to think about and care for our environment. It gives us the sense of community which comes from completing a shared task. If all goes well, it cleans the school.
I sometimes tell students that there are three stages to Self-help. The first is the easiest: don’t litter. If a student realizes that she or he is making someone else’s work or play area into a garbage can, that student has become aware of something larger than him or herself. The second stage is more difficult: if you see litter, pick it up, and dispose of it. This makes us responsible not only for ourselves but also for our community. This means actively helping each other and is sometimes more difficult for people to do. The third stage is the most difficult: help create a community atmosphere in which no one would consider littering. Individuals and society are in a constant process of creating each other. If we each take positive steps towards making our community better, it will become better and better serve the individual’s needs.
Towards the end of the summer of 2009, several faculty members and I accompanied the seniors on an overnight trip to a nearby camp. The camp had students of many ages, both day students and overnight campers, and a strong outdoor education program. I was shocked and surprised that the grounds seemed to be overrun with litter! The uncaring attitude which the campers there took towards their surroundings made me appreciate all the more how lucky we are to be at Wooster. I was proud of the Wooster students who not only took care of their own trash but picked up the litter others had left on the ground.
Each senior has a responsibility for a designated area of the school. Each senior also has responsibility for the general behavior of the students and the cleanliness of the entire school. Seniors are assigned their jobs at the end of April of their junior year, when the current senior class is preparing to leave campus to pursue an independent study.
During jobs period, from 3:15-3:45 each day, students in grades 6-11 set to work at the tasks to which the seniors have directed them. They vacuum, they sweep, they dust, they empty the garbage, and take out the recycling. They wash windows. They wash dishes. They do nearly all of this without any direct adult supervision. Sometimes, I stand back and marvel at what they accomplish.
Students in grades 6-7 do their jobs under the direction of eighth grade job captains, who receive support from seniors. Students in Lower School have various classroom and dining room responsibilities as directed by their teachers.
A great deal of responsibility falls upon the Senior Prefect. This senior assigns jobs to students in grades 8-12 every few weeks and deals with dozens of minor obstacles each day. Sometimes, it seems the Senior Prefect is presented with an endless stream of students and adults wanting immediate attention to this detail or that part of the campus.
Self-help has been a part of Wooster since its inception. Founder Aaron Coburn borrowed the idea of Self-help from Father Sill, the founder of Kent School. “The boys have done the work assigned to them in a credible way,” Rev. Coburn wrote in his first report to the trustees (November 1926). “We seem to have naturally fallen into the program of Self-help.”
Since then, as Wooster has changed, so has the program. As Wooster changes, however, we strive to also remain the same, to keep what former long-time Headmaster John Verdery called “The Essence of Wooster.” Self-help helps us to maintain our identity even as we grow from a boys’ boarding school to a co-ed Upper and Middle day-boarding school to a Pre-K to 12 day school.
The impact that Self-help has upon students lasts long beyond graduation. When I talk to alums, both people with whom I attended Wooster, and people whom I taught, they invariably ask about Self-help. (Then they ask if Tom Hackett still teaches here—he does.) Several years ago, I walked around Wooster with a former prefect who had attended the school for five years. His father-in-law was with him; we stopped at every room to share some memory or experience. We spent the longest time in KP, however, remembering our experiences there during and after lunch. We recalled it as something fun and something worthwhile. I think that there are only a few schools where that sort of memory could be so important to alums.
Isaac Roth, the senior prefect in 1993, once wrote me a note which included the following words:
Self-help is the single most important thing to me. The challenge it presents causes me the most anxiety, most joy, and teaches me more than any other one thing that I do.
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