RIGOR AND JOY

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

As taken from a talk given by Nancy Nebeker at the Parent Associations (PA) Meeting on February 2, 2022. 

How delightful it is to be asked to speak in a meeting focused on Wellness and not have my remarks centered around Covid-19. That feels like a first in a long time. Instead my thoughts are around wholeness and wellness in the context of Waterford’s rich and inviting liberal arts program.  

I admit to feeling sadness around doing this on Zoom.  I can’t really see your faces and feel your supportive energy.  Nevertheless, I feel honored to have some of your time this morning.

Some nine years ago Brandon Bennett gave a talk about the “Culture of Scholarship” at Waterford and he identified Rigor, Joy and Meaning as the key characteristics of a true community of learners.  The talk resonated and the conversation around joy and rigor continue to this day.  We know it to be a delicate balance that we’re ever striving to sustain.  We also know that the balance of joy and rigor is the best description of the essence of what we hope each Waterford student will find here

I suspect that every parent at Waterford knows what we mean by rigor.  Waterford’s rich curriculum is intended to challenge and stimulate the minds of young learners across all grades. I think often though the notion of rigor is reduced to the amount of homework and the number of tests and exams.  But truly, the rigor is much more nuanced than that.  It is found in the texts we read, in the discussions teachers facilitate and in the thinking students contribute both verbally and on paper.  The rigor is all about effort over time spent in a deep and broad liberal arts curriculum that stretches and changes both the student and the teacher.

But what about the joy?  You get the rigor.  You see it as you see your child settle in to do their  homework or stress over an upcoming test.  You certainly get a chance to read about the rigor in your child’s Progress Reports three times a year.  But where is the joy?  I thought I would do a bit of sleuthing on the joy front with a lunch time crowd of Middle and Upper School students over the last few days on that exact question:  What brings you joy at Waterford?  You see, I spend every lunch these days in the Assembly Hall making sure students are safe and well at lunch.   My casual conversations with your children are often the highlight of my day.  So I asked dozens of students what brings them joy at Waterford and I don’t think their answers will surprise you. But they are worth sharing:

Friends, of course, top the list.  Specifically, “life-long” friends and “new” friends were mentioned.  The notion of Community emerged quickly in their comments too.  They weren’t just talking about their personal friends, they were including the kinship with all of the students around them.  In fact they said that “the welcoming and inclusive community” (not my words, but theirs)  brings them joy. 

Teachers were also prominently on the list of what brings students joy here.  Words like amazing, kind, passionate, and supportive, were used to describe faculty.  They also mentioned the connection they feel with their teachers, and the small classes that let them experience their teachers' personal attention.  A couple of students mentioned the trust teachers place in them.  Clearly, we do hard things around here, but we don’t do them alone.  It turns out that being known by their teachers brings our students joy.

Then they talked about the things they were learning. They mentioned that their classes benefited them and changed them.  The arts were mentioned specifically for the beautiful materials they get to work with and how their creativity is inspired by their Art teachers.  Theater productions that they feel are the best of any school around.  And music that could make your heart sing.  This is what brings our students joy.

The beauty of our campus came up several times on the list too.  Walking across campus between classes.  Seeing the mountains. Sitting together on the quad - even in the cold.  Being together in such a beautiful setting brings our students joy.  Then of course Athletics came up - specifically soccer, crew, and basketball were mentioned.  The “brotherhood of a team” brings our students joy.  Time at lunch.  Fun assemblies like our Chinese New Year Assembly yesterday.  Good conversations. People in general across this campus offering kindness brings our students joy.

I have come to believe that when sustained, the balance of joy and rigor allows our students to flourish.  Those of you who have known me over the years know that “flourish” is one of my most favorite words.  Simply defined flourish means and I quote: “to grow and develop in a healthy and vigorous way -- especially (and this is the part I like best) especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.” (end quote)  I can’t think of a better way to describe our hopes and aspirations for our work with your children here at Waterford. 

Some years ago, Dr. Martin Seligman, a well-known research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania wrote a book entitled Flourish -- which obviously drew my attention.  Seligman felt that psychology had spent decades focusing only on mental illness and too little -- if any time -- on the conditions for mental wellness and overall well-being.  

As a result Seligman set out to research what helped people flourish. Interestingly enough, his theory of well-being includes four things - all of which we clearly set out to do every day at Waterford.  Every one of them in fact live in the space of the balance of joy and rigor: 

1st is what Seligman describes as engagement or flow - that is the state of being so immersed in your endeavors that you lose track of time and place.  Waterford teachers strive for that flow and engagement in every class they teach.   

2nd is rewarding personal relationships - such as what happens between friends and between teachers and their students. That sounds just like the comments your students shared with me about their friends and their teachers.

3rd is meaning - Seligman describes that as belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than yourself and your self-interests. For Waterford learning - learning for learning's sake - is the true meaning behind our aspirational mission.  Helping our students to discover the power of their mind is where that meaning is found.

Finally 4th is achievement or accomplishment - which interestingly enough Seligman notes is often pursued inexplicably for its own sake. It happens in the art studio with the last stroke of the brush, in the writing center when that essay feels polished and ready to submit and in the gym when practice and drills lead to victories.  For me, Seligman’s work on well-being is a striking description of what Waterford strives for everyday in the balance of joy and rigor.  

We know that everything we do here is in partnership with you.  As you spend time around the dinner table, ask your children about a low point and a high point of their day at Waterford.  Ask them about what they are looking forward to learning.  What has piqued their interest?  Who has inspired them?  What about school are they most grateful for?  Believe it or not we have had those conversations with your Middle and Upper School students in Morning Meetings, because research tells us that gratitude enhances our ability to feel good about ourselves and our circumstances.  Gratitude, it turns out,  helps us to feel joy.

This morning I feel gratitude for you, our committed, supportive and generous parents who trust us with your most precious gift - your children.  Their care and keeping is a sacred trust.  Their wellbeing, their wellness, their wholeness matter deeply to us.   In the end our vision is to prepare young people to live lives of meaning and purpose and the means to arrive there is in the artful and delicate balance of rigor and joy.  It is my good fortune to partner with you in this most meaningful work.

Thank you.


Nancy Nebeker, Dean of Students, is a graduate of Brigham Young University where she received her B.A. in Political Science. She then went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Communication with a focus on Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington D.C. Shortly after finishing her Master’s degree, Nancy moved to Bangkok, Thailand where she and her husband lived for over a decade. While there, Nancy began work at The Early Learning Centre, the leading preschool for expat children in Bangkok. Her work was centered in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy for preschool children, using a creative, project based curriculum rich in art, music and drama. When Nancy returned to the states, she came to work in Waterford’s PreK-Fours program for a number of years. Nancy stepped away from Waterford for a time when her last two children were born. She then started course work for a second Master’s in Library and Media Education through an online program at Minnesota State University. Nancy returned to Waterford in the Middle and Upper School Library while working on her Master’s degree. Her work with students soon expanded to Senior Class Dean, Middle School Dean in 2012, and finally, Waterford’s Dean of Students in 2018. Nancy and her husband Michael are the parents of six children, four of whom are Waterford graduates. As a family, they have been deeply involved in humanitarian work, most recently working with refugee families resettled to Utah. She served as the faculty advisor for Waterford’s Upper School Community Service Council and has helped lead three Waterford humanitarian trips to Kolkata, India.