Finding common ground

Dr. Marty West ’94 returned to Landon to deliver the Nelson Leadership Lecture at an all-school assembly. The Christopher A. Nelson ’86 Leadership Program is a lecture series held in honor of Landon student Chris Nelson, who lost his battle with leukemia in 1982.  

West serves as Academic Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is also a professor of education. 

In this Q&A, West explains the goal of his address. 

Q: What message did you share with the boys during your speech?   

What I hope students will take away from the lecture is just how privileged they are, and I was, to experience an educational environment like Landon. I use that term privileged advisedly knowing that it's a bit of a loaded term in K-12 education right now. I'm not using it to refer to an individual's attributes like their race or gender, but rather to capture the incredible investments that our community, our families, and our teachers make in students here. That should never be a source of guilt for students. But I think it should give them a sense of responsibility to give back to their communities by trying to help solve important problems that they face. 

Q: What was your reaction to being asked to deliver the Nelson Leadership Lecture?   

It was a huge honor. I'm very grateful for the opportunity. I joke that I got the invitation in January of 2020. Obviously COVID intervened with the delivery of the address when it was initially scheduled. So, what that means is that I have had about three and a half years to be nervous about what to say! 

Q: How does it feel to be back on campus? 

It has been phenomenal. Obviously, the most noticeable thing on campus right now is the construction and the excitement about what that means for the future of the school. But I'm also struck by how familiar it feels, despite having been gone for a couple of decades now. And I think that epitomizes one of the things I appreciate about Landon, which is the balance between preserving and respecting tradition while continuing to move forward with changing times. I think the school is doing that physically right now, but that's what it has always been doing in terms of its curriculum and its faculty. It is great to see that tradition continue. 

Q: What is your current role at Harvard University?  

I currently serve as the Academic Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which means that I'm responsible for overseeing the school’s degree programs and play a big role in faculty recruitment, hiring, and promotion. This is a relatively new role for me, but I've been a professor of education at the school since 2009 teaching courses on education policy and politics in the U.S. 

Q: Before you delivered your remarks to the entire school, you spoke to the faculty and staff. What did you speak about?  

(Assistant Head of School) Charles Franklin asked me to highlight three issues that we're focusing on in higher education right now that K-12 schools could be thinking about in terms of preparing students to succeed and have a positive influence on their college environment.  

One of the areas I mentioned was students who are comfortable and prepared to engage in difficult conversations with those they disagree with politically. There are obviously a lot of concerns about the environment around free speech in higher education right now. One of the trends that we see is many students reporting self-censoring themselves in the classroom, out of fear for how their peers and potentially their professors will respond. I think schools like Landon can help make sure that students are prepared to express their views, to see the value of engaging across lines of political difference, and to do so in a civil manner.  

The second issue we talked about is concerns around mental health on college campuses. We know that many schools have seen a surge in demand for mental health counseling, both in the wake of the pandemic but also in the years leading up to it. Within that, we've also seen a sharp increase in the share of students who seem to need support in the areas of study skills, and executive functioning, that are needed in order to succeed academically. I think schools like Landon can be thinking about what's the right balance of support, or scaffolding and independence, that will best equip students to succeed academically when they arrive at college.  

Then the final one is simply ensuring that students are able to write well. I think students at the college level are increasingly struggling with the ability to write clearly and concisely and to develop and sustain an argument in their written work. That's an area where students who are able to develop those skills effectively in a K-12 setting will have a real advantage. We talked a little bit in that context about the rise of generative artificial intelligence technologies like ChatGPT, and whether that may change our approach to producing and therefore teaching writing in the future. I am not sure we're there yet, but it is certainly something that educators at all levels will be watching.

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