Conversations with the Head: Josh Eagle, Dean of Students

What does a Dean of Students do at Commonwealth, exactly? The title conjures a university administrator overseeing a network of offices devoted to student mental health services, extracurricular opportunities, family supports, social outlets, and more. In many ways, Josh Eagle’s work as our Dean of Students is no less extensive or nuanced.

With a team you’ll meet elsewhere in this article, Josh oversees “student life” at Commonwealth, which, we’ve been known to say, encompasses “everything outside the classroom.” But even that’s misleading, because attending to learning differences and academic challenges also falls to Dr. Eagle and the Student Life team. His assortment of responsibilities also includes everything from chaperoning student dances to welcoming new families to weighing in on discipline cases. All are in service of supporting students and their ambitions at Commonwealth while giving them the skills they need to thrive beyond our walls.

Dr. Eagle and Head of School Jennifer Borman ’81 share a primary concern: students’ well being. Their work takes different forms but often intersects, like balancing Commonwealth’s academic rigor and supports to provide a healthy amount of intellectual “stretch” and combating lingering effects of the pandemic, as they discuss below.

Tell us more about what you do, Dr. Eagle. Why do we have a Dean of Students? And what is the role of the Student Life team?

Josh Eagle: My job is about attending to people’s health and well-being—students, primarily, but also families, faculty, staff—and making sure all stakeholders are getting what they need in order to be successful here.

I’m a psychologist by training—I love talking to people—and a big part of my work is meeting with students, sometimes over a short term, sometimes a longer one, to help them problem-solve when they’re having issues in school or at home or with friends. Another piece of my job is stepping in when students have difficulties in the classroom, helping them figure out what exactly is getting in the way and working with their teachers and families to make sure they have the appropriate support.

The Student Life team is myself, two other clinical folks [school counselor Eben Lasker and intern Lilit Derkevorkian], Rebecca Jackman [Assistant Head of School], and Lisa Palmero [Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion]. We also added a consultative role this year: Audrey Budding [history teacher], who brings even more classroom context to our conversations.

I also work closely with several student clubs, like COMMunity, to develop—for lack of a better word—a sense of community here! No two days are ever alike.

Jennifer Borman: One of the things people often ask me as an alum coming back to Commonwealth is how the school has changed. To me, this is the most striking set of changes: the web of support, both academic and emotional, is so much more built out than when I was a student. The exhilaration in the classroom is very similar, and advisors were wonderfully supportive then, but I feel like it was more “sink or swim” in my era. I just am so impressed and grateful to have so many adults looking at students’ experiences from multiple angles.

JE: I agree. I think we can be both challenging and demanding; we can expect a lot of kids and also offer them help if and when they need it. It’s not an either/or situation!

We do expect a lot of students—and they expect a lot from themselves! Commonwealth’s academic ethos is intellectually exhilarating, often life changing, and sometimes quite stressful. How do we help students mitigate that stress, set healthy goals (especially around college admissions), and grow as scholars and people?

JB: Our students are incredibly ambitious, and that is truly inspiring. The kids here hold themselves to high standards. They want to do a million clubs and extracurriculars. They’re in it full force. Usually that’s one of the thrilling things about being here, but sometimes that can lead to a lot of stress for them. Josh and I use the stretching metaphor: if you’re stretching your body, you want to go just to the point where it’s uncomfortable—but not so far you hurt yourself. The Student Life team helps us find that balance with each student. That balance shifts from freshman to sophomore to junior and senior year, but I feel like we’re always titrating in that way, finding a healthy amount of stretch.

JE: Absolutely. We’ve worked really hard institutionally, over the course of many years, to dispel myths like “not sleeping a lot equates with being your hardest-working self.” We talk a lot in ninth grade about the importance of sleep and the corollaries of not getting enough of it. And it’s something we are mindful of, I think, as a community.

JB: The college stress is real, too. I teach seniors, and I call it the Baskin Robbins of stress: it comes in lots of different flavors as it unfolds throughout senior year. I think the messaging does get through, though, that they are going to get into wonderful colleges and that they are incredibly well positioned to thrive at those colleges. That said, and very much despite our messages and support, seniors often feel the stakes are very high. And that’s an ongoing challenge and an ongoing dialogue.

JE: We tell students: “Come here, invest in learning how to learn, and don’t worry about college until junior year.” That says a lot about how we value teaching students to be curious and to dig deeply into what they’re observing and learning. But there’s an inherent tension between being present for this high-school experience and being attuned to what’s to come after. I don’t think we’ve solved that, but it’s a work in progress.

JB: Beyond our own impressions and intuitions about how each student is doing, we administer this survey every other year, Challenge Success, to get a sense of how Commonwealth students are engaging with their academic work, how much enjoyment they’re experiencing, how much stress they’re feeling and how that stress shows up in terms of sleep patterns or anxiety, [and] to what extent they are connecting with people in this school and feeling a sense of belonging. That data lets us look more holistically and objectively at what’s happening at Commonwealth than our own noticings.

One data point from the last survey that still sticks with me is that the students themselves report that the work that they’re being asked to do is meaningful. Very rarely is it what they’d call “busy work.” This means, in large measure, our kids are really engaged, and our faculty do a wonderful job of engaging them. Another takeaway is that most students feel like they have an adult in the building they can connect with, particularly relative to other schools like ours. Again, our numbers aren’t perfect, but it was a much higher percentage of kids feeling like there was an adult who they could go to who they can trust, which to me, is paramount.

What happens when a student stretches too far, pushing themselves in their classes and clubs? How do we intervene when they’re feeling overwhelmed?

JE: Depending on the nature of the issue, it can be as simple as a Student Life team member meeting once or twice to talk about what course load makes the most sense, or it can be longer conversations about what’s really going on, and that can sometimes take a little while to parse out. Even though students often know they’re overdoing it, they’re often reluctant to make changes.

Usually but not always, when a student shows up at my door, I have some sort of idea of why they’re there. Their advisors often reach out to me first—and it’s usually after they’ve had multiple conversations with the student. That tells me advisors are well connected with what’s going on with their kids. So by the time a student meets with me, they’re primed to entertain the prospect of change, which is helpful.

JB: There’s individual support, there’s problem solving, and there’s more programmatic thinking about the architecture we need to build so all kids can thrive. The Student Life team is really on the vanguard of asking, “All right, what do you need to understand as, say, an incoming ninth grader to be a successful student here?” It’s not just “how do we help a given child” but “how do we look at what we offer academically and programmatically to make sure all students are thriving?”

What do those programmatic student supports look like?

JE: You mentioned ninth graders, and the Ninth-Grade Seminar, specifically, really grew out of our recognition, during the pandemic, that we couldn’t assume a certain set of skills for new students in the way we had previously. So we worked to create a space to teach ninth graders, you know, What does it take to be successful here? What does it mean to be organized and on top of your work? What do those strategies actually look like? I think that [course] has made a real difference, and I hope it sticks around for many years.

Also on the programmatic side, there are community-building events—

JB: Where would we be without Overly Complicated Board Game Nights?!

JE: Ha! Yes, that is one thing I was thinking of. Especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, there was a real hunger from both students and families for more opportunities to connect outside of the classroom. Because our community lives all over Greater Boston, it’s harder for people to get together outside of school, so creating more spaces for them to just be together is really important. So we tried to create more school-based events for students to take part in as well as a student-led club to plan and orchestrate these activities. A couple years ago, it was often faculty and maybe one or two students planning these events; now students are eager to create these events for each other, which is wonderful to see.

You mentioned Lisa Palmero being on the Student Life team. Can you talk about how diversity, equity, and inclusion informs your work?

JE: I can’t say enough about Lisa, just the importance of her voice and presence and thoughtfulness. She has a talent for helping us solve complicated problems quickly, incisively. It’s not uncommon for our younger students to not necessarily know the boundaries of communication or understand the impact of their words and actions in a greater community. And when we run into situations like that, it’s essential to have Lisa’s perspective and expertise to help us think through the right educational response.     

Lisa also helped Rebecca and I implement another important Student Life change over the pandemic: meeting one-on-one with all new families before their children even enter our building, even before orientation. We did this because we were finding that often, our administrators’ first meetings with parents were centered around problems or challenges and we wanted to find ways to be more proactive with those new to our community, for us to hear a little background and to better anticipate ways we might encourage and support our new students as well as to make more informed advisor choices. I think that’s made us a more welcoming place for new families—at least, that’s the feedback I’ve heard so far!

Even as the pandemic recedes, we know it exacerbated many existing teen mental health issues. How are you thinking about these challenges and approaching them at Commonwealth?

JB: We spend a lot of time looking at public health data and the various analyses that try to show a causal link between things like social media use and rising rates of anxiety and depression [in teens]. Thankfully, on balance, our students show a lot of the behaviors that lead to resilience: they’re engaged with each other, they’re not cliquey, they have really constructive relationships with adults here and outside of Commonwealth. That said, we’re mindful of the fact that many of our students do experience mental health challenges, as many teenagers do. And that’s why it’s crucial to have such a strong team—and not just the Student Life team—with eyes on. It’s fundamental to what Commonwealth is, how intentionally small we are and how carefully every adult in the building attends to how kids are doing. “Oh, that child who was full of giggles a week ago now seems down and isn’t eating with their friends; what’s going on?” Or “A child who was thriving in a class is now way behind on work; what can we do?”

JE: The pandemic hit latency-age adolescents extremely hard. It’s a time when kids really need to be around each other to learn and to grow, and to know what it means to be in a community and have a friend. One of the impacts of being at home for eighteen months at that age is that kids missed out on a lot of important opportunities to learn what it means to be a teenager. So initially we saw—and I think still are seeing, to some degree—what happens when young people miss almost two years of socialization. That meant we had to adjust our expectations around what a “typical” ninth- or tenth-grade student looks like post-pandemic, and we needed to figure out what areas we needed to focus on encouraging and developing, like study and organizational skills, or social emotional growth.

But I have to agree, Jennifer, that one of the benefits of being a very small community is that we can have a bigger impact on the lives and the evolution of the kids here in ways that help them grow into robust adults. We encourage face-to-face interaction. We encourage developing relationships amongst classmates and with teachers. And I think that mediates a lot of what they might encounter elsewhere in the world.

I also think the typical Commonwealth student is bought into what we do here, which is, really, learning how to be a learner. And by virtue of that, they’re approaching things like social media differently. Not to say there aren’t some kids who use social media too much or use it in the wrong way, but I really don’t think social media is a part of our culture in the same way it is as other schools—and I say this from my experience working with teenagers across the metro Boston area. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attentive.

One of our faculty working groups this year is focused on attention and distraction: How can we encourage sustained attention in and out of class? What are the barriers to that? And how can we create principles or a philosophy around healthy phone or technology usage we can follow as a community? That we’re engaging in thought and work around these issues, I think, speaks to who we are and how we take care of kids.

JB: The pandemic cast a long, long shadow and was—and sometimes is—an intrusive influence on our community. Still, I have to say, it feels very different this year to me. I think about our new cohort of ninth graders: they are so extroverted and enthusiastic and eager to connect. I don’t know if it’s a new phase of post-pandemic healing or if we just got really lucky. Again, this is only our second cohort of post-pandemic ninth graders!

JE: Yeah, I would agree. There’s a real champing at the bit to do all the things that come with being a Commonwealth student that feels pre-pandemic. Part of what keeps all of us going, I think, is that enthusiasm the new students bring. And I agree: their excitement is palpable.     

I just want to say, I’m profoundly grateful for the commitment each of the various stakeholders brings to student life: I think our kids are wonderfully inspiring. I think our faculty are the best at what they do. And I think our families are very supportive of what we’re trying to do and willing to partner with us in finding precisely the right ways to support their kids. There’s alignment across the board, for sure, which is what makes Commonwealth such a special place.

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