Skip to main content

Middletown Life

Daniel T. Roach, Jr. headmaster, St. Andrew's School

Jan 01, 2015 01:11PM ● By Kerigan Butt

In his 17 years as the headmaster at the St. Andrew's School, Daniel "Tad" Roach, Jr., has seen the art of education transform from one learned primarily in a classroom to one that extends globally, measured not only in knowledge but in action.

At. St. Andrew's, what a student does is just as important as what a student knows, and it's a tenet that Roach has woven within the mission of the school. Recently, Middletown Life sat down with Roach and Will Robinson, a 1997 graduate of St. Andrew’s and current dean of students, to talk about the changing role of education, the impact of a parent on a child's learning, public school education versus private school education, and the role that a St. Andrew's student should play in the world.

Q: The world has become a global marketplace of ideas and innovation, and the craft of learning no longer takes place just within the pages of a textbook or merely in a classroom. In your estimation, what must the mission of education for the 21st century become, and how do you see it in evidence at St. Andrew's?

Roach: If you think about educational philosophy in a very broad sense, you're thinking about three basic things: The intellectual skills and habits of mind that are necessary for success and citizenship and engagement in the 21st century; issues of character and issues of integrity and morality that are going to be increasingly important; and the increased understanding of diversity in our world. An educator now balances all three. In terms of habits of mind, the revolution in technology, the research in great teaching, has allowed us to know more about the process of learning than we've ever known.

In terms of the issue of character, integrity and morality, we're living in a world that gives us examples of both extremes.  Teaching this is the increasing responsibility of schools. Schools are where the most important changes in American society have taken place. We witnesed changes in the notion of educational opportunities for women. We pursued the civil rights revolution in all schools.

St. Andrew's is a private school with a public purpose. In the early 20th century, American boarding and prep private schools were modeled after the English public school tradition, and they were for a particular group of white male students who were from affluent backgrounds, and were being prepared specifically for privilege and for leadership. In 1929, St. Andrew's founders decided that there needed to be a school that would have an audacious commitment to financial aid, that could serve students from poor and middle-class backgrounds, and seek to give those students the same opportunities that other students were receiving at other prep schools.

Each headmaster at St. Andrew's has been given the responsibility of trying to figure out how the founding of the institution will play out in his era. I've been the head for 17 years. The modern school still has this commitment to financial aid. Almost 50 percent of our students are on financial aid, our budget for aid has reached $5.5 million a year, and the average financial aid commitment is about $40,000 a year per student. International students are coming from all different countries and cultures. We are a school of tremendous energy, diversity and possibility.

If you're a head of a school, you've got to know how it will respond to modern society, and the evidence is that students graduating from here are not only prepared for individualistic success, but that their lives have to be about something more than themselves. They have to believe in their responsibility for something greater than themselves.  

Robinson: I married a woman from my class who is a midwife in Dover and spends a lot of her time advocating on behalf of women. Tonight I'm having dinner with a few St. Andrew's classmates, one of whom works for the Chester River Association, helping keep our waterways clean, and another is a professor of sociology and is one of the leading voices on juvenile justice reform in America. It's hard to leave St. Andrew's and simply just make a lot of money and nothing else. You have to stare people like Tad in the face and tell them what you're doing for the world, and I would be embarrassed if I were to tell him that I wasn't doing anything for anyone but myself. It's why I came back to St. Andrew's, and why I've devoted the last four years of my life to it. I believe in our mission.

Q:  A a first-year student arrives at the St. Andrew's School in the fall semester of 2014.  Let's call him Ian. Four years later, he will collect his diploma and leave the campus for the last time. During his time here, how do you want him to grow as a person?  How will he be different on that podium than he was as a first-year student?

Roach: It's dynamic and organic and there's no one process. I try to plan backwards by asking what is it I want Ian to have when he leaves St. Andrew's? I want  him to have a passion for the life of the mind. I want this to be a place where he will fall in love with religion or philosophy or math or literature. The notion of the school is designed to make them lifelong learners. It may sound like high rhetoric, but it's designed to allow them to fall in love with the work of scholarship.

The other gigantic thing is that we want them to be more kind, empathetic, and more aware of the needs of others than when they arrived. We want them to become independent, resilient and autonomous, so that whatever they face for the rest of their lives, whether it be challenge or tragedy, they'll have resources to get them through those moments.

We want them to understand that when they leave here, that the world, the nation and their own communities need them to be alert and alive and engaged, and being able to give of themselves in a powerful way.

I received a beautiful letter from a student who just graduated. She told me that when she was in the ninth grade here, she didn't speak at all. She did her assignments but was very quiet. Her praise of the school, she said in her letter, was that that the school had given her a voice.  

Q: In November 2011, you said at Christ Church in Charlottesville, Va., that a primary goal of education – beyond its strategic notions – should be to improve a student's grit, determination, tenacity, and most importantly, to learn how to accept failure. Explain why these tenets are valuable in an education.

Roach: In America, there is the notion of immediate gratification. If you want to be a good athlete or student leader of your class, there's something in the air that seems to say to students, 'Just snap your fingers and you're either gifted or you're not.' If you talk to adults, every single one of them will say the reason they've gotten to where they've gotten is that they've worked very hard. The problem is that the students of today are living in this technological world where they can get anything they want in a matter of seconds.

I tell parents that it's going to take their students a long time to become a good athlete here, a good student, or a good leader. We ask the parents to suspend their desire and the need for immediate results. The only way to teach tenacity and resilience in students is to actually have them practice it. It's something the students need to learn.

Why is failure so scary? It once was not the unspeakable tragedy of a young person's life to fail a test or get cut from a team. What you have to do in a 21st century school is to talk to students all the time about it. The kids have to understand that the notion of making mistakes is part of growing up.

Robinson: When I was a student here, the faculty would hold us all accountable. They would tell us that we were not holding up. If we made mistakes, they would look at you and ask, 'What are you going to do about this to make this right?' As a teacher, I tell my students, 'I know you're better than that.' Kids in general respond to being held accountable. They want to be told that they can do better. Those moments of failure are some of the greatest opportunities for learning for our students. Because we all live here on campus, it's not uncommon to get a knock at the door at 10 p.m. from a student who might be struggling with something. Then we sit down and work with them.

Q: Whether in a private school or in a public one, a high school student sees himself or herself placed in a pressure-cooker of having to succeed at all costs – to earn high grades in hopes of a scholarship, for instance, or to succeed on the playing field.  In many cases, the pressure cooker has been made not by the student, but by his or her parents.  Parents have become so much a part of a student's learning that they are now influencing curriculum, teachers and coaches. Do you accept this involvement as merely a reflection of our win-at-all-costs society, or do you attempt to balance parental influence with your educational curriculum?

Roach: Parents who send their kids to St. Andrew's or to a boarding school in general are doing something unusual, putting faith in an institution to do the intellectual preparation and setting the moral and ethical foundation in their child, all during this amazing time between 14 and 18 years of age. It's a leap of faith that I take very seriously, and we get a lot of support from parents. I think what we're struggling with as a country, in terms of parenting, is allowing students to become autonomous and independent. In general as a society, parents are having difficulty in finding out what the balance is between providing opportunities, and allowing their children to explore those opportunities.

There is in the culture a desire on the part of parents to be over-involved and over scrupulous and that is, ironically, creating a culture of dependency and immaturity. Schools have to be worthy of the trust and if they are, then parents have to have the patience to allow the school to do the work that it's going to do. The whole notion of education is that you can't speed it up, you can't simplify it, and you can't create a routine that's going to simplify education. If we can get to a place of trust, where parents can allow their children to work independently, however, I think we'll be in a much better place than we currently are.

Q:  There is the perception that those students who attend private school receive a more well-rounded and effective education than a student who attends a public school. St. Andrew's shares Middletown with two highly competitive high schools, each of which graduate a high percentage of students who go on to pursue a college education. How do you respond to the perception?

Roach: I always honor the scope, the mission and the professionalism of the public schools, especially in our area. What the public school does is accept everyone, educate everyone. They create programs for the full diversity of the student body. The work that public school teachers are doing is the most important work that's going on in the country right now.

When a student goes to a public school, he or she may well gain what a private school can't always provide, which is an appreciation of the sheer diversity of one's own community and the sheer quality of what it means to be in a public school in an American community. An American public school, at its best, allows students to see the full diversity of our country. Middletown is unique in that it has public schools that are not divided by socio-economic classes, and because of that, I think the Appoqunimink School system is fantastic.

I'm very skeptical about the mission of the private school in America. I not only understand the perception, I understand the reality. A lot of private schools in this country represent exclusivity, elitism, and everything that is contrary to the vision of St. Andrew's.

I tell students at the beginning of the year, 'Just because you go to St. Andrew's, you're no better than anyone else anywhere in the world. You have nothing that brands you in a superior way.' I also tell them, 'This is going to be the private school that takes these stereotypes and tosses them on their heads.'  We may not succeed all the time, but that's the mission, and that's been my rallying cry for 17 years.

The great thing that's happened in the world in the last hundred years is that colleges and universities have truly begun to honor the public school tradition. Now, going to a public school is considered a badge of honor, and it is a sign that a student has grit and tenacity; we in the private schools have to prove it.

Q: What is your favorite spot in Middletown?

Roach: I have a lot of them. The Ches-Del restaurant. Dunkin' Donuts is the place I begin my day at 5:30 a.m. I really miss Duke Field in Middletown. There used to be an incredible field in the middle of town, and it’s where I spent six years watching my son play baseball. The Silver Lake School is where my two oldest kids went, and it's a place I love.

Robinson: I love walking on Main Street and stopping in at Frameworks to say hi to Dave Leathrum. His daughter, Grace, graduated from St. Andrew’s and he’s a good friend of the school. He does great work and is especially patient and kind with my two sons.  I always enjoy going there.

Q:  If you were to host a dinner party at your residence and could invite anyone to it, living or not, who would we see sitting around the table?  

Roach: I'm a teacher of literature at St. Andrew's in addition to being the headmaster, so I'm obsessed with three writers: Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot. The other part of my life is trying to connect St. Andrew's with issues of social justice, so I'd have Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Barack Obama join Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Eliot at the table.

Robinson: I'm a sentimental person, so I'd want my grandfather at that dinner table if I could.

-- Richard L. Gaw

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Middletown Life's free newsletter to catch every headline