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As our faculty member of the month, Mr. Splawn was nice enough to sit down and talk to Ms. Connell about what he really does all day - it's not as glamorous as you might think, but he loves it. Listen to him talk about why.
Watch the interview here:
He also agreed to answer some of our questions about his time at Berkshire and beyond. You can read those here:
I started teaching in some form or another when I went to graduate school at Texas A&M University in 1994. So that’s almost 20 years ago now! All of my academic training, so to speak, is in the discipline of philosophy. I majored in Philosophy and Criminal Justice (and minored in English) at the University of Alabama, then off to Texas A&M for a masters in philosophy. The last stop was at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for six years in the Ph.D. program in philosophy. I found out about Berkshire from a little publication called the JfP: Jobs for Philosophers. There was an ad in there, for some reason, about needing a philosophy teacher at Berkshire School. I had never heard of Berkshire or of any boarding schools for that matter. But I ventured down I-90, interviewed, got the job, fell in the love with the work, and have been here ever since.
So my favorite classes to teach are philosophy classes. I teach a Philosophy of Religion class in the first semester and an Ethics class in the spring. Both of these topics were intense areas of interest for me when I first discovered philosophy at UA – and they have remained so throughout my career. They are so important for our students to encounter, too, as they force them to ask important questions about essential topics that they are and will continue to confront in the real world. I think of Ethics, especially, as a topic that is really valuable for high school students to begin thinking about in a more a critical way.
I remember my first year’s class at Berkshire – when I encountered a student who was absolutely brilliant and quickly saw through philosophical issues. He would often “steal my thunder” – picking apart a recently introduced philosophical argument with precisely the right criticism. His brilliance challenged me to try to stay even one step ahead of him. That memory is sandwiched with an experience with another student - this one from last year’s graduating class who also possessed innate philosophical talent and very quickly understood the central issues and asked the right questions.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention a “teaching moment” of a different sort. As an educator in boarding school, you have an opportunity to impact students in all kinds of different ways. I had an advisee that I never taught in a class, but will never forget for what I hope I was able to help her learn. She was an extremely successful student – a four year-student who, from Day 1, never wavered academically. She worked incredibly hard and was very tough on herself whenever she encountered a perceived setback. My role with her was to encourage her to “stay the course” and to give herself credit for doing a good job. When she suffered a disappointing junior year, it was really challenging for her. But she did, in fact, stay the course and continue to grow and mature as a person. She did remarkably well, unbelievably so, in her senior year, eventually accomplishing her goals and heading off to the college of her choice. I was so proud of her – and happy that maybe I had gotten to play the tiniest part in her experience here.
I've been at Berkshire so long for exactly that reason: the great people. The students are awesome and my colleagues constantly challenge and inspire me. I work with a dedicated group of folks. They have different opinions, of course, but they are united in their devotion to our students and so no day goes by when I am not thankful for having an opportunity to work and live here.
I often refer to teaching as a form of “bait and switch.” You lure them in with something cool – a neat philosophical puzzle, the possibility of immortality – and you get them so focused on that. Then, without saying it, you encourage them to develop, practice, and master the habits of mind and skills that will serve them well in college and beyond. I know at the end of the day that few students will remember the intricacies of St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument (fascinating though they are), but if while discussing the argument, they learn how to think critically, ask important questions, collaborate, and so forth then I’ve done my job.
I'd like the students in my class to develop some skills to help them become better thinkers. I force them to follow a process (borrowed from an amazing teacher I had in grad school) that helps them learn how to present, explain, and evaluate arguments. The process encourages them to locate an author’s conclusion, to make clear important terms that they employ, to provide solid rationales for important claims, and to pinpoint a criticism effectively. These skills, in my mind, are what critical thinkers employ when they read an editorial, a science journal, or a history essay -- so no matter a student’s ultimate academic destination, they’ll be able to take something of value with them from the class.
For the School more generally, my hope is that we maintain our momentum. With Pieter Mulder’s recent appointment as Head of School, we are poised to continue on our good path and to make Berkshire School an even more dynamic place to live, learn, and work. Pieter was Academic Dean here himself, so I am excited about what his leadership will foster in our academic program. The other academic leaders at the School are an impressive group, too, and they will continue to push ahead with changes, innovations, and modifications to best serve our students. And our terrific, hard-working faculty will execute the School’s mission that means so much to all of us.
Our family is excited to be part of this process. My wife, Kristina, is the Director of the Kenefick Center for Learning. In her first few years at the School, she worked alongside Barabara Kenefick and has continued to push the KCL to become a leader in the field. I’m biased, of course, but she’s a special person and her work with students (and behind the scenes) has absolutely transformed students’ lives.
We have three children: Diana (6), Dalton (3), and Robert (0). They have no idea what mommy and daddy do. They just love being on campus and being around all the “big kids.”
To close, we asked Mr. Splawn if there was anything that his students might be surprised to hear. His response was as follows:
Nope. Because then it wouldn’t be a surprise any more.