Head of Upper School Eric Dale Fosters Learning and Empathy

A member of the Dwight community for 13 years, Eric Dale taught IB English and served as twelfth grade dean before becoming Head of Upper School in 2013.

A member of the Dwight community for 13 years, Eric Dale taught IB English and served as twelfth grade dean before becoming Head of Upper School in 2013. In his current role, he gets to know every student in grades 9-12; he understands their unique interests as well as their challenges, and celebrates all of their triumphs. We sat down with Mr. Dale to learn about his perspective and how he nurtures shared experiences to promote learning, understanding, and growth in our Upper School.  

Where did you go to high school and what is your fondest memory from that time?

I grew up just a short distance from New York City, in Cranford, NJ, though it felt worlds apart from the city. Cranford High School provided me with my love for education, due largely in part to its faculty. My fondest memories from school are of my ninth and twelfth grade English classes, led by Mrs. Dachnowicz, a woman who could simultaneously incite enthusiasm and respect in her students each day. She guided us in class, teaching us to analyze the great works of literature with depth, precision, and — more often than not — an irreverent sense of humor that has stayed with me to this day.

During my first year teaching English, it was surprising to realize how much I had subconsciously pulled from her approach and technique in teaching literature. Some boys grow up to be like their mothers; as an educator, I sometimes think I grew up to be like Mrs. Dachnowicz!

Tell us about your journey as an educator.

My journey was a bit backwards. While I am so pleased with where I am today, I can't help but regret some missed opportunities. For university, I attended Vanderbilt, arguably one of the best schools for education ... but I didn't study education. I had talked myself out of wanting to be a teacher, graduated with a focus on business, and worked in the music industry for several years, in sales and marketing for artists.

Only then did I return to graduate school at City College of New York for a MA in Literature and to become certified in Secondary English Education. And while I wish I had studied education at Vanderbilt, I know that my in-depth undergrad work in human and organizational studies has benefited me greatly as both a teacher and an administrator.

I first began teaching at Dwight! I taught in the English, math, and Quest departments.

What is your teaching philosophy?

Education, as both a student and teacher, is synonymous with opportunity — opportunities to create new experiences otherwise not afforded to a person, and to receive and impart knowledge continually. Both shape my approach to pedagogy and administration.

While a teacher of English by degree, I strive each day to be a teacher of empathy. A school — whether it be Dwight or any other — is a place of diverse populations and our needs vary greatly. It is important to me that our students leave Dwight with a more complete understanding of themselves, thus allowing for more open understanding of others.

I have learned to see the school community as a macrocosm for the classroom. Our expectations for our students should be mirrored by our faculty. Just as teachers have high expectations for their students, a school should create an environment in which faculty can challenge themselves continually, one another, and their administrators. It is only through acknowledging that we are all learning and evolving — something we ask students to appreciate — that an institution can remain an ever-challenging forum for personal and academic development.

What do you miss about being in the classroom?

Above all else, I miss the regular contact with students, both academic and otherwise. I miss the fact that in a 45-minute period, several times each day, I was impressed by the insight students would bring to the literature we studied — insights I certainly did not possess at their age. I miss the moments of downtime before class began when I could simply chat with students; or after class ended, when students wanted to say just one more thing about the novel.

What do you enjoy most about being Head of Upper School?

In this position, I get to know every high school student. It is a daunting task and certainly one that takes time, but it gives my job meaning when I am able to develop a rapport with each one during their time at Dwight. I truly enjoy when students come to me for support and advice on issues ranging from the mundane to the serious. As my role often connotes supervision and consequence, it is critical that I maintain a feeling of approachability for both students and faculty.

What makes Dwight's Upper School special?

Our students are receiving a first-rate education at Dwight. The International Baccalaureate Program alone is something that I truly believe in, but to have it implemented by a faculty such as Dwight's is an experience few students in the world are able to enjoy. Our teachers are incredibly giving of their time, and there is a genuine and inexhaustible desire on their part to ensure that our students are learning each and every day.

Our Upper School consists of students who are willing to engage in challenging conversations about mature topics — the sort I would normally expect to see on a university campus. And our faculty and parents are willing to participate in those conversations, engendering a truly special community.

What do you envision for the Upper School in the future?

My strength as an administrator lies in the socio-emotional development of students. Bearing this in mind, I regularly consider how to bring more opportunities to our community to improve upon our individual and collective wellness.  

I strive to design Upper School assemblies that challenge students to be more reflective in their lives. Our Morning Meetings — led by the grade-level deans — provide a forum for shared values to be solidified. And as needs emerge within our community, we pull upon the strengths of our faculty and bring in expert speakers to address those needs.

The challenges that high school students face today are often very different from the ones that I faced. My goal for the Upper School is to work together as community to address those challenges, directly and without judgment.

Tell us about your role as advisor to the Dwight Feminist and LGBTQ+ Clubs.

I feel privileged to be in a school where a feminist club and LGBTQ+ club were created and then led by students, rather than faculty. It is amazing to be in a community where students can identify a need, and then create safe spaces for those needs to be discussed.

In the Feminist Club, co-advised by the wonderful Sarah Mattingly, Upper School Quest and Middle School History teacher, we want students to understand the complexities of gender in our society and to realize that, perhaps, it doesn't need to be so complex. Unfortunately, we have seen many instances unfolding recently on the national and global stages that provide opportunities to discuss issues such as sexual assault, workplace harassment, and the double standards applied to women. We have a group of students at Dwight who are willing to engage in a frank, yet necessary, dialogue about these matters. And I think it's important for male and female students alike to hear my voice in that conversation.

Même Amour, our LGBTQ+ club, is a group for support, education, and activism. Our attendees range from those who self-identify, to much-needed straight and cisgender allies. Our club needs to be a visible part of school and simultaneously a safe space for those who feel invisible, either by choice or necessity. As an out, gay man, who also happens to be the Head of Upper School, it is a privilege to support this group.

You received a PD grant from The Dwight School Foundation. How did you bring that learning back to the classroom?

Dwight has been so incredibly supportive of my professional development. For the past two years, I have been granted the opportunity to attend SXSWedu (South by Southwest Education), a forward-thinking conference and festival that challenges attendees to reconsider the future of teaching and learning. This past year, I was able to bring two especially impactful sessions back with me to our faculty and students. One focused on building empathy through different methods, and one on approaching sexual education for today's youth, a conversation that is, I worry, too often avoided. That Dwight supports me in these pursuits and gives me the freedom to pass along my knowledge is absolutely invaluable.

What is your personal spark of genius?

I am a force to be reckoned with in "Name That Tune" — just ask the entire Middle School that I defeated in a recent Morning Meeting! Though sixth grader, Lilliana, is going to be tough competition, my knowledge of music has both breadth and depth!

On a more serious note, I care deeply for diversity efforts. I firmly believe that communities are stronger when its voices are varied and its experiences are reflective of the larger world.

What is a little-known fact about you?

I went through a regretful time in my life when I thought I would look better as a blonde. Fortunately, for all of us, that time passed!

We are pleased that one thing has not passed: Mr. Dale's steadfast dedication to nurturing students and the wellness of our community.

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