Working Hard at Learning to Relax: An Interview with Sara Walsh, English Teacher and Olympic Fencer

Sara Walsh is an English teacher at Dwight Global, but she’s also a professional writer, yoga instructor and a former Olympic fencer: She was an alternate for the U.S. women's fencing team in the Atlanta Olympics, and while a student at Notre Dame was a three-time NCAA medalist. 

Like many of her students, Ms. Walsh is accomplished, focused and passionate about her pursuits. But she also encourages her students to work hard at learning how to relax, and to focus on building meaningful lives—not just “successful” careers. 

“I believe, especially when we’re on a mission to achieve a singular goal, productivity and performance may deplete our peace,” she says. “If we allow our minds a true rest, all will come more easily. But this type of rest requires deliberate work. While I want my students to meet gradewide learning objectives, I hope they leave Dwight Global understanding how essential self-awareness and reflection are to creating meaningful lives.” 

In this Q&A, Ms. Walsh talks about teaching and fencing, relaxation and yoga and what, in her view, makes Dwight Global such a great school.

Many Dwight Global students aspire to be athletes or performers. As a teacher, a writer, and an accomplished fencer, what advice do you have for them?  

First, I am so inspired by the way Dwight Global students handle all that they do! While I learn from them all the time, my advice is to make time for intentional relaxation. And that doesn’t mean scrolling through social media or binging Netflix (even if that is, of course, fun here and there). Walk by the water; create something without any pressure about how it turns out; or reach out to an aunt you haven’t spoken to in a while. In essence, offer your brain a nourishing break. I’ve also realized, especially after becoming a mom, that I wish I had thanked my parents more often. Back then, I couldn’t fully see all they were giving me, certainly not as I do now. 

Can you talk about how you teach effectively online? 

I aim to make students as comfortable as possible and ensure they know I am on their side, working to see them as individuals beyond their mastery of the content, their sport/art, or their mood on a given day! Creating an environment where they feel free to be themselves gives them a better chance to engage joyfully and genuinely. When I first started teaching IB English (at Dwight NY in 2003), my perspective was narrow; my focus was on content/assessments rather than the whole student. Now, the relationship comes first. And it’s essential to work strategically to build genuine connections when teaching online. 

I’ve had a student tilt his computer so he could demonstrate to me his favorite ballet move: the fouetté! My students always share their pets’ names. We’ll chuckle about Finn’s shrill bark and Klaus’ constant tail-swishing in front of the screen. So, fouettés and pets first, and then we turn to thesis statements and metaphors! 

What, in your view, makes Dwight Global a great school? 

Dwight Global has an exceptional community. Such a diverse group of human beings who are chock full of sparks! There’s also an attitude that anything is possible. Whenever I suggested an idea, Shannon Hoffman, my department head and now Associate Head of School, said let’s make it happen. And Louisa Childs, Head of School, is such a dedicated, compassionate leader.  Also, everyone is innovative about connecting and sharing resources. For example, Dwight Roundtable meetings enable faculty from the different campuses to collaborate. After these meetings, I feel grateful to be a part of such a brilliant, kind group! Recently, I learned from Curriculum Director Sara Crucet about Nic Carpenter’s (a teacher at Dwight London) podcast focused on the creative side of education. Listening to these quirky, thoughtful episodes is fuel for inspiration in our profession! 

There are so many faculty members who do such much for the community. For instance, Laurel Aquadro, Head of English and 11th grade Dean, forged a partnership with a school in Kenya, while simultaneously building the writing culture at DG with The Harambee Magazine. Katy Moye, a wonderful colleague, routinely meets with motivated 7th graders in a book club. And who wouldn’t be inspired to read and contribute to our 100 Books Global Competition after seeing the photos of Koko Lawson, Global Program Manager and Math teacher, dressed as her favorite Jane Austen character during National Reading month? My colleagues make me want to do and give more. And, of course, the students are the core of what makes the place so special. In addition to sharing their talents and their insights, they collaborate and find ways to connect virtually that are beyond what we faculty can imagine. They are also so supportive and kind to each other. I loved seeing the stream of compliments to their peers during the virtual-award ceremony, or the overflowing messages on the Padlet kindness wall that students Caroline Hendrickson and Samantha Randall created. 

You taught high school in Italy for a year. Did that experience broaden your education and your teaching?    

I love Italy and speaking Italian almost as much as teaching. My nonna is from Firenze, and I also trained in Italy during my senior year in high school. I am so grateful Chancellor Spahn helped make my fledgling hope to teach and live in Italy with my family a reality. 

Truly, part of what I value most about teaching at Dwight Global is the international component. Literature is a particularly rich subject to teach in an international community, partially on account of the variety of perspectives and experiences the students bring to discussion, which shows the inaccuracy of the single story narrative. In an international community, students often don’t need to be taught explicitly that stereotypes are limiting; this truth is part of their everyday experience.

Ms. Walsh (right) lunging during a 1998 NCAA fencing match.

How’d you get into fencing?  

I started fencing when I moved from Eastern North Carolina to the Midwest at 10, and my parents were looking for a way to help me cope with the transition. I started fencing after seeing a boxing match and telling my parents I wanted to do that!  My Dad suggested fencing and found a junior club in the area. I loved it from the first advance and retreat...and missed NC a little less.

What do you love about yoga? 

As I mentioned earlier, I believe deeply in the benefits of pausing, even to notice and be grateful for our very breath! It’s not that easy or intuitive, especially if we’re wired to focus on achievement. Yoga taught me how the breath is an easily accessible route to clarity and stress relief.

You are also a freelance writer. Does being a writer help you teach writing? 

Writing is really hard for me (for everybody, maybe?), but I love having written. Lately, I’ve freelanced for the U.S. Pain Foundation, writing profiles on patients who suffer from chronic pain, ranging from autoimmune diseases to migraines. When I’m writing, I feel closer to my students’ experience. I also understand in real time the queasiness that can come from staring at a blank page and a deadline/due date. I absolutely get it when a student says, “I just can’t start, Ms. Walsh!”   

Earlier in your life, you had internships at Newsweek Magazine and ABC News. Did you enjoy that work? 

I appreciated the human aspect of news work. Although I was in entry-level positions—answering phones and logging transcripts on most days—I worked there during extraordinary moments in history including the Elian Gonzalez story, the Gore/Bush election, and 9/11. That said, while I found the work interesting, I didn’t believe it was my place. When I began teaching, I knew I was home.

You oversaw the fencing program at Dwight when Race Imboden ‘11 was in middle school.  As a member of the U.S. fencing team at Tokyo, he just won a bronze medal. Your thoughts? 

Race is absolutely incredible. It’s hard for me to reconcile my image of him as a 6th grader wearing an oversized fencing jacket with the champion fencer I saw the other evening on NBC scoring touches and frolicking on Parisian streets in an Airbnb commercial. Even in our interactions when he was younger, I noticed the steady focus he had for every aspect of the sport. He showed so much respect for the equipment, eagerly assisting me with setting up the machines, a tedious part of the sport that he nevertheless seemed grateful to do. 

While fencing for Notre Dame, you had 48 wins in a season without a loss. Can you discuss the psychological pressures of achieving at such a high level, and how you coped with it?     

In all honesty, I didn’t pay too much attention to the pressure, or its effects, and didn’t have a strategy to handle it. Ironically, after that season of 48 wins, I stopped fencing internationally and nationally. I might not have continued fencing collegiately if I weren’t on scholarship. I no longer enjoyed bouting or improving a certain parry or attack. This takes me back to my point about carving out time for reflection—whatever offers a pause. My personal experience is also why I address mindfulness in my classes. In addition to exploring how we think and feel about the outside world, I encourage students to consider their definitions of success and how they relate to their overall well-being. I want them to befriend themselves and understand how best to do that—a challenge that requires just as much practice and focus as anything I’ve encountered on the fencing strip.

Ms. Walsh's son, Ross, stands proudly in front of her champion plaque at Notre Dame.