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Guiding Principles for Sparhawk Students: The Sparhawk Credo

Louise Stilphen, Headmaster & Founder
$ middle school girls smiling

Sitting in my office one day in l999, shortly after we had moved into the newly christened Brick Building at the Lower School, inspiration hit, as they say. I remember the year because we moved the brick house and the art building to our campus in the spring of l999. (Oh, you didn’t know we had moved them? Well, that my dear readers is a story for another time.) 

That lovely warm day, I sat enjoying the new space and the excitement I felt at what we had accomplished in those five first years of Sparhawk’s existence. As I savored the moment, I was interrupted by the feeling that I had something new to say. Yes, oddly, first the feeling came, then the first words. Sparhawk Students are willing to learn. In quick succession, phrases flowed, seemingly automatically or as though I was writing something I had memorized. What came to me was a distillation of my life values into a statement of guiding principles for Sparhawk Students. In the Sparhawk Credo, and in daily interactions, students internalize guidelines for a better life in a better world.”  

Logically, what followed was the fact that learning requires certain character traits and I wrote : Courageous in face of unknowns, they are willing to ask questions and persevere until understanding comes. Courage! Willingness! Perseverance! Learning requires action and when learning new things or learning at a new level of challenge, these important qualities need to be encouraged in the timid or discouraged, or honored if they already exist. Children were born to pursue understanding. Boldness, eagerness, even relentlessness, are characteristics of babies and two-year olds and four-year olds. Only personal trauma or bad school experiences can undermine this natural drive to wonder and pursue knowledge, to touch and rearrange what exists, to question everything, and to understand based on experience. 

Two young students making a cloud from shaving cream and food coloring

Then I asked myself, what kind of person has that requisite courage, openness, and perseverance? People with self-esteem, I thought. Sparhawk Students respect themselves enough to do their best, or hold that as a goal. I read somewhere that self-esteem is the reputation you have of yourself, with yourself, meaning, what you really think of yourself in the quiet hours of the day. Again, we are born with a tendency to try and fail and try and succeed and feel good about ourselves as a result of the process. Success leads to success and self-esteem is the earned result. 

But, students don’t necessarily start out with strong self-esteem when they first appear on our doorstep. They don’t necessarily do their best or hold it as a goal. We help students succeed bit by bit and call for them to notice and acknowledge their steady growth. We celebrate it with them until the day they can internalize this positive self-assessment. 

Students with true self esteem can, with guidance, be open to realistically assessing their strengths and areas for growth, and with such insight, learn to invest in themselves. Hence came: They understand their abilities, optimize their strengths and excel, and through diligence, they cultivate success in other areas of importance. More bluntly, by areas of importance, I meant weaknesses. Students with evolving self-esteem can, with guidance, look beyond the moment to discover what the road ahead will require.

The seniors hanging out in the woods at Camp Lincoln

The outcome is eventually a self-perpetuating cycle: Success leads to confidence and confidence is a feeling that endows happiness. Then, I asked myself, how do such people behave? Sparhawk students treat peers and adults with the kindliness they deserve.They look for and lovingly support one another’s virtues and have patience with one another’s growth. Sparhawk Students count their blessings, realizing and celebrating the riches we have.

Credos teach nothing if they are just pretty posters. At Sparhawk, we incorporate its language into the everyday life at school. Still, I have often wonder if this Credo has a lasting effect on our students after they leave us. Here is one answer. Just this past June, I received a message from Mary Kelley, Sparhawk graduate, class of 2012. She gives me permission to share her unsolicited, and touching tribute to the Sparhawk Credo. 

She writes: "Last night I made this (a handwritten copy of the Credo, each line written in a different colored ink) and put it up on my fridge. A lot has happened over the years, but I find myself thinking of Sparhawk and the credo often, especially when I’m feeling a bit lost or weighed down. Wherever I go, it comes with me, and I’m not the only graduate who feels that way. They are my most relied on guiding principles, and I just wanted to share that."