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The Narrative Arc of the Upper School

An Interview with Dr. Schaffer

In January, Dr. Samuel Schaffer—history teacher, associate dean of faculty, assistant director of college counseling, football and basketball coach, and former head of the dorm—was named head of Upper School, a position he’d held as interim since summer 2021. In a letter announcing the appointment, Headmaster Jason Robinson noted: “I knew when Dr. Labaree stepped down last summer that we were fortunate to have someone with such skill, integrity, and knowledge of our community to step into this interim role; and indeed Sam has surpassed our expectations, engaging fully in every aspect of Upper School life—bringing a broad vision, extraordinary attention to detail, and a joyful spirit to work every day, along with an unwavering commitment to the well-being of every boy in our community. “

A Morehead Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina with a Ph.D. in history from Yale, Schaffer has been omnipresent and seemingly indefatigable this school year: welcoming boys on Senior Circle each morning, hosting guest speakers at assemblies, meeting with parents and faculty, supporting the Student Council, applauding every arts performance and Bulldog competition, and teaching boys history.

He recently took a break to share with the Bulletin some of his thoughts on life in the Upper School and what he hopes our boys will gain here. 

Dr. Schaffer, Head of Upper School

You begin each day on Senior Circle greeting Upper Schoolers. Why?

I just love starting the day that way. I love seeing the boys, trying to make them feel welcome. I’ve always liked how Paul Herman did that and now Fred Chandler does in the Lower School. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about a phrase we use here—that we want “every boy to be known and loved.” That’s why I am trying to be as present as possible. I want the boys to know that I’m seeing them and noticing them and supporting them.

What made you become a teacher?

I think it’s in my blood. My father was a teacher. He was an economics professor at Georgia Tech for fifty-three years. I saw how happy he was, and I also saw how he was always able to come to my football, basketball, and baseball games. I thought that’s a pretty good life. 

My senior year in college, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. At UNC, I’d been pre-med, with a minor in Latin and a major in history. I knew I’d go back to graduate school at some point—but I wasn’t ready for that yet.
I asked myself, what do I like to do? Well, I liked school. I liked sports. I liked history. I liked kids—my summer jobs had always been working at camps. I thought, why not give teaching a try?

I applied to a bunch of teaching jobs and fellowships and got a one-year teaching
fellowship at Groton. I started teaching and, within one week, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do.

And that led you to St. Albans?

Yes. I began applying to schools in Boston and Washington. I came here for an interview. I met with Helen Petersberger, who taught ancient history. I met with Ben Labaree. I still remember the class that Ben taught. It was the Versailles Treaty debate that we still teach each spring. I met Jack McCune, the headmaster at  the time. I remember walking down to the fields with Doug Boswell, then head football and track and field coach, and just thinking he was a pretty amazing person that I’d love to work with.

I ended up in the office of Ted Eagles ’54, then chair of the History Department, at about three o’clock, for the final interview. And the next thing I knew it was about six o’clock and dark outside. Ted had lots of questions and we talked and he pushed and probed and did everything that Ted does. It was a classic Ted Eagles experience. I found out later that when Ben Labaree first interviewed at St. Albans he had the same experience. He ended up in Ted’s office at about three o’clock, and three hours later he was still there.

What impression did you have of STA after the day of interviews?

That this is a place where you have remarkable colleagues and a remarkable atmosphere of intellectual inquiry. I didn’t know that much about St. Albans when I came to campus for the interview—I’m not even sure I even knew it was a boys’ school—but I left thinking this was a really great spot.

It appears you got the job.

Yes, I started working at St. Albans in 1998 at age 23 as a history teacher and assistant varsity football and basketball coach. I started in August, going to football camp at Christ Church. It was miserable. It was about 98 degrees and 90-percent humidity. Doug Boswell held what were called three- a-days, but it was truly all-day. I remember practicing in a gravel parking lot with the streetlights on at about nine o’clock at night and thinking, What on earth have I got myself into? But at the same time it was incredible. It was total commitment and immersion—just like Ted Eagles and just like everyone else I’ve come to know at St. Albans and, frankly, just like me.

What were you teaching?

The school was wrapping up the history class Omni and beginning a new 11th-grade United States history course. Ben Labaree and I each had three sections of the new U.S. history and three sections of the U.S. portion of Omni. We staked out what’s now the U.S. history classroom in Steuart. Two years later, Rob Shurmer came, and we designed the Cities course for ninth grade.

Is there a class you especially love teaching?

Yes. I love U.S. history. I love the narrative arc of it. I enjoy teaching the U.S. history survey because you get to see that arc in ways that you wouldn’t in a more focused elective course.

What draws me to history is the different connections that you can make between people and events and themes and politics and economics and culture and society. I get most excited when we’re in class and the boys start to pull out those connections. When we’re studying immigration or Jim Crow, they see themes emerge and reemerge. They also discover contradictions and paradoxes.

What do they make of the paradoxes? 

We like to think of history as black and white, but to me the beauty of history is the gray—it’s the paradoxes, the contradictions, the human side of it. That’s what’s fun and exciting about history to me. I encourage the boys to, as I call it, “embrace the gray.” It can be tough for them to get that sometimes, but when they do, they really appreciate it.

What’s an example of the “gray”?

Is it possible to be good and bad at the same time? Can humans do good and bad things? Are people flawed? Yes. But that’s ok, and we work to bring the good out.

In 2004, you left St. Albans to pursue a degree in history from Yale.

Yes. My wife and I got married in the Cathedral in 2001, had a reception in the refectory, and two days later we moved into the dorm. While I was teaching, my wife got her master’s degree in public history at American University. And I saw how much fun and engaging that was, and that inspired me. I was 29. I’d always known I’d go to graduate school. I thought, well, now’s the time to do it.

I remember asking my dad whether I should go back and get a master’s in education or a master’s in history or a Ph.D.? And he said, you should get a Ph.D. He said, you’re too much of a scholar not to.

What was your dissertation about? 

Actually, the idea for my dissertation came out of an elective I had taught at St. Albans on southern race relations. I wrote about the generation of white southern men born right before and during the Civil War. They were too young to fight but came of age during and were shaped by Reconstruction. They came to power first in the South in the 1890s and were in many ways the architects of Jim Crow. And then they came to power in the Wilson administration. It’s a generational story, a story of power, race, and politics, and of region and nation.

I try to keep up with the field. My wife works at the American Historical Association. I write the occasional book review, and on breaks I try to dig into my manuscript (based on my dissertation), which is under contract at UNC Press.

Did you think you’d ever return to St. Albans?

I went to grad school knowing how much I loved teaching in independent schools and how much I loved St. Albans. I knew that could be a wonderful thing for me. But I wasn’t thinking I would come back. I wanted to give college teaching a try like my dad.

I ended up having an incredible time at Yale–the intellectual pursuits, learning so much from incredible mentors like David Blight, Glenda Gilmore, and Beverly Gage. I enjoyed the research and writing—especially the detective work of research.

My third year I became a teacher’s assistant, and it just reminded me how much I love the classroom. Teaching—first as a TA and then in seminars I offered on American Nationalism and on Civil War Memory— kept me going through the hard years of dissertation work.

I remember St. Albans Headmaster Vance Wilson—his son Evan ’03, whom I had advised at St. Albans, was an undergraduate at Yale, and we became good friends—I remember Vance telling me, you know, you like research and writing, but your passion is teaching. And he was right. That’s what I would look forward to each morning. I didn’t look forward to writing three paragraphs. I looked forward to

After you finished your dissertation, did you start looking for jobs?

I ended up getting a post-doc at Yale. I was beginning to turn my dissertation into a book, and I was on the job market. I got a tenure track offer from a college in Connecticut. I got an offer to be the dean of Jonathan Edwards College, one of the residential colleges at Yale. And I got an offer from St. Albans to come back here and work in college counseling, to help Sherry Rusher as assistant dean of faculty, and to teach history and coach.

How did you decide where to go?

Once again, I talked to my dad. He suggested what I already knew—that coming back here was right. Our families were in the South. My wife and I loved D.C. the first time around. At Yale, I had the opportunity to work at the graduate teaching center, and I realized how much I enjoyed working with teachers on their teaching. Graduate students don’t have much teaching experience, and I was able to use what I had learned at St. Albans to help them.

So ten years ago I returned, and I haven’t looked back since. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that it’s important to go where you find your energy. And I find my energy from being here. I feed off the energy of the boys and the faculty. That’s what keeps me going.

How is your new role energizing? 

When I was a post-doc, I’d wake up, I’d go to campus, I’d have my coffee, I’d read the New York Times. About nine thirty, I’d amble over to my office and pull out my notes. By eleven o’clock, maybe I’d written a paragraph. At noon, I’d break for lunch.
By eleven o’clock here, I’ve greeted boys in the Senior Circle, I’ve walked around the halls, I’ve met with some parents, I’ve seen a teacher, I’ve taught a class, I’ve gone to
chapel, I’ve met with a couple administrators. There’s a sense of doing and accomplishing things that I just love. I feel I am using every part of my brain every day. I also enjoy working more closely with different people.

Dr. Schaffer, Head of Upper School

Whom do you work with more now? 

I already worked very closely with Nikki Magaziner Mills in College Counseling, Sherry Rusher as dean of faculty, and Ben Labaree as head of Upper School. Now I add to the list the chaplains, Brooks Hundley and Rachelle Sam; Carrie Friend as director of counseling; Joe Viola as director of admissions; and Kerry O’Brien, Brian Schultz, Keith Mills, and Ted Findler as deans. I’m also working more closely with Jason Robinson; he’s been very supportive and a great mentor. So has Fred Chandler, whom I’ve known since our days together in the dorm and who has been invaluable
to me.

I always enjoy and appreciate working with our faculty. There’s no other group of teachers so committed and great at what they do. That’s another nice part of this position: to continue to think about teachers and their teaching. And of course I am working with the boys in new ways.

As head of Upper School, what do you hope for the boys?

I want them to grow as young men, as citizens of their school. I want them to learn how to interact with each other and how to interact with their studies. I want them to move from within themselves—to figure out who they are—and then to look outside themselves, to how they work in a community. And I want them to be more intentional about that.

By the time they’re seniors, I want them to be ready to move on to college. I hope that they’ve learned how to learn and how to study, but I also hope that they’ve learned how to be a good friend and how to support a community, and that they take that with them.

How has your relationship with the boys changed?

As a historian, I like thinking about things from different angles and making different connections. It’s been interesting to work with a broader group of boys, both individually and collectively. I see them in different ways. I worry about them in different ways. I think about how I can help them grow in different ways.

I think about what it means to be a freshman, what it means to be a sophomore or a junior or senior. I think about individual boys. I think about groups of boys—teams, advisories, forms. I think about the student body as a whole, the full narrative arc of Upper School boys.

What is the narrative arc of Upper School?

For me it is a transition, from helping them and supporting them to offering them a backdrop and just enough oversight that will eventually allow them to go out on their own.

For so many years, I’ve taught freshmen and juniors, and I’ve worked with juniors and seniors as a college counselor. It’s fun to work with freshmen and see them become more comfortable in who and where they are in the school and how it works. By the time they are juniors, they are often much more focused; the academic and intellectual levels have increased. They’re learning how to manage their time, as they become fully part of the school—playing on varsity teams, working on the U.S. history project, taking their first APs, and beginning the college process. The seniors are in still another place: they’re captains and leaders of the school. The growth that happens between January of junior year and January of senior year is truly remarkable. The College Office will sometimes sit down with the seniors in January and say, “Wow, where were you guys a year ago?”

I’ve worked with boys at these different stages in the different roles I have had. Now I have responsibility for the whole arc and am trying to help the boys piece it together. My job is to help them, at each stage, through the challenges of being a high school student and being a young man, in an increasingly complex society, and learning how to take on those challenges and to be successful in doing so.

I went to a high school with a similar level of academic rigor and breadth of students. I had a really good time there; my high school friends are still some of my closest friends. I hope I can help make that the experience for our boys.

How do you plan to do that?

I think it all goes back to knowing and loving and supporting each boy at each stage along the arc. That’s what I’m here for: the boys and their teachers.

I have to ask: Do your Schaffer selfies—STA’s most popular social media week after week—contribute to that?

Honestly, they’ve been a lot of fun. I even had a student from another school say, “Hey, you’re that selfie guy!” But they’re also reminders of all we are doing together as a community. I think boys like being seen and noticed, and this is one more way to let them know that I’m seeing them and noticing them. And I am having fun doing it!

Dr. Schaffer, Head of Upper School
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.