orking gingerly, the children struggle to move everyone on a rope across a ‘lava’ pit without anyone falling in. To the casual observer, this looks only like a challenging physical exercise. But to the WT Middle School students determined to carry everyone to safety, it is emblematic of the social contract they created to guide the entire Middle School community during the year ahead.

“The social contract is designed to provide the foundation of our community in Middle School,” asserts Amanda Welsh, Director of Middle School. “It is something we use to articulate our community values. It applies in the classrooms, hallways, athletics fields, dining hall, stage, everywhere.”

At the beginning of every new school year, the social contract evolves through a thoughtful, meticulous process. First, the Middle School’s 13 advisory groups break into smaller groups. Their mission: developing “We will….” statements to describe how they believe people should treat one another in order to create a safe environment conducive to everyone’s best learning. Next, each advisory reconvenes in full, studies the drafts, identifies similarities and differences, and creates a final advisory contract that reflects the elements of the smaller group contracts.

“Our elected Student Council Officers are then charged with looking at all 13 advisory social contracts and creating an overall social contract that reflects the vision of the entire Middle School student community,” says Daniel Sadowski, Associate Director of Middle School.

After the final contract is shared with the student body, a full-day retreat at Ligonier Camp and Conference Center sets it in motion. “The retreat serves as our kick-off to embodying the contract through our interactions with one another in a very focused and deliberate way,” explains Sadowski. “Every retreat activity provides some type of problem-solving that must be done as a group.”

Whether students are trying to avoid falling into that ‘lava’ pit, striving to balance on a large log without using words to communicate, or maneuvering through a low-ropes course while maintaining physical connection to fellow group members, participants must collaborate with others with whom they might not normally choose to work—an important lesson not just for Middle School, says Sadowski, but for life. “No one is left out of any of the activities, as the activities are planned so that success means the inclusion of everyone in the group.”

Throughout the year, a large copy of the contract remains prominently displayed on a special bulletin board in the Middle School hallway, where all students, faculty, and staff sign their names to indicate agreement. Each classroom also features two copies, which teachers frequently reference during lessons or when students need reminders.

The social contract is significant for its impact on the community—and on students as individuals. “They are the ones who create it and develop it each year,” notes Welsh. “It fosters a sense of autonomy by allowing them to have a say in the community norms. It fosters relationships by articulating how we relate to one another and what we value as behavioral norms. And it fosters responsibility by giving us something specific to which we are all—faculty, administrators, staff, and students—held accountable.”

“We felt a big responsibility to make sure we got it right and represented all the students’ ideas,” says Student Council Officer Tommy Gordon, who worked diligently with fellow student leaders Maeve Kelley and Aria Narasimhan to transform 13 social contracts into the 2018-2019 Middle School Social Contract:

We will always….

Consider the results of our actions.

Appreciate differences and be inclusive of everyone.

Strive to have a positive impact on our community.

“It gives all of us a set of principles to guide our actions in order to make the Middle School and the community a better place,” reflects Tommy. “It encourages us to be kind, inclusive, and respectful towards everyone and to try our best in our classes. It reminds us that we can bring positive change.”