Off on the right foot

English Instructor Tyler Caldwell steers the fledgling Ninth Grade Program, helping preps acclimate to life at Exeter. 

Adam Loyd
January 31, 2019
English Instructor Tyler Caldwell is serving as the first coordinator for the fledgling Ninth Grade Program, intended to help preps acclimate to life at Exeter.

Tyler Caldwell coordinates prep courses for the English Department and serves as dorm faculty at Main Street dorm.

The scene in the Library Commons on a school night is familiar, as students huddle around tables, backpacks at their feet. Unlike most evenings, however, the priority on this weeknight isn’t solving for X or crafting an essay, it’s sinking a battleship or enjoying a chocolate chip cookie. Known as “Prep Tuesday,” and part of the broader new Ninth Grade Program, the weekly gathering gives first-year students the opportunity to decompress over a board game and enjoy a sweet treat — or two.

“This is a chance for students to remind themselves why they’re here,” said English Instructor Tyler Caldwell, the program coordinator. “It’s not only to pursue academics.”

Consisting of a series of planned events, the Ninth Grade Program is designed to acclimate the more than 200 preps to life at Exeter. Caldwell was appointed in August as the program’s first coordinator. He has shaped it to prioritize a holistic approach for the Academy’s youngest students as they transition into their new surroundings. Caldwell’s multi-pronged approach includes an emphasis on academic studies, health and wellness, residential life and multicultural affairs.

An orientation field trip at the start of the year to the ropes course at the nearby Browne Center for Innovative Learning served as the program’s first official outing. “A lot of the programming for that day was based on team building and trust,” said Caldwell. “The follow-up conversations the students had after the exercises were collaborative learning and the very skills they could then apply at the Harkness table.” He said these types of early lessons in communication show young students that the Harkness method “transcends the classroom experience.”

Caldwell was the natural choice to steer the fledgling program. He has immersed himself in student life since his appointment in 2011, coordinating prep courses for the English Department, serving as a crew coach and as dorm faculty, first for Soule Hall and now in Main Street dorm. Those deep connections to campus life have their origins in his youth; he, twin sister Alexa — an instructor in Exeter’s History Department — and a younger sister grew up in Middletown, Delaware, on the campus of St. Andrew’s School, where their mother taught English and their father served as assistant head of school. Independent school life is in his DNA. 

Caldwell is adept at knowing what elements of life at Exeter can be challenging for preps. “It’s pass-fail in the fall term and the grades are real in the winter term. With that comes extra burden and weight psychologically.” Tapping the expertise of a colleague, Caldwell arranged for Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dr. Szu-Hui Lee Dobie to speak to the students on the topic of anxiety. “The kids who are here are pretty independent and sometimes feel like they need to bear those burdens on their own, but she reminded them of all the support networks that we have on campus,” he said.

On a recent Friday night, Caldwell hosted a karaoke session in the basement of the Academy Center, drawing a capacity turnout. Students socialized and ate pizza before taking turns on the mic. One especially enthusiastic quartet took the stage to belt out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as the rest of their classmates sang along.

Caldwell appreciates the importance of diversifying program activities and that even the most lighthearted event has a purpose. “On the surface, a lot of these activities are fun, but they’re still practicing communication skills and skills built around collaboration and trust, even risk-taking that they will then apply to their classes.”