In February 2019, while St. Anne’s-Belfield Upper School Counselor Sophie Speidel was out for a run near the University of Virginia, she came across some college students participating in what appeared to be a hazing ritual. But Speidel was prepared. Having spent over two decades teaching the Life Skills course at the School, which, among other things, teaches students how to be an active bystander in similar situations, she knew exactly what to do—she confronted the group, who denied the hazing, and then called the police.
Speidel has since shared her experience with each new class of Life Skills students, who often ask her to retell the story when they see her around campus. Hear her talk about “The Four Ds” in this short video.
“I think what’s interesting to students about that story is it shows the things we learn in this class are things they can use when they’re my age,” says Speidel. “They can come across something that doesn’t look right and know what to do. That’s what I want them to feel when they leave the school—empowered.”
The School’s Life Skills class has been a requirement for freshmen and new sophomores for 23 years. During the eight-week course, students cover topics such as substance abuse prevention, healthy relationships, mental health and gender identity. With the current health crisis, Speidel has shifted the curriculum slightly to cover those topics as they relate to the COVID-19. For example, what are some strategies for handling anxiety brought on by the pandemic? Or how can students cope with a loss of normalcy?
Luke Wyant, freshman new to St. Anne’s Belfield, says many of these issues weren’t covered in any class at his former school in Falls Church, Va..
“St. Anne’s-Belfield stays on top of educating teens on these important topics,” Wyant says. “The course teaches useful information that many teenagers are unaware of. It also teaches people to make better decisions throughout their lives and how to help those who are struggling.”
Speidel keeps students engaged with a variety of materials, such as articles on anxiety; documentaries like “Gender Revolution,” which covers gender identity; and podcasts discussing everything from the birth control pill to toxic masculinity. The class also participates in role playing, practicing hard conversations surrounding topics like eating disorders and depression. At the end of the course, students write a letter to themselves, reflecting on what they’ve learned, that they can open the day before their graduation. Upperclassmen also have the opportunity to participate in what Speidel calls Life Skills 2.0, serving as peer mentors to middle school students or returning to her class to lead discussions on relationships or gender and sexual orientation.
For Speidel, the best part of teaching Life Skills is watching a group of students, who are slightly nervous about high school, develop confidence to handle whatever might come up during their time at St. Anne’s-Belfield and beyond.
“This class reflects the School’s mission about raising citizen leaders,” says Speidel. “There are many schools that don’t have the time or resources to commit to this kind of curriculum. It says a lot about St. Anne’s-Belfield that we are emphasizing it.”