Life After Lakeville

This summer, three faculty members — Letty Roberts, Steve McKibben, and John Cooper — will retire after decades of service to the school. Read about their stories in this special feature.

Letty Roberts: Using Positive Psychology in the Classroom

When Ms. Letty Roberts first stepped on campus in 1991 for her teaching interview, she didn’t see any students in class.
Instead, she found them relaxing outside in the cool spring weather, running around the lawns and sauntering down to the lake. It was a Head of School Holiday, and that timing, Ms. Roberts recalls, helped solidify her decision to accept the job she had landed.

“The holiday was in spring, everyone was so down-to-earth and friendly. It was a wonderful experience and just a really cool vibe,” she said, adding that the dean of faculty at the time, Marilyn Coughlin, was a woman, and “it was important that a woman was in charge.”

Ms. Roberts would go on to experience almost 100 more Head’s Holidays. Now a George Norton and Jodie Stone Chair, Lufkin Prize recipient, and instructor in mathematics, she is retiring after 31 years of service to the school. An avid lover of nature, she leads the Hiking & Exploration co-curricular and has coached field hockey and lacrosse.

Ms. Roberts was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Colby College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in math and psychology. After teaching at Holderness School for six years, she obtained a master’s degree in counseling from the University of New Hampshire.

She knew that she still wanted to teach math, but stated her interest in psychology and a degree in counseling would equip her with the special ability to connect with students.

Throughout her 31 years of teaching at the school, Ms. Roberts’ desire to connect with students has created a unique teaching style that revolves around the idea of positive psychology. One of her many mottos is, “everything in life [is] a process, and even when you feel stagnant and stuck, you’re still moving forward in some way, even when you don’t have the perspective to see it.”

Ms. Roberts calls tests and quizzes Opportunities to Excel (OtEs) and makes the first question of each one based on positive psychology theories, such as, “what is something nice that someone you love has done for you?” Paige Dzenutis ’23, a student of Ms. Roberts, said, “She has given me a new perspective on how to approach challenging work and that having a positive attitude throughout the learning process is often the most important. She has made me realize how much a teacher can be there for you in more ways than you could ever imagine.”

Another positive concept Ms. Roberts uses during assessments is letting students take a “shower moment,” where they take time to reflect before turning in an OtE, citing too many instances where students make careless mistakes. Her main goal has always been for her students to realize their potential so they can achieve as much success as possible. Connie Cao ’21, a former student of Ms. Roberts, said “Ms. Roberts was one of the most impactful teachers I had at Hotchkiss. She was always smiling and clearly loved teaching. She gave me the confidence to continue studying math and science in college and taught me to always be positive and have a smile on my face.”

For the next chapter of her life, Ms. Roberts is moving to Rennes, France, to work with the School Year Abroad (SYA) program. She expressed excitement about her new journey, but acknowledged that it will be difficult to leave her students and fellow faculty. “I’m ready for a different adventure,” she said. “I know I will stumble and fall on my face in France, but I’ve gotta leave at some point, and I know it’s gonna be hard whenever I do it.”

When asked what she will miss most about the school, Ms. Roberts said, “It has been truly an honor and a privilege to have worked here for 31 years and to have been there for the high and low moments of all my students. Everything about Hotchkiss is the people.” Ms. Roberts’s love for the community is reciprocated by her friend and fellow math instructor, Ms. Liz Dittmer, who said, “Letty is someone that other people want to be around. Her impact on me has been huge. She is always upbeat and positive, and that rubs off and helps make me feel happier.”

Steve McKibben: Overseer of Change

Mr. Stephen McKibben, ​​dean of community life and instructor in English, will leave the school at the end of the year, representing the end of an impactful career spanning over 10 years at the school. Mr. McKibben had also served as a Boys Varsity Basketball and Lacrosse coach.

After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1984 with a B.A. in English Language and Literature, Mr. McKibben went on to earn an M.Ed. from Springfield College, an M.A. from Middlebury College, and both an M.Ed and an Ed.D. from Columbia University.

Mr. McKibben came to Hotchkiss in 2011 to teach English, after a friend introduced him to the school. Mr. McKibben strove to make his classroom a safe and welcoming space for all students through his humorous demeanor. He said, “That was my first goal coming here, to build a culture of trust, respect, and love in the classroom.”

He has also played an integral role as an advisor and a coach. Carlos Martinez ’22, one of his advisees, said, “Mr. McKibben is straight-up and doesn’t sugarcoat things. He maintains a strong connection with the people he’s close to. He’s an energetic person who loves basketball, and although he’s no longer the coach of Boys Varsity Basketball, he’s still involved with the team and cares a lot about each of the players.”

In 2019, Mr. McKibben was appointed interim dean of community life. In this role, he made his three tenets of community a priority: goodwill, appreciating others, and “just being a good person.” Dr. Merrilee Marden, dean of faculty and associate head of school said in the school announcement, “Steve is known for his deep commitment to the well-being of our students. [We] have no doubt that his professional experience, coupled with his knowledge of and dedication to Hotchkiss, will enable his success.”

Since then, with his colleagues, Mr. McKibben has undertaken major decisions regarding community safety and well-being, including helping to lead the school’s Covid-19 response and considering new initiatives for the school, including policy reform.

Ms. Amanda McClure, associate dean of community life, described the role. “What we do is a lot of school-keeping. It’s tending to the everyday, to the biggest and smallest problems on campus, making sure that everything functions for our community,” she said.

Over the past few months, Mr. McKibben has also played a critical role in reforming theDrug & Alcohol No Chance Policy, which has been in place for 40 years, to better align with the school’s values of respect, honesty, and compassion.

Reforming the drug and alcohol policy was a goal that he had had since the beginning of his career. Ms. McClure said: “He’s somebody who helped guide the process, invited people to participate, and coordinated what was going on. He really pushed us as a community to move beyond talking and actually enact a new policy.”

In his role, Mr. McKibben has devoted countless hours attending to students’ concerns and working to improve the student experience,meeting with All-School Presidents on a weekly basis and regularly attending StuFac, a space for students to raise concerns and discuss important issues at school.

Sydney Goldstein ’22, all-school President, said, “He’s taught me to be a leader, and almost all of what I try to accomplish as All-School President goes through him.”

Mr. McKibben’s impact on the community extends beyond his role as a teacher and administrator to his interactions as a mentor, colleague, and friend.

“I will sure miss his ability to bring the focus to the values of the school, but even more his laugh,” said Ms. McClure. “When we’re having difficult days, he helps all of us remember that there’s always things we can be grateful for and enjoy.”

John Cooper: Open-Armed Compassion

Mr. John Cooper, instructor in mathematics, is retiring after 34 years of teaching and service to the school community. During his time at the school, Mr. Cooper has taught all levels of math, coached Girls Varsity Hockey and Boys Lacrosse, and served as a dorm parent in Buehler and Van Santvoord. His children, Ms. Corey Cooper ’08, now an instructor in English, and Brady Cooper ’11, were born and raised on campus. His decision to come to the school was due to the “blissful pace of life in the Northwest corner, not to mention the glorious night sky that comes with it.”

Mr. Cooper earned a B.S. in psychology from St. Lawrence University and a B.A. in mathematics from the University of Hartford. In the fall of 1988, he and his wife, Mrs. Christina Cooper, instructor in English, came to the school after teaching and coaching at The Rectory School and TASIS-England. 

In the classroom, Mr. Cooper applies math to real-world situations and allows for discussion and flexible class structure. He helps lowerclass students explore further math concepts to foster excitement for the future. Sawyer Eaton ’25 said, “One of my favorite things about being in Mr. Cooper’s class is when he starts talking about other fields of mathematics that I don’t understand, like how something can have infinite area in a finite perimeter or calculus concepts.”

Mr. Jason Maier, head of the math department, described Mr. Cooper as a dedicated and patient teacher. He said, “[Mr. Cooper] is really caring about each and every student and he is always there and working with those who need help. He has a huge impact on me, and inspires me with his commitment in the classroom and philosophical insight. I will really miss having him as a colleague and mentor to look up to.”

On the ice, he has made valuable contributions through his work in coaching the Girls Varsity Hockey team. His care and love for the sport has allowed him to connect with student athletes and fellow coaches. Mrs. Robin Chandler, co-director of athletics, said, “His impact on the girls program has been extraordinary and our girls have been in his incredible care for the past 30 seasons. He is passionate about the game of hockey and has shared his love of the sport with hundreds of players over the years.” She added, “I learned more from [Mr. Cooper] about coaching a team, caring for individual players, and loving what you do than any other coach I have worked with in my career.”

Known for his effusive kindness, empathy, and care for others in all  areas of school life, Leanna Wells ’23, one of his advisees, noted the strong bond they formed in just one year. She said, “He would always take the opportunity to stop me in Main Hallway to spend time talking about how my week or sports or classes were going, which is something I’ll miss most about him.” 

More importantly, Wells is grateful for his firm attitude in helping students foster independence and self reliance. Wells said, “[Mr. Cooper] valued a laissez-faire attitude and believed that the only way that we would succeed in the things we did both on and off campus and life was if we learned how to fend for ourselves. He always showed a genuine interest in getting to know me and what I wanted to do with my life [after] Hotchkiss.”

In his 34 years at the school, he recounts great memories including friendships formed, listening to the jokes and conversations with students in the math classroom, chatting with students and fellow faculty members in the main building, and raising his children on campus. A few memories that particularly stick out to him are “a time when dogs ran free across campus and lounged in the classrooms… adopting the VS rabbit that had been living in an empty day students room, and of course, beating Loomis in hockey and lacrosse.” Mr. Cooper added that he will miss watching students grow and discover themselves as they navigate their journey in Lakeville, and that the school has taught him the value of others’ goodwill. Mr. Cooper hopes he has fostered “intellectual wonderment in the classroom as well as personal growth for student-athletes.” Students and colleagues alike will miss his unwavering support as a teacher, colleague, and coach.

Ms. Corey Cooper wrote, “A Math teacher by name, and a wordsmith, philosopher, psychology-nerd, and questioner of all things by nature, my Dad represents what many of us hope to someday be able to call ourselves: someone who has positively changed the lives of a vast array of young people in myriad ways, and someone who carries himself with the grace and class that can only be achieved through patient, reflective, and passionate practice.”

After leaving Lakeville, Mr. Cooper looks forward to a new chapter in his life, including getting a non-Hotchkiss email account and “learning how to get by without the refined delicacy that is the dining hall’s famous Mulligatawny soup.” 

To commemorate his three decades of contributions to the school, colleagues and friends will gather at Fairfield Farm for a celebration dinner on June 4. 

A version of this article appears in print on May 19, 2022, Page 1, with the headline: Life After Lakeville.