Advice For The New School Year: We’re All Beginners

By Christopher J. Leonard, LCSW, M.Ed. Director of Operations


Dear Mr. Leonard,

I am pleased to say that my daughter will be coming to Sage Day for the first time this September. We are both excited but nervous about what it will be like for her to adjust to new teachers and students and she is concerned about finding her way around a new school. What advice do you have for students beginning in a new school?


Mrs. N


Dear Mrs. N,

Great question. Even though I’ve been starting school for well over 40 years, and am beginning my 18th year at Sage Day, I still start every school year with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. No matter how long a person has been at a school as a student, teacher, administrator or parent, I think it’s helpful to adopt the mindset that, at the beginning of a new school year, we are all beginners. The great Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote,  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Suzuki knew that there were many advantages to not only accepting, but cultivating the mind of a beginner. Here are a few ways to make the most of your possibilities by adopting a beginner’s mind.


In order to learn, we have to be willing to admit that we are not experts; there is much that we do not know. Listen to the teachers and students who have been part of the school.  You will learn a great deal about what matters to people and how things work in the school. Even if you’re returning to the same school and have had an issue with someone in the past, hit the reset button with everyone and give them the benefit of the doubt. You will experience some pleasant surprises.

Be open to new possibilities

Whether you are starting a new school year, a new job, a new relationship, it is best to keep your eyes open for new opportunities. See if you can make a new friend, try a new approach to studying or just eat something you’ve never had before for lunch. The more open you are to new possibilities the more you will benefit from your new situation. Instead of just looking at obstacles, look for ways around obstacles. I was recently reminded of the importance of looking for ways around obstacles while going downhill on a mountain bike. If you look at the big rock in the middle of the trail, you will probably run into that big rock. When you look instead for the way around the rock, you will find your way past the obstacle and continue on your way.

Be open to people

If you are new to the school, you may not know anyone. If you are returning, you may think you know more than you do. Maybe by listening you’ve heard a particular teacher is hard, or easy, or that a group of students are cliquey. Before you accept someone else’s view on people, take some time to form your own impressions. Maybe that teacher is tough but that tough teacher will help you become a better writer or more proficient in math. Maybe that group is more receptive to newcomers than they first appear. Even if a person or a group does prove to be difficult, stay open to what that person may have to teach you about patience, or facing a challenging situation.

Don’t go it alone

Another way to be open to people is to be willing to accept their support. The most successful college students know how to ask for help. They ask questions and visit their professors during office hours. Effective teachers rely on their colleagues and supervisors. Even the president of the United States has countless advisers. So, ask questions of your teachers. If you don’t understand a concept or a skill, ask for more help. Of course, if you are at Sage Day, you will also have the benefit of a therapist to whom you can turn for support whether you are grappling with managing your school work, social life, family issues or personal issues. It’s a myth that successful people go it alone. Use the supports available to you.

Replace assumptions with goals

It’s easy to go in to a new situation with old assumptions. Look at your old assumptions and consider replacing one or two of these with a new goal. Instead of the old assumption, “I’m not good at math,” try adopting the goal, “I’d like to learn the most I can in math this year.” Instead of just telling yourself, “I’m an irritable person,” be curious about what is irritating to you and adopt the goal of being less irritable.

Going into a new situation happens to us again and again in life and it makes everyone uneasy. By approaching each new situation with a beginners mind you can take full advantage of your new possibilities and make the new situation work for you.