A More Kind, Thoughtful, and Safe Community

Dawson actively promotes and embraces the exchange of diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds through curricular design, community involvement, and the integration of our four virtues – respect, compassion, courage, and integrity – into every aspect of our community life. It is our responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment for all members of our community, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, ability, or religion, as well as to cultivate in each student the ability to make empathetic, socially responsible decisions.
                                                                                                                              -- Dawson Diversity Statement
 
BY GEORGE P. MOORE, HEAD OF SCHOOL

Dawson’s recently revised Diversity Statement provides the foundation for our work in developing a welcoming, inclusive, and safe community for all of our students and families. It is this statement that is the inspiration for my thoughts on safety and kindness. 
 
Keeping children safe is our most important priority as a school, and I think when we consider safety, most of us think first about the physical safety of students, staff, and families as safe as possible on campus. Yet we also know that physical safety alone is not sufficient for young people to maximize their learning. Just as children cannot possibly be at their best if they feel physically threatened, they also cannot be at their best if they are feeling threats to their emotional and/or psychological well being. We work hard at Dawson to support our students in these areas. We have two counselors, a coordinator of academic support, a director of equity and inclusion, thoughtful administrators, and a caring faculty as well as students and student groups devoted to looking out for one another. 
 
Despite all of these efforts, we must remain vigilant to create the kind of community that fully reflects our virtues of respect, compassion, courage, and integrity. In January we had an advisory discussion in Upper School around the concept of microaggressions. Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership; they generally happen below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. (Wikipedia) The reason for the conversation was that members of our upper school community, including students of color, LGBTQ students, students with learning differences, and others have experienced these exchanges here at Dawson. In fact this was a student-inspired discussion. Their goal was to educate our upper school community on what it can sometimes feel like not to be a member of the dominant culture: unwelcoming, frustrating, and in some cases unsafe. It is not a stretch to see how this might affect one’s ability to be their best in school or to be fully engaged in the community. 
 
And there is myriad research that shows how perpetuation of stereotypes has a negative effect on the performance of those in a stereotyped group. Here is a recent article (https://goo.gl/RM5wMf) reviewing research that documents the effect of gender stereotypes on the perception of academic performance among college students. Few would argue that women are inherently less intelligent than men, yet this research demonstrates that these perceptions exist and have a real, detrimental effect on female students. Specifically, the research shows that male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students, even if the young women earned better grades. As the researcher, Dan Grunspan, states: reinforcement from faculty members and peers is enormously important to a young person’s education and career development. A simple ‘You can do this,’ for both men and women, could mean the difference between pushing through adversity or giving up.” This effect applies to other social groups and is likely more significant for middle and upper school students still discovering their passions and interests. Similarly, there is ample research demonstrating the idea of stereotype threat and how it affects academic performance of some groups. Here is a link to a discussion of this topic by Stanford University professor and author of Whistling Vivaldi, Claude Steele: (https://goo.gl/BDKicF).
 
Perhaps not surprisingly, some members of the Dawson community did not feel this discussion was necessary. I understand. It is difficult to hear that one’s words might be unintentionally hurting someone else. It also is easy to say that these individuals simply need to toughen up. For me that argument is not convincing, particularly at Dawson. Stereotypes have real and often negative consequences, and we all have biases that affect those around us. Passing comments off as jokes or otherwise dismissing their impact because we do not intend to be hurtful is dishonest. We must work to increase our awareness, intend to do the right thing, and acknowledge when we fall short. We are committed as an educational institution to providing a safe, welcoming environment for all of our students and families. To that end, our faculty reading this summer is Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (http://goo.gl/pbjhOZ). We also are committed to educating our students on how to treat people with respect, compassion, and kindness. Even the most skeptical among us can acknowledge that in an increasingly global economy, our children inevitably will be working with people quite different from themselves; it is our responsibility to prepare them for that future because there are real consequences for a lack of awareness.
 
Safety has many important aspects, and one of the most important is how we treat others in our community respectfully. Yes, there are many differences among us, but research confirms what our experience tells us: these differences ultimately strengthen our community. They may cause conflict and discomfort at times, yet this is when the deepest and most lasting learning happens. I am not interested in making people feel guilty or preventing any and all discomfort; this is about encouraging people to be thoughtful and kind. To those who feel discomfort talking about the negative effects of stereotyping or how their comments, while not meant to denigrate, are hurting their friends and classmates, I would suggest that this is a great opportunity to figure out why this makes you uncomfortable and to take advantage of a meaningful learning opportunity. I am grateful for some of the issues that have arisen this year because, while difficult, they keep me from being complacent about the community we are building. At the end of the day, these conversations are about working together to create a safe community where we treat one another with kindness and respect. If that makes us uncomfortable, then we must be doing something right. I look forward to continuing the conversation.