Vanessa Walker-Oakes, Prep’s first female head of school, on what she’s learned from the pandemic, the value of failure, the need to connect, and meeting students where they are with emotional and learning support, curriculum, and assessments.
What was this past year and a half like for you, as a teacher, administrator, parent, and now, head of school?
Last year, I was experiencing the exact same thing we were all experiencing, that the boundaries that we’ve tried to establish that help us to manage our time or stress were, in some ways, ripped away. Where was the line between work and home? Between my analog and my digital time? Where was the line between my life and my child’s? As much as I want to be a loving parent, online learning meant that my children were trying to go to school in the same room in which I was trying to teach. We were in a world that was boundaryless and sometimes a bit lonely.
I also had more of a view into the student experience of the pandemic. Often our students felt their connections to Prep and to each other were getting thinner and thinner as we spent months and months apart.
What sustained me were my colleagues. It was such a web of people who wanted to support our students and our families. Watching that commitment was inspiring. We all had to be creative, take risks in our teaching and in our programs. Everyone was contributing. Seeing my colleagues’ dedication made me want to be better, too. (Read more about how faculty and staff experienced the pandemic.)
The pandemic prompted many industries and sectors, including education, to rethink and reimagine how and why we do what we do. What are some lessons that you’ve learned from this past year? What will stay with us?
Recently, I was reading this book about how schools should try to be more open to being experimental design spaces. So instead of saying, “I’m going to upend my whole curriculum,” what if I try this new thing for two weeks and be a little less afraid of failure? As a teacher, that is something I learned last year. If I had done things exactly the same, I knew I was going to fail. So, I had to change; there was nothing to lose. It was liberating.
Last year, I tried so many things in the classroom —and so did all our teachers. We learned a lot about how to teach and assess students in new, different ways—some of which worked fantastically and some of which fell really flat, and some I will never do again!
This year, we will almost certainly be thinking about assessment. How do we prepare students for the kind of work they’re going to encounter in college and beyond? That doesn’t mean they will never do a research paper again—they certainly will. But teachers and students did all kinds of wonderful things last year—projects, presentations, videos, experiments, artistic expressions. These are areas we can grow.
We also learned a lot this year of students’ need for executive functioning support, mental health support, and advisory programs. We’re building out our advisory programs so that students have dedicated spaces in their days and weeks to work with an advisor. What we’re working toward is that when every child walks onto campus, we’ve already had conversations with them so that we understand their differential needs. Immediately, we’re able to start providing them with the support they’re going to need to thrive. That is what I see the Center for Student Life as a symbol of moving forward.
What are the short-term and long-term goals for student support and wellbeing?
Our first step was to build out a space where students can go for the support they need, and bring in professionals in student counseling and learning. The Center for Student Life is right in the heart of campus. This speaks to our desire to support all our students holistically: their learning needs, their social and emotional needs, and their mental health. We’ve brought in our School Counselor Kiara Best and our Learning Specialist Ann Vradenburg, who can not only serve students but also help teachers and deans understand how to address learning differences in the classroom and how to meet the needs of students struggling with social or emotional challenges.
We’ve also added new programs this year, such as the 8th grade advisory and an all-school outdoor education week, that provide even more dynamic opportunities for students to build relationships with each other and to grow. In 2022-2023, advisory will expand to all grades at Prep.
We have made a real commitment here, examining our resources so that we can continue to build out this very important resource for students. Our grade level deans will continue to do amazing work evaluating and monitoring student progress, offering one-on-one support, and building relationships and experiences for the entire class. Our hope is that this new structure provides even greater opportunities for everyone to be seen, and for everyone’s perspectives to be valued.
How will the school be evaluating and developing the curriculum and overall educational vision?
There are several ways to assess our curriculum and student experience. We currently have a very robust teacher evaluation system, where students complete surveys in their classes about their experience. We learn a lot about student engagement and what works for them. These surveys let the students speak.
Another interesting thing that came out of the pandemic was that more teachers conducted informal surveys in class. For one of my classes, we did an assignment twice a quarter. I sent out surveys after a few of these and asked, “What did you like? What did you not like? Should I keep the format the same or mix it up?” There was such diversity in what students said, but there was a consensus around a few items that was so helpful. We changed it up again and again.
Allowing students to have more opportunities to weigh in is so important. At their core, students want to learn. Our teachers and students are not on opposite sides of the equation. They want a meaningful engaging experience, so this process of gathering feedback from students allows teachers to consider their lesson planning and course design with the student voice in mind.
How does all this dovetail with the school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative?
The core goal of any DEI initiative is that eventually it is not a separate initiative. It becomes part of how the school operates. That is our goal. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are absolutely essential to the school’s mission and philosophy. DEI has to underlie everything we do here at Prep. It must be part of our decision making. Where DEI work is ineffectual is when it’s grafted on as an afterthought. We have to think of ways to integrate this vision into all that we’re doing, and have a community that supports this vision.
As we embark on a long-term strategic design with our Board, DEI is part of this process. We are taking immediate steps while we’re developing that vision. We’ve partnered with the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL) to expand our advisory program and create spaces for students to share and be themselves. IFSEL believes there is no social-emotional learning program without DEI. Our advisory program will integrate these ideas and vision. Last fall, we started incorporating resources from Facing History and Ourselves into advisory and peer counseling, specifically around conversations about identity, belonging, and bias.
We have embarked on a partnership with Dr. Elizabeth Denevi to provide monthly faculty and staff professional development on DEI concerns, as well as individual access with specific questions. Dr. Denevi and IFSEL will also be hosting events for parents throughout the year.
There are a lot of steps we’ve begun that express our commitment to DEI including efforts in admissions, hiring, and curriculum (read more about DEI). Ultimately, we want to make Prep a place where all community members feel they belong.
What is the time frame for all of these goals being achieved?
How we allocate time says a lot about the school’s values. The first priority this year was to get our kids back onto campus and make sure our families, faculty, and staff are well, to reconnect and build relationships.
Prep is a place that nurtures our mind and intellectual growth and our spirit, heart, and bodies. Balance is a concept that is core to our mission. If we want to support a balanced adolescent experience, we’re going to have to intentionally provide for the emotional, intellectual, and social development of our students. That’s where we are directing our energy toward an ever-richer fulfillment of our mission for each and every student.