Beyond the Classroom: Supporting Student Well-Being as the Dean of Students
I have been working in education for almost seventeen years now, and eight years ago, I became the Dean of Students at an all-girls Catholic high school. At the time, “student well-being” was a popular buzzword. However, in my opinion, unlike many buzzwords that have come and gone, this term was not and should not be short-lived. The meaning of this term has changed for me over time, and after spending some years as Dean of Students, I have an ever-evolving understanding about what student well-being should look like.
This change in my opinion does not make sense if you don’t also know that my life took a drastic turn about six years ago. Not only was it the year my son was born, but it was also a time when my faith grew by leaps and bounds. Faith has always been a part of my life; I grew up in a Catholic family and went to Catholic schools. I prayed. I went to church and I knew it was important to have faith, yet, at the same time, I viewed God as this hidden figure staring down on me from heaven, waiting for me to mess up, disappointed with my mistakes (and there were many). As I got older and became a mom, I started asking more questions about who God really was. I started reading the Bible. I started researching the questions I had and found stories upon stories about people who never believed in God and set out to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah. However, every single time, the atheists in these stories discovered truth in the Bible and came to know Jesus more than I ever had. Many of these people became some of the most vocal evangelists about whom I heard. This was a different kind of faith than what I was raised with, and it is not an exaggeration to say that this newfound faith drastically changed all facets of my life, especially my mission at my school and my purpose for being in my position.
Being the Dean of Students means that I get to balance what I consider all of the fun things about high school -- dances, mixers, class competitions, and advisory -- along with the not-so-fun things like attendance and discipline. When I finally realized that God should be the most important thing in my life, I wanted to incorporate Him in every aspect of my job -- the fun and the not-so-fun. Instead of hearing my own voice, I started listening for God’s, and I wanted our students to reflect on His voice because I knew it was and is better than mine, theirs, or the thousands of voices they hear on social media. My hope is that our community can realize that the only voice they need to reflect on is the voice who loves them unconditionally, always wants what is best for them, and will always guide them in the right direction.
At the beginning of this school year, I told our faculty that I believe many of us have misperceptions about well-being. I think well-being has been turned into a concept that means we must be happy all the time and that the focus should be on ourselves as individuals. In school terms, this definition translates to making things easier for our students, removing any obstacles, not letting our students experience failure, and allowing them to avoid difficult things and stay home to delay responsibilities. This definition, though, has left many young people and adults without the skills they need to be prepared for college or the workforce.
If you know me at all, you probably know that I hate being wrong, and admitting I am wrong is even harder; however, in this case, I will admit that for too long I agreed with this general view of well-being. I was just as much a culprit as our students and their parents. I would take “me” time by booking a spa day or going on a beach vacation. I tried my hardest to rest at home or do breathing exercises or listen to self-help podcasts, but I can’t honestly say that these things changed my overall well-being, and I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m really not alone.
In the spirit of my mission to incorporate God’s voice and His words in student life at our school, we have revamped our advisory program with an intentional focus on building meaningful and lasting relationships within these small groups. Initially, when I took my position as DOS, advisory groups were only together for that one school year and it was more of a “homeroom” than anything else. I appreciate that this approach works for many schools; however, I was reading so much research about teenage girls that I knew we needed a program that made our girls feel known, loved, and supported when they walked into our building each day. Over the next few years, this program gradually evolved, and resulted in the advisors themselves (teachers, administrators, etc.) opting to keep their advisories for all four years, from their freshmen year to senior graduation. In order to inspire and support the strong relationships we want advisees to develop with one another, as well as their advisors, they meet once a week during a designated time for activities that promote servant leadership, community, values, and self-discovery. In addition to these weekly gatherings, advisors host student-led conferences with their advisees and their parents, which is an opportunity to marry all of the significant players in a student’s life and allows the students to articulate their learning, emotional growth and areas where they may need support.
In addition to our advisory program, I spearheaded the initiative for a “Life Skills” requirement for our students. We are now in the second phase of this transition and the first year that requires all freshmen and juniors to take a semester of this course. In order for this requirement to come to fruition, I compiled a team of teachers, coaches, and counselors who committed to years of research in order to study what topics, concepts, and skills would best prepare our students during their four years with us and beyond, when they walk out of our doors with a diploma. We discovered that in order to best serve our students, we had to shift our graduation requirements, and anyone who works in education knows this process is no easy task; however, our group vehemently believed that we needed a class that would better prepare our students for real life. In these seminars, students are learning about conflict resolution, study skills, cooking, self-defense, car maintenance, personal finance, health, self-awareness, motivation, and more! It is not always easy to find faithful moments as a high school student, college student or even an adult, so when I am teaching certain units in that class, I will always try to bring the message back to God. I ask our girls to explore their values and seek to guide them to see how their own values are in alignment with the values and mission of our school.
Though the first two programs I mentioned above fall into the “fun” part of my job, I challenge myself to incorporate faith even more so when counseling students who may not be making the best choices or acting in their best interest. In these most extreme cases, students who are on disciplinary probation, must meet with me on a bi-weekly basis for a nine week period. During this time, I encourage them to reflect on their goals and the mistakes they made that found them in their current position. One of the ways I do this is with Bible verses. I strive to inspire them to recognize the role that faith can play in their life and well-being. Oftentimes, students will reflect that a lack of faith or a questioning of faith may have led them down the path they were on. This spark of self-awareness is so important to their continued spiritual growth, and I want to provide a safe space for them to explore. In any way that I can, I try to bring people to a truth that has stood the test of time. One thing that has been researched, questioned, doubted, then believed again -- that God loves us and wants what is best for us no matter what we do and no matter how many times we turn away.
I know it is a privilege to be able to incorporate faith when our school thinks about student well-being because not every school is a faith-based institution. I also know that not every reader believes what I do. If our community is able to grow in their faith while taking care of their well-being, I believe they will be better prepared for the life ahead, and I would be the happiest Dean of Students on the planet!
With nearly seventeen years of experience in education, Kayla Brown is the Dean of Students at an all-girls private Catholic school in Dallas, Texas. Hailing from Houma, Louisiana, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Instruction from Louisiana State University (Geaux Tigers!) and then her master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Southern Methodist University. During her tenure in the classroom, she was a passionate social studies teacher, who still takes every opportunity to put her teacher hat back on and be with students in an instructional setting, whether it be covering for colleagues on parental leave or facilitating lessons in Life Skills classes. She is also the proud mother of a six year son and especially loves their movie nights, sushi dates and weekend bike rides together.