Creating a Culture of Dignity at PDS
Creating a Culture of Dignity at PDS

Culture of Dignity

Renée Price, Head of Middle School and Assistant Head of School for Academic Life, started the year off by reminding each of her teammates to see themselves, each other and the students in their totality as individuals. "When the faculty got together for our first meeting in August, we skipped over rules, regulations, etc., and plunged right into doing what we'd wish to see in our classroomsaction, collaboration, learning and communication that actually applies to our real lives." In their opening meetings, the Middle School faculty reflected on cultures of dignity based on the work of Rosalind Wiseman. For Wiseman, "dignity means that every person is worthwhile, and that when you walk into a school that your voice is heard, and you matter, and you are visible." Creating a culture that supports individual dignity is Price's mandate every day at Princeton Day School.

Wiseman defines the culture of a school as "the unwritten rules that we know matter, for better or for worse." With this definition in mind, the teachers discussed ways to cultivate a culture of dignity and shared some of their own experiences of both dignity and indignity in their own lives. More information on Wiseman's work can be found here. Mrs. Price reinforced the importance of dignity again on the first day of school, announcing it as a theme for the year in Middle School. At the Middle School Focus assembly, the students watched this video to help explore and reflect on the notion of dignity. "My wish is that every student might live a life full of dignity and great purpose," Mrs. Price stated. To this end, she challenged each member of the PDS community to think about "how can we contribute to a culture of dignity today, and every day."

The Importance of a Name

Head of Lower School Sandy Wang has also explored the concept of dignity in the school community from the outset. During one of their opening meetings in August, the Lower School faculty participated in a discussion about the importance of one's name. "We began our conversation by exploring the ways in which our own personal identities are reflected in the way in which we present ourselves as social beings, specifically through the lens of our names." Prior to the meeting, teachers were invited to read this NY Times opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The essay emphasizes how correctly pronouncing a name lends value to that individual and allows them to be heard and seen as their true selves; it allows them to experience their dignity.

Ms. Wang beautifully articulated the importance of one's name in her first newsletter to Lower School families. "So, what is in a name? The concept of your name, at first, seems so simple. It's just a word, or it's two or three or even four or five words—individual sounds that combine together to form a symbol of how the outside world identifies you. Yet, the impact of one's name sinks deeply and travels far. Your name is often the first thing you tell a person about yourself. Your name can be one of the constants that travels with you as you continue your journey through life, or it can change as your personal identity shifts. Your name is also sometimes an indicator of your ethnicity, or your family history, or your families' identities, or the social context in which you live."

She challenged Lower School families " to explore the intricacies and importance of your names with your children: How do you pronounce your name? How can we teach others to pronounce our names the way they should be pronounced? Where did your family name come from? How did you decide on the names you gave your children? What nicknames do you have in your family and what do they mean?" By discussing and focusing on each child's name, Ms. Wang emphasizes the importance of each student's individual identity and encourages them to bring their true selves to school each day.

The new 9th Grade students engaged in a similar exercise to ensure they entered the Upper School as a respected part of the community and were able to bring their true identities to school, thereby maintaining their dignity. As part of orientation, each of the 9th Grade students made a short video introducing themselves to the community, stating their preferred name and sharing something about which they are proud or that they like about themselves. The videos lasted only 10 seconds or so, but they provided a spectacular opportunity for the school community to learn the correct pronunciation of names and to get to know something special about each student. US Technology Coordinator Lauren Ledley, who assisted the project, shared this story on the importance of getting students names right from the outset. This thoughtful exercise helped to create a culture of dignity throughout the Upper School by ensuring that each student felt valued and heard from the moment they were introduced.

Diversity and Intentionality

Head of Upper School Trixie Sabundayo also addressed the importance of being able to bring one's true self to school each day and how this can positively impact the school community. In her first newsletter to Upper School families, Mrs. Sabundayo stated, "At our opening gathering, I asked our students to consider a question the late Toni Morrison asked herself when reflecting on how she could positively contribute to her community. She asked, 'What can I do, from where I am?' In that moment, Morrison yearned to understand the ways in which she could positively impact her community while also honoring who she was."

As she explained in her letter to families, Mrs. Sabundayo asked the Upper School students to do the same: "to honor who they are as individuals and the unique place where each of them sits – a place no one else occupies – while also considering the ways in which they can engage fully in our community. As we start anew, I hope your children will ask themselves which opportunities they can seize this year and how they can bring their voices to our greater PDS conversation. This diversity and intentionality are what make PDS such a remarkable place."