What Does a Dean of Students Do?


By Tom Booker, Dean of Students

During the past year school year, our dean team did an extensive search to find a new teammate. After reviewing over one hundred applications, conducting dozens of phone interviews, hosting nine skypes, and orchestrating three on-campus visits, we were thrilled when Mr. Chris Williams agreed to become our fourth dean beginning in July 2019.

While the process was time consuming, it forced us to think clearly about the question, “What does a Cannon School Dean of Students do?”

We had a job description. We had a bevy of questions. We had the opinions of three deans with over 20 years combined experience. We had the thoughts of teachers and advisors, and we had many candidates who were doing the same job in different schools. Between supervising dances, holding the line on dress code, celebrating student achievement, partnering with advisors, working with student leaders, inventing the student life curriculum, and occasionally offering tissues to crying teenagers, it can be challenging to distill the work a dean does into some manageable language, but three realms of responsibility stood out.

Catching the Students Doing the Right Thing

Traditionally, a Dean of Students is responsible for discipline. And while that is certainly the case for our team, we spend very little time disciplining our students. We are fortunate to be in an environment where most of the students are making quality choices most of the time. When the dean roles originated, we knew that we wanted to capture and celebrate our students when they demonstrated evidence of our core values. This has become a major part of the work we do. We also have a faculty that recognizes and regularly captures the positive behaviors of our students, from the seemingly mundane courtesy of holding the door open for someone to the sublime, courageous act of standing up to a classmate. Each day the dean team begins its morning by visiting advisories to celebrate these moments, offering a cougar growl, high five, or fist bump.  From 2010 – 2018, we’ve caught 915 acts of kindness, 1069 acts of teamwork, 430 acts of respect, 589 acts of courage, 301 acts of integrity, and 302 acts of courage!  That’s a lot of high fives!

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Twice a year, our student-run Honor Council selects a recipient from each grade in the Upper School to receive an Honor Sword – an outward symbol that represents that student’s commitment to live by our core values. Our Deans work closely with the Honor Council throughout the year. 

Building in Students a Sense of Self-Awareness

One of my favorite things to do before I speak with an audience about the benefit of being self-aware is to ask folks to stand up or raise their hand if they like to talk about themselves. Frankly, it is the rare and brave few who stand or signal their excitement to talk about themselves. As a society, we don’t like people who too often toot their own horn. However, being able to articulate who you are in a powerful way is a deeply important skill.  Getting into college, winning the job interview, and forging relationships are all opportunities for us to use those skills. In each of these situations, students who are able to share who they are in a meaningful way—by telling their story—have an advantage over students who cannot yet articulate their understanding of who they are and how they are growing. Too often our students mistake who they are for what they do. “I play soccer,” rather than, “I’m a competitive person.” At Cannon, our students have a thoughtful Student Life curriculum rich with self-assessment tools like Strengthsfinder, True Colors, and DISC to name a few. We believe that this information, combined with the evidence of what they do, can help them better understand and explain who they are. Additionally, along their four-year journey, there are dedicated times when we ask our students to practice sharing their story in a a variety of ways, from a simple 120 characters to their senior capstone projects.

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Partnering with Students as We Learn About Leadership

Learning to lead others is an increasingly complicated and important competency. The days of a single-minded pioneer burning a candle in his lab are long gone. Teams, and the dynamics that surround those teams, are the means by which we now accomplish goals. Leading others is rarely intuitive. It is challenging work which requires careful study, practice, and reflection to grow our capacities. The leadership opportunities at Cannon are vast.  Student Council, House, Honor Council, Community Outreach, Clubs, Athletics, Peer Support, and other leadership roles are areas where our students can pressure-test their ideas on how to lead. We partner these experiences with our weekly Leadership Lunch talks where we learn about beneficial leadership behaviors and troubleshoot problems with collective wisdom. A major part of our dean days are occupied by conversations with our students about how to be better leaders in a world that is desperate need of excellent and effective leadership.

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Animus Head Boy Clint Harris and Head Girl Mirabella Calabrase pose together before welcoming new students to Cannon back in August. 

Being a Dean of Students at Cannon School is not for the faint of heart or low-energy individual. The words, “I’m too busy” are not a part of our language. As we seek to welcome a new member into the fold, I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on and clarify the challenging and consequential work we do.