The Winsor School
A leading school for academically promising girls in grades 5-12
Message of Community - Remarks from PA Coffee with Sarah Pelmas
Message of Community - Remarks from PA Coffee with Sarah Pelmas

At this September's opening Parents' Association coffee, dozens of parents crowded into the Valeria Knapp Trustees Room for an engaging morning with Head of School Sarah Pelmas.

The theme of community ran through both her remarks and the Q&A. Ms. Pelmas began by noting, "I'm preoccupied by the nature of the community and the times we're in." She worried that as a society "we're getting tribal"—an impulse that runs completely counter to Winsor's founding principles. She explained how her messages to students have aimed at helping "their notion of 'us' to extend very far."

Ms. Pelmas described Winsor's vision as giving students "every skill they need to be outward looking and be able to go out into the world and make change."

Reminding parents of the upcoming Oct. 12 PA evening with Lauren Rikleen, titled "Parenting with a Long View," she also spoke about the long view of a Winsor education. While college may be on families' minds, she said schools like Winsor need to ask what their students will need to thrive and contribute in their 40s and 50s and beyond. "Colleges should be asking that, too."

Asked about books she had been reading this past summer, she explained that the entire faculty and staff had read and discussed Blindspot, the groundbreaking book by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald about implicit bias, which she sees as inspiring "a multi-year conversation." She also talked about lessons in a couple of older books to which she'd returned, John Ratey's Spark and Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students like School—and a few lessons as well from Bruce Springsteen's autobiography and lots of Harry Potter with her boys.

She noted a clear message from many articles she's read lately: get teens off their cellphones. She said that she'll keep bringing that message to girls, but it starts at home.

"You are the number one influence on your child, no matter what you hear," Ms. Pelmas assured parents. "Your standards are so important to them.Their moral compass comes from you. They're looking to you all the time."

As she added to laughter, "They can only roll their eyes if they're listening."

In the face of cellphone use eroding student's self-concept, "the antidote is community," she contended. Reiterating her message to students from the year's opening assembly, she explained her point that "you don't need 173 likes, you need three close friends."

Ms. Pelmas noted that a growing notion of anxiety among teens has been on the minds of many educators. Winsor faculty and staff spent an intensive day at the end of the summer with an expert in the field, Lynn Lyons, who'll return in February for an evening with Winsor parents.

While anxiety is a word that gets thrown around a lot, she focused on the cases of students "being so afraid of the outcome of something that they avoid it." She noted how students can "amp that up in each other," something that she and the faculty are working to diffuse.

Girls and families seek out Winsor for the academic challenge, and "some of those challenges are going to be hard," Ms. Pelmas acknowledged. The world into which students are headed is competitive. These are young people who will try for things where the odds are 100 to 1. "Sometimes they'll be the one; sometimes they won't, and that's OK."

Through their Winsor years, students need the "experience of going through rough patches and then coming out the other side." She said that finding courage is something that she and the teachers continually nurture in girls—and one of her opening assembly messages. Once you're brave the first time, you begin to have a sense of possibility. That's part of the effort "to send students out of here completely capable of managing their own lives," she added.

In her remarks and in response to parents' questions, she spoke a lot about the supports in place for students, including homerooms, health classes, advisory and the many ways in which a vision of wellness is woven into the school experience. She reflected how teachers keep a close eye on indicators of stress or anxiety. If parents are ever seeing something at home that's concerning, she encouraged them to call their child's advisor.

Asked about any coming changes in the curriculum, Ms. Pelmas noted how Winsor's curriculum continually changes year to year. Teachers work every summer on revisions and improvements. Overall, while the curriculum is in an exceptionally strong place, "we always want to ask where we can do better," she said.

As a faculty, "we have constant conversations about pedagogy," she added. Winsor also has an eye to the larger conversations going on in the world of education, citing as one example the ongoing debate about the role of AP classes.

Wrapping up the morning, she came back to the theme of community when asked about a head of school's message that's drawn media attention in New York City and beyond. Ms. Pelmas paused to read a brief excerpt from the letter, written by John Allman, head of Trinity School. She explained that his message has been prompting many heads to think about a "covenantal view of schools." (Click here for his full letter.)

She reflected on the importance in "a learning community" like Winsor for everyone to keep our mutual best interest in mind. She described Winsor's own community as one "where we do think about the good of the whole."

As she said at the start, "Winsor has always been dedicated to that."