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Culture of Caring


We learn best in a caring environment, where respect and inclusion make possible the deepest forms of intellectual, emotional and character growth.

It wasn’t hard last spring, as we started to grapple with the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic to select a theme for the coming year. In fact, the process of selecting Caring, one of Waterford’s five core values, as our 2020-21 theme was swift and unanimous. What better way to welcome students back to our campus? What better way to frame a year that we knew would stretch and challenge us all? Of course, we had no idea back in the spring how much of a stretch it would be or how long it would last.

“Our core value of Caring references ‘intellectual, emotional, and character growth’ and our dean structure allows us to address all of these areas with students on a regular basis – encouraging them to get missing work turned in, helping them work through missteps, and supporting them when they have emotional stress and struggle” – Lisa Rands, Class of 2025 Dean and Math Teacher


Lisa Rands
Ms. Rands in class. Fall, 2020. Photo by Amanda Nelson

As deans, everything we do and strive for rests on our core value of Caring. The very existence of our dean structure in Middle and Upper School revolves around the care and keeping of our students. Class deans and school deans are here to assist and support each and every student through whatever challenges they may experience.

Our dean structure is grounded in the belief that trusted adults of influence need to be positioned in the life of every student. Research, in fact, ties life-long resilience to having trusted adults in one’s life during adolescence. In his decades-old research on resilience psychologist Dr. Julius Segal described these kinds of adults as people ‘from whom you gather strength’. That phrase rang true as I learned about Segal’s work at a conference in 2012 and I have seen it play out in the lives of our Waterford students throughout my years of deaning. Resilience in young people is indeed fostered by drawing strength from trusted adults who know them and care about them.

But how do our students know we care? Pause for a moment and think back to your adolescent self. Picture an adult who was a significant influence in your life while you were growing up. Someone who—for whatever reason—you trusted, who drew you to them. Someone who made you feel competent and valued while in their company. This person might be a parent, a teacher, a friend, a grandparent or perhaps a neighbor. It is possible that this adult may have even been an influence—consciously or unconsciously—on some of your important life choices. 

What was it about them? How did you feel in their presence? What strength did you draw from them, and do you still draw from them? How did you know that they cared?

That question is always on our mind. This year our summer reading for the dean team was One Trusted Adult by Brooklyn Raney. It was a book deans wanted everyone to read so we invited any and all Middle and Upper School teachers to join us. 

We hosted two discussion groups with dozens of faculty members which was a catalyst for important conversations and thinking about the ways kids might experience caring at Waterford. During our book discussions each of us shared briefly about the trusted adult that had influenced us and helped us along our way. Not surprisingly, many of our trusted adults were teachers. 

“Caring, at its heart, is ‘noticing’. It is looking around and noticing someone sitting in a new spot at lunch. It is noticing that the ball is flat, or has rolled across the street. It is noticing that someone’s behavior is different and being nosey enough to figure out why. Deaning lets me take the information from thoughtful, caring teachers, and translate it into actions that help a student feel seen and heard.” – Shira Fagan, Class of 2027 Dean and English Teacher


Shira Fagan with Students
Middle School students physically distanced while reading outside. Photo by Amanda Nelson

Living core values is in part a personal and individual effort but it is also an institutional and organizational commitment. This year we knew we needed a new daily schedule in Middle and Upper School that would be flexible if we needed to pivot to 100% online learning. We also wanted it to support our core value of Caring around student health and wellbeing. Early feedback from students and families tell us our four longer blocks each day have made their lives feel less frenetic and less stressful. Students also say that they are better able to manage their daily homework load—which has been a focus of concern for deans and teachers for a number of years. 

The shift in schedule also prompted us to look carefully at how deans might care for their students with greater effectiveness and tangible compassion. As a result, starting this year Class deans are assigned to a specific class rather than a grade level. For example, Jack Matthews, is now the dean of the Class of 2024. He will walk the path to graduation with his students all four years of Upper School and then he will begin the path again with the Class of 2028. This shift can only help us know and serve our students better as individuals and collectively as a class. At its heart, this decision will help us live our core value of Caring more fully.

“Being a dean allows me to support, care for, and get to know students who I don’t have in my classes…The model is effective because it allows for more people to support each student so that students know that there is a team of people caring for them and trying to help them succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.” – Class of 2024 Dean, History Teacher, and Men’s Lacrosse Coach


Siblings, Annika (X) and Will (X), Fall, 2020. 
Photo by Amanda Nelson. 

Our new schedule also allowed us to revamp our advisory program. Now every student in Middle and Upper School starts every day in a small group Morning Meeting with a Morning Meeting mentor. Their mentor is a faculty member who will stay with them for two years. We believe that the opportunity to work with a small group of students over the course of two school years will allow morning mentors to develop relationships of trust and caring. Class deans and morning mentors speak frequently and collaborate to support each student in a variety of ways. Morning Meetings are a mix of structured and unstructured time that helps build individual relationships of trust and unites us as a community. This is a new opportunity for us and we are committed to getting better at realizing the possibilities ahead. 

It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has created barriers to supporting students in the ways we normally would. Masks feel like a barrier to our interpersonal connections. Our hybrid model in Middle and Upper School means that students aren’t on campus every day and supporting students through Zoom can feel challenging. And yet, our students are resilient. The deeply meaningful and joyful work of learning is taking place every day on our campus and via Zoom. And every day we see students taking care of each other while welcoming our efforts to support and care for them as well. 

Raney writes in her book that when kids are asked about what someone did to become a ‘trusted adult’ in their life the answer was pretty consistent and straightforward. “They were just there for me.” When kids stumble or struggle, when they are lonely or sad, and when they are faced with hard decisions or big disappointments we want to be there for them. Caring is the work we prize as most essential to deaning. In fact, we believe that caring is the work that makes all the other wonderful things at Waterford possible. At the end of the day it is the work we love.


As published in The Waterford Magazine, The Caring Issue, Issue II.

the waterford Magazine


Nancy Nebeker Nancy Nebeker, Dean of Students, is a graduate of Brigham Young University where she received her B.A. in Political Science. She then went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Communication with a focus on Journalism and Public Affairs from American University in Washington D.C. Shortly after finishing her Master’s degree, Nancy moved to Bangkok, Thailand where she and her husband lived for over a decade. While there, Nancy began work at The Early Learning Centre, the leading preschool for expat children in Bangkok. Her work was centered in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy for preschool children, using a creative, project based curriculum rich in art, music and drama. When Nancy returned to the states, she came to work in Waterford’s PreK-Fours program for a number of years. Nancy stepped away from Waterford for a time when her last two children were born. She then started course work for a second Master’s in Library and Media Education through an online program at Minnesota State University. Nancy returned to Waterford in the Middle and Upper School Library while working on her Master’s degree. Her work with students soon expanded to Senior Class Dean, Middle School Dean in 2012, and finally, Waterford’s Dean of Students in 2018. Nancy and her husband Michael are the parents of six children, four of whom are Waterford graduates. As a family, they have been deeply involved in humanitarian work, most recently working with refugee families resettled to Utah. She served as the faculty advisor for Waterford’s Upper School Community Service Council and has helped lead three Waterford humanitarian trips to Kolkata, India.

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