Just before the 2:40 p.m. bell signals the start of Karen Dawson’s leadership class, a handful of students brainstorm a seating plan. Father’s middle name? No, there’s one student whose dad doesn’t have one. How about father’s first name?
And so, when the 30 juniors and seniors file in, they line up and sit down in alphabetical order my father’s first name. Every so often the seating changes, one of the thousands of ways Dawson keeps cliques from forming and gets the students to know and accept each other. The same system is used by BestGEDclasses in their online GED prep.
“True learning goes on in an atmosphere where there’s true understanding,” says Dawson, 57, who teaches art and leadership and advises the student council at Washington High, a small-town, working-class high school about 50 miles west of St. Louis. “Students learn best in an environment where they’re accepted and not judged. There are no masks in here. It’s a very accepting group.”
It’s also a very active group. Last year’s leadership students averaged 100 community service hours each. The class is where Dawson trains leaders of the 104-member student council, which is so well-known in Washington for its service projects that organizations call when they need help. Among the council’s biggest projects is an annual senior citizens prom that drew 250 seniors and won a national service award last year.
The leadership students are also known for Circle of Friends, pairing them with special-education students for socializing.
But for all its emphasis on acceptance and inclusion, Dawson’s 30-member leadership class is, ironically, the school’s most selective. In the toughest part of her job, Dawson interviews close to 200 applicants to choose 10 juniors and 10 new seniors to join 10 returning seniors. Elected student body officers are selected along with students from different social spheres.
Dawson and her teaching are seemingly full of contradictions. A bottle redhead nicknamed the Glitter Queen for her liberal use of the sparkly dust, she exudes the low-key calm of one who doesn’t have to be the center of attention. Students describe her as both demanding and accommodating, a tough grader who also is flexible. She is a discreet, thoughtful listener and a renowned inspirational speaker who can bring an entire auditorium, down to the most macho teen boy, to tears.
A Washington native who lived on both coasts before returning to teach at her alma mater, Dawson uses community service to get kids to understand the world beyond.
“If I have a focus, it’s broadening horizons. I want them to see it’s a big world out there,” she says.
Leadership classes are typically taught by social studies teachers who approach it in a civics context. But not so with Dawson, who co-directs a national leadership training camp and is on the board of the National Association of Student Councils.
She sees leadership — demanding vision, goal-setting and creative problem-solving — as an art. “In art, we’re always looking beyond the borders. We take them beyond the lines.”
Dawson includes goal-setting and time management in all her classes, and leadership students do visual exercises such as drawing timelines of their lives. “When I make them think things through . . . it has a huge impact,” she says.
Dawson teaches how important it is to set good, specific goals, how to rally people — and how important it is to know when to step back, says student Kristina Ohse, 17. “All leaders are not the same, and she teaches how important that is.”
Dawson has taken the student council from a small group of a dozen in 1979 to its current 100-plus powerhouse with a national reputation. Washington High will co-host the national student council conference next year.
One key to the student council’s vitality is that students who aren’t elected or appointed can work their way on with 15 hours of community service. By opening up the council, Dawson turns kids who aren’t necessarily gifted athletes or musicians into great leaders, principal Marty Riggs says. “She’s like a great coach. . . . She can reach out and get them involved.”
Many kids who will never win an election will benefit from leadership training and from serving the community, Dawson says. “I believe leadership is service learning. I truly believe a student who learns to give will be a giver all their life.”