An oft-quoted African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child. Winchester Thurston—driven by its commitment to progressive education—embodies a parallel belief: that it takes a whole school community to nurture learners into active, engaged citizens who challenge inequities, address real problems, and make an impact on their school and their city. Two new members of the WT community—Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Wellness Jessica Walton (R), and Amy McTighe, Ph.D., Director of Student Support Services (L)—are experts in areas essential to creating the change that progressive education allows. As the 2021–2022 academic year unfurled, Thistletalk invited Walton and McTighe to a conversation about those areas; how their work helps students feel healthy, safe, and supported; and how their respective domains overlap and impact the entire WT community.

Q: Let’s start by sharing your vision, hopes, and goals for your work.

Jessica Walton: I’m looking at things from two different lenses. One, navigating hot topics—diversity, equity, and inclusion, justice, wellness, you name it—as they impact students. And two, ensuring that we commit to policies that protect the safety, integrity, and well-being of the full community. One of my main goals, which ties in with my partnership with Amy, is to help people feel prepared and comfortable to engage in this work.

Amy McTighe: My vision is to make Winchester Thurston the shining star in providing services to students with diverse learning needs, to ensure that we have the support structure in place to draw people to our community, and to distinguish our program from those of other independent schools. In creating this realm of acceptance and belonging, the overlap with Jessica’s work becomes so apparent.

Q: How are your areas essential to progressive education and reimagining learning?

AM: Our areas are similar in this respect. When you’re talking about equity and justice, especially in an academic setting, you’re also including those with diverse learning needs. It’s not just about race or socioeconomic background, it’s about highlighting and supporting all students. It focuses across the board on exactly what Jessica is working on.

JW: Right. We’re committing to more than staying at the forefront in terms of teaching and learning. We’re looking at a holistic student experience when we say progressive education: learning about how my values are going to impact the way I see the world, and the lens that I see the world through. It’s learning about conflict resolution skills, how to advocate for myself, communicate my needs, and manage my emotions.

Q: Your areas overlap. How does that impact students and the broader community?

AM: The support we provide considers that everyone presents individually and has different needs. We also recognize that most students are affected by meaningful relationships, and, regardless of whether or not they’re in support services, may need support to build these connections. Both of our areas look at the whole student, with an individual, customized approach.

JW: So, when we say we are committing to equity, inclusion, and justice, and creating a supportive environment, we start by caring about the relationships we have with students. We want to make sure we’re providing members of the WT community what they need to achieve success for themselves. How can we make sure that we’re supporting everyone on their individual path?

AM: And, Jessica and I aren’t doing this all on our own; we’re bringing in experts from other areas in the community. It’s a team effort. A student’s challenges may indicate one thing to a teacher, but could actually signal another concern that Jessica and I can help identify.

2 teachers talk on couch
“It’s a team effort. A student’s challenges may indicate one thing to a teacher, but could actually signal another concern that Jessica and I can help identify.”
Q: Why is it important for these focus areas to be in place for students to flourish?

JW: There are a couple of different things at play. At the heart of social-emotional learning is, how well do I really know myself? How well can I express my needs to those around me, and how well can I pick up on the messages those around me are giving? Students are expected to perform and advocate for themselves in the classroom, on the field, and in many other spaces while also trying to read the social cues of those around them, trying to manage the expectations of adults at home, and trying to fit in with peers at school.

AM: We believe that people with strong social and emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges at home, on the playground, in the park, wherever, in addition to academic benefits. And we’re not just talking about students. Our work includes educating teachers about how to support themselves so they can better support students.

Q: In terms of your collaboration, what exciting work is on the horizon?

JW: Something that comes up continuously in our weekly meetings is building out a holistic advisory program. This initiative is going to be huge—concrete, actionable, and curricular in nature. It will structure ways to build the sense of belonging that we’re both talking about, and will differentiate among different types of learners.

AM: A crucial piece is employee education. We will provide the knowledge, support, and resources that faculty need to successfully address difficult or unfamiliar topics during advisory.

JW: Creating meaningful advisory programs is tough even under the best of circumstances. Now, considering social distancing protocols, it’s definitely going to take collaboration not just between Amy and me, but with other community members. But long term, we are very excited about a reimagined, structured advisory program that has impact across divisions. We know that it is work like this that reflects WT’s commitment to progressive education.