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Mrs. Dickson

Ms. Dickson: More Than a Secretary

 

First and foremost, Ms. Dickson is a mom.

"My two girls are the most important thing in my life," says Ms. Dickson, the K-W Bilingual School's secretary. "And having my kids here at the school is huge. When Sophie was starting full-time Junior Kindergarten, she was going to be home one day a week, and I had been thinking that maybe I should find a job even though I wasn't quite sure if I was ready to work yet, because I was happy being at home."

"Mrs. Ambrose had retired, and a fellow parent at the school had told Monsieur Poinot that I would be someone to consider for the position, as I had done office administration before I was home with the kids. So he called me in and we had a few discussions, I know he spoke with Mrs. Ambrose as well, and then he offered me the position and I accepted."

Keesha Dickson had already been volunteering at the school and helping out with hot lunches before taking the position. "And I think that made it easier for everyone involved because we already knew each other a bit."

"But the learning curve once I was in the office was immense, even though I had done secretary-type work before," says Ms. Dickson, who worked as a receptionist at an animal hospital. "Here, you're dealing with the public one-on-one, answering phones and invoicing, but what makes it so much different is all the kids. I can't think of any other place where you'll have kids coming in and out of the office all the time." 

As Ms. Dickson is speaking, a parent peeks their head in the door to ask if a Batman lunch bag has been turned in. 

The mystery of the missing Batman bag makes Ms. Dickson chuckle: "Yes, there's many aspects to this job."

Most mornings, Ms. Dickson and her young daughters -- Kate is in Grade 8 and Sophie in Grade 4 -- arrive at the school between 8 a.m. and 8:30. "The girls often hang out in the office with me, so they're seeing all the people coming and going," she says.

"There's a lot of parents and kids coming in and out from 8:30 and 9:00, and sometimes I think I should just prop open the doors with the amount of people cycling through with questions, along with all the phone calls."

Ms. Dickson is grateful for all the help Mrs. Ambrose still provides. "She still does a lot of behind-the-scenes work, like all the bookkeeping," Ms. Dickson explains. "I'm the in-between person, so I take the cheques and record who has paid, and I invoice the parents. But then Mrs. Ambrose does all the big stuff at the end."

As Ms. Dickson takes a few calls, a former student comes by the office with an appointment to see Monsieur Poinot. 

"We get a lot of past students who come back to visit -- all ages, not just the Grade 9 students," she says.

As the typical organized chaos of the morning continues, Ms. Dickson gets word that the missing Batman bag has been found in the music room.

That's one crisis out of the way, but there's no shortage of activity to keep her busy. And the phone never stops ringing. 

"Absences, different family members and friends picking up the students, these are just some of the calls we get throughout the day," says Ms. Dickson. 

One of the morning's calls comes from a family interested in possibly enrolling a child at the

K-W Bilingual School. "I enjoy telling them about our school and then arranging a time for them to come in and see it, because there's only so much you can tell people over the phone. So we do the tour, and then Monsieur Poinot or Vice-Principal Madame Balea will meet with them afterwards."

Ms. Dickson says the transition from KWBS parent to working in the office hasn't changed her perception of the school's cultural atmosphere. "It's nice to know that, as an insider, it's still what I perceived it to be as a parent, as it's a very family oriented place," she says. "There's a great connection between the main floor and the upper floor as all the kids of all different grade levels feel like they belong. Nobody feels excluded here, and I really believe that."

"I love the partnerships like the reading buddy programs, as the little kids get to know the big kids. Then there's the houses upstairs, so when the kids go up to Grade 3, they're all nervous at first because they're on the same floor as the Grade 8s. But within the first month they're put into a house, and now they have friends in Grade 3 all the way up to Grade 8."

The open door policy for parents of the school is also integral to the close-knit family culture of KWBS, says Ms. Dickson. "And I think that's why we have had so many parent volunteers over the years, helping out with countless programs and events," she explains. "I think Mrs. Ambrose started our hot lunch program, but it's completely run by volunteer parents, with one particular parent overseeing it all. I do the paperwork and provide her with the numbers, but she does all the shopping. She goes every week and buys all the supplies and ingredients we need, then on hot lunch day it's everyone pitching in from 9 a.m. sharp to 1:30 p.m."

Then there's the students, who Ms. Dickson credits for the school's friendly spirit and supportive community. "I feel very privileged to work in a place where the kids are so nice," she says, beaming. "I've said to some of my friends who work in other schools, I don't know if I would last longer than a month if I were in another school. Of course there's beautiful, wonderful children in every school, but here we have a whole school full of 400 polite children. Yes, everyone makes mistakes, and if these kids make a mistake they're willing to listen and move forward in a positive way."

Ms. Dickson's unique skill set comes from her diverse background and interests, she figures. "Along with working in an animal hospital, I also worked as a bar manager after I went to university," says Ms. Dickson, who plays saxophone and has an Honours Music degree specializing in Education from Wilfrid Laurier University. "It was such a good program and I feel very honoured that I was accepted into it and completed it, though I don't play saxophone very much these days."

Along with her passion for music and art, Ms. Dickson is a voracious reader of fiction. "I will read quite a range of genres," she says. "Right now, I seem to be interested in the kinds of books the Grade 8s would enjoy. And I've always really liked The Handmaid's Tale, it's one of my favourite books. It's a futuristic society where things have gone wrong, and that seems to be a theme that really resonates with kids right now. Stephen King is another one of my favourite authors. At the end of the day, I just want to relax and enjoy a good page turner."

Ms. Dickson says one of the greatest rewards of her job is the relationships she's made with the Grade 7 and 8 students. "They're really nice kids and they're really funny," she says. "I went on a field trip with them to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Monsieur Poinot is very generous with me and he'll send me on these trips if I'm interested in going, and of course I wanted to go. I was with the Grade 8s, and the person who guided our tour remarked not just once, but several times: 'Are you sure this is a group of Grade 8 students? I've never had such a well behaved and intelligent group.' And I too was amazed by the questions they were asking. They were so well prepared for the field trip and they were speaking so insightfully. I was blown away by that."

That's why Ms. Dickson loves being both a parent and secretary at KWBS: "I want my kids to stay young, and though the Grade 8s are very mature thinkers, they're not feeling they're in this race to be grown up, which is something I see among other kids their age. And I attribute that to the culture of our school."

"The teachers here are special, and the principal as well, obviously. The way the school is run. We have a principal who is very involved, he always keeps an ear to the ground and walks up and down the halls and knows all the kids and talks to them. I think the leadership here at our school is strong, and continues to move in that direction as Monsieur Poinot and Madame Balea work very closely together. I feel like they're a real team."

Teamwork is a key element to the success of KWBS, says Ms. Dickson. "While we have teachers and teacher assistants, it's very much a school where everyone here does everything," she says, as a parent helps tidy up the lost and found table outside the office. "If you see something wrong, then you just deal with it. If there's a piece of garbage on the floor, you don't wait around for the custodian to come pick it up, you just pick it up and everyone here works that way. At the same time, when you see someone doing something great, then you credit and thank those who have done a great thing."

Multitasking is also a key component to running the front office, Ms. Dickson attests: "Being able to focus is one of the biggest challenges, because I can never sit at the computer and do a job from start to finish. I'm very goal oriented, and when I want to do something I want to do it straight through, but this is not the kind of place where you can do that. Working on billing or invoicing or a spreadsheet or writing an email with all the interruptions is very challenging for me -- I'm always putting a little pen mark for where I was -- but I'm up for the challenge."

But the students' needs are always the top priority, says Ms. Dickson. "I deal with bumps and scrapes and paper cuts and hangnails and teeth falling out," she says with a laugh. "Oh, and bloody noses -- and that's a pretty regular part of my day, because bloody noses happen. Ms. Johns taught me how to deal with bloody noses and how to make them stop, and I've gotten quite good at it."

"For me, family comes first. My two girls are what it's all about for me, and I'm very fortunate because I have my kids with me at school all the time. The door will pop open and they'll stick their head in to say, "Hi mom!" and I just love that."

That's why being the KWBS secretary is the perfect job for someone as warm and welcoming as Ms. Dickson -- an ideal representative of our school. "At some point, the kids here all need a substitute mom, someone who can give them a fork, bandage up a knee, or get them some ice," she says.

"This is a nice place for me, because I basically get to be a mom to 400 kids, if they need it."

 

Marshall Ward is a freelance writer and parent at the K-W Bilingual School.