In her role as Dean of Students at Damien Memorial, a Catholic middle and high school in Kalihi, Chaminade University alumna Daniela Checinski ‘14 takes a “more creative and holistic” approach to discipline.
Checinski, who graduated from Chaminade’s Master of Science in Counseling Psychology program, emphasizes that the overwhelming majority of Damien boys and girls don’t get into trouble. So why do the same 30 or so students repeatedly violate campus rules?
Usually there are two explanations.
“One, the strategy the Dean’s Office is using isn’t relevant to this generation anymore,” Checinski says. “Or two, the students need help beyond the reach of what our school can do. They need something different,” such as more one-on-one attention.
That’s why Checinski favors a forward-thinking strategy that mixes fairness with lots of flexibility.
“I feel like I’m definitely a chameleon,” she says, “because I’ll get to know a student and I’ll realize they do not respond to that warm-and-fuzzy conversation, that holistic approach. They just want to be told straight up. So that’s what I do.
“And then literally an hour later, a different student walks in and now I’m having a very different approach and a different conversation,” Checinski continues. “Even my body language is different. Everything I do shifts around. It involves a lot of critical thinking.”
Checinski’s efforts on behalf of Damien students drew the attention of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, which presented her with the 2017 “Educator of the Future Award.”
“Your leadership and approach to the deanship promotes advocacy, equity and justice in our students, particularly our young women,” Damien President and CEO Wes Reber Porter said in presenting the award to Checinski.
“No one visiting Damien today would imagine that young women are new to our campus (the first coed class graduated in 2016),” Porter continued, “because you have carefully guided their integration and unique place in our history.”
Becoming a dean wasn’t a career goal for Checinski during her undergraduate days at the University of San Diego and later at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her dual interests were psychology and ecology.
“I was so torn between whether I was going to be a humanitarian or an environmentalist,” Checinski recalls. “Because both mattered and I just couldn’t decide.”
Checinski eventually opted for an environmental science major, which led to a job with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. That meant she was “literally hiking for a living” while tending to native vegetation in Waimea Valley and leading an outdoor education program for school children.
After she discovered that working with students was “pretty awesome,” Checinski earned a teaching license and got hired by the Education Laboratory School, a K-12 public charter campus in Manoa.
A love of psychology, however, attracted Checinski to Chaminade’s Division of Behavioral Sciences. Upon earning a master’s degree in School Counseling, she applied for positions at four Oahu campuses. Three responded, including Damien.
“I had such a good feeling about Damien,” Checinski recalls. “It was warm and welcoming. I said, ‘OK, I’m in.’”
Damien hired Checinski in 2014 as a grade-level counselor for more than 100 students in the Class of 2017. About eight months later, the administration promoted her to Dean of Students. Serving as a dean involves an expanded set of responsibilities, of course, but there’s still quite a bit of overlap with her psychology training.
“If you’re going to be a good dean, you have to figure out why these kids are doing what they’re doing,” Checinski points out. “Happy and well-adjusted children are not getting in trouble. So, my counseling skill set is extremely relevant.”
What’s the favorite part of Checinski’s job?
“When progress is made and we find a solution, then you can go into another day knowing you’ve made a difference because the student is better off,” she says. “And hopefully their family is better off, also.”
The key, she says, is coming together as a team.
“I only know what’s happening at school,” Checinski says. “The parents know what’s happening at home. So together, we can fill in the blanks for each other and get the full picture. And with those parents who are onboard and constantly working with me, it’s amazing how quickly their children progress.”
Chaminade University’s Master of Science in Counseling Psychology program prepares graduates for work in the community and schools, assisting children, youth and adults in adapting to various educational, family, organizational and societal demands. The program offers three emphases: School Counseling, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Counseling.