Serving Students With Passion
February 2020 Issue
by Cynthia Robinson
Photography by Mike Force Photography
When Newark, New Jersey, native Dr. Oatanisha Dawson was studying engineering at Rutgers University, she never envisioned that 20 years later she would be the principal of an elementary school in a small, southeast Georgia town.
“I started at Rutgers and attended three years studying industrial engineering,” she said with a smile, while seated behind her office desk at Goodyear Elementary School in Brunswick. “I loved the idea of building plans and creating affordable housing. Then my life changed.”
That change brought her and her then husband to Brunswick in 1998. “My first job when I moved here was working in the daycare at the Y. (YWCA) I was still seeking to finish my degree,” said Oatanisha, who had been involved in various areas of education during her teen years as a summer camp counselor, choir director and tutor. “I became a para-pro and really enjoyed working with the kids. One of the teachers on the staff told me ‘you do a very good job articulating’ the material with students and thought I should pursue teaching. ‘You could be a math teacher.’”
But Oatanisha resisted still planned on continuing her engineering studies. That is, until what she calls her true destiny beckoned. “When I was trying to decide what I was going to do, Armstrong (Atlantic University) announced the non-traditional Pathways to Education Program, and it was free.”
While taking classes and working as a sub at the old Burroughs-Molette Elementary School, the principal at that time, Tony Ethridge, approached Oatanisha in the cafeteria one day and asked if she wanted to be in the classroom. “He told me he could put me in the classroom to teach math while I finished my classes. He was great.”
Oatanisha credits Ethridge, as well as other principals she has worked for, including Don Hudson and Scott Spence, with recognizing and nurturing her potential. However, she said she believes there has always been a greater power at work. “I think the Lord used them to speak to me. I was able to see that I can reach so many by teaching. And being an educator goes far beyond four walls. I believe education is my calling.”
After graduation, she began teaching math at the old Jane Macon Middle School. Oatanisha took on more leadership opportunities and decided to pursue her EdD. “I started my doctoral program in 2010, thinking how it would give me more opportunities to serve.” And that’s exactly what happened.
After earning her doctorate, she served four years as an assistant principal at Altama Elementary. She then began working in the same capacity at Goodyear for three years before being appointed principal of the school in September 2016.
Oatanisha said her favorite part of being Goodyear’s principal is “that I can make a difference in the lives of others. I am learning more about what it means to extend myself beyond what is required, to what is necessary. We are here to support not just our students, but also their families.”
One of the biggest challenges educators now face, she said, is the “rapid changing face of the family, because that definition is constantly changing, and we have to morph with it. We not only have some grandparents raising their grandchildren—we have some students being raised by their great-grandparents and those who have gone through different foster families in the course of a school year. Some things are consistent, like showing kindness, but we have to allow students to share what is happening in their world and do a lot of that through their own writing.”
She, her teachers and para-pros also use that knowledge to address behavior problems. “There are core issues some students come to school with, including mental health and stress. A student’s behavior problems could be due to multiple issues, like, for example, lack of food, no clothes and getting no attention at home. If you address the lack of food and clothes, but not the lack of attention, you’re not going to solve the problem.”
Oatanisha said her faith in God is what inspires her to serve her students and parents and everything in her life centers on her strong Christian faith. Oatanisha, who is married to the Rev. Darrell Dawson, senior pastor of Bright Star Baptist Church, also serves as the church’s associate minister, youth leader, choir director and bible school coordinator.
“I was a Christian before I met my husband. I was already speaking to Christian women’s groups, so entering the life of being a pastor’s wife wasn’t too much of a stretch. He creates a great balance for me. I’m rapid and high strung and he’s more methodical and cautious,” she said, laughing.
Although she loves being a principal, when asked if she misses teaching, she answered with a resounding, “Yes! I love gathering and sharing knowledge. Now when I go into a classroom, I have to sit on my hands and pinch my lips together—it’s just so exciting to see what the teachers are doing,” Oatanisha said. “And, every now and then, teachers graciously share some of their (classroom) instructional time with me.”
That enthusiasm is evident when she talks about the future. “Beyond achievement and academic success, goals for this school year are to teach our children to express themselves in a socially appropriate way—to learn their own voices. We want to serve as examples of how to voice disagreement without becoming negative. Our second goal is to empower our parents. This is their school, we just work here,” she said. “We want to bring families in to begin leading and initiating programs, not to just attend PTA meetings or parent/teacher nights.”
Oatanisha said reaching those goals is a team effort. “I am grateful and appreciative of the confirmation I have of the Lord’s presence in our work. When our team makes plans to start a new program, the Lord has made it easy for us by bringing support from the community, even from perfect strangers, and needs are met before we even ask for help and realize we have the need.
“My ultimate goal is to serve with passion. I believe my destiny is to serve as an educator in Glynn County. I was meant to be here.”
Degrees: Graduated from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in middle grades education in the areas of math and science. Earned leadership certification and educational specialist degree from Georgia Southern University, before going on to earn a doctorate there in P-12 educational administration and leadership in 2013.
Children: Two daughters, Bryana, 23, and Taliya, 9.
What’s in a Name: Named after her great-grandfather, Oatlet Carter. “I was born on his birthday.”
Father knows Best: “My dad only had an elementary education, but I’ve patterned my life after his. He taught me everything about integrity and relationships. He taught me we are all equal and to never value someone over another. And he also said to make sure my motives are pure. I use those things in leadership every day.”
Putting down Roots: “I like putting plants into nice pots, but not planting them in the dirt—the actual ground; I’m still a true-born city girl!”
Family time: “We do staycations, it’s important to spend time together.” Oatanisha’ s two sisters, one brother and other family members still live in New Jersey. “We Facetime and Skype.”
Other Community Work: Led the Jumpstart to Kindergarten summer initiative in 2016. Has served on the YMCA’s Tribute to Women Leaders committee as co-chair; been a 707 Young Women’s Leader with the Gathering Place; and is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Children in Action Sports Club and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast Georgia.