Reflections of TABS Annual Conference

Unlearning and Relearning by: Rachael Jennings

This year, The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) held its annual conference in Boston, Massachusetts. Dean of Students Simon McFall, Arts Chair Jenny Foreman, and English Chair Rachael Jennings, attended from Thursday, December 3 through Saturday, December 5. TABS markets its annual conference as the premier professional development venue for boarding school educators—from residential life work to administration to multiculturalism and diversity work. International and local educational experts gathered to lead three days of intensive, dynamic workshops. McFall, Foreman, and Jennings attended workshops on Residential Life Programming, Sexuality Education, Cyber Meanness, Race and Gender, Disruptive Change, and other enriching topics. Hundreds of attendees represented national and international boarding schools, alike.

“Oh, where to begin,” says McFall, describing the TABS Conference. “From the joy of spending time in a car on the way to TABS with colleagues discussing life, hopes, and dreams to the return car ride full of mystery, adventure, and a recap of all the excellent ideas shared, TABS was fantastic.”

“Two notable workshops I attended were on Cultivating a Mentoring Culture among the Faculty and Empowering Girls in Leadership Roles,” says Foreman. “The mentoring workshop made me proud of the work we have done together as a faculty in our faculty learning circles and in developing an evaluation system that values dialogue between colleagues and respect for the new energy and ideas that come from our community’s newest members. There were some interesting models for assessing personal and institutional goals that I will bring back to department heads.”

When Jennings reflects on her most memorable learning experiences, she recounts two sessions on race. In the first, Carlos Hoyt, PhD., engaged attendees in a session called “The Meaning of Race: Effective Ways of Teaching and Dialoguing About Race in College-preparatory Boarding Schools.” His framework intends to disrupt dominant discourses and invite people to rethink the meaning of race. During his session, which Jennings describes as “perspective-altering, challenging, and energizing,” another TABS speaker, Paula Chu, PhD., spoke up about how Hoyt’s talk had so disrupted her own work—which also focuses on race—that she wanted to rewrite her whole session, which was scheduled for the next morning. Of course, Chu was anxious as she considered the enormous challenge before her: how could she be true to her intensive, long-researched work while still illuminating the truths she had learned from Hoyt? And how, especially, could she do this in a single day?

Hoyt stopped and gave some insightful feedback—about how we can acknowledge new perspectives, acknowledge that our work is incomplete: is meeting questions as much as it is answers. The next day, Jennings attended Chu’s workshop, “Aversive Racism: How Do We Unlearn What We Don’t Know We’ve Learned?”, and she was inspired by how courageously and gracefully Chu represented her conflict of thought, her new but unfinished perspective.

“Chu’s willingness to be vulnerable, her willingness to put down her walls as an expert and say, essentially, ‘this new idea is inviting me to start from scratch,’ and then her unwavering honesty to her expecting audience—her ability to say ‘I’ve learned something new,’ ‘I’m unsure, but I will passionately keep seeking’—that is true teaching and learning,” says Jennings. “That is learning and unlearning and relearning.”

    “I was incredibly moved by both sessions,” continues Jennings. “In Michael Mlekoday’s ‘Via Negativa: Poetic Notes on White Boy Privilege,’ he articulates this same idea: ‘the new literacy is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.’ I feel so lucky to be learning, unlearning, and relearning alongside these great educators—educators who care urgently, who are rewriting modes of thinking, and then, after living lives devoted to that rewriting process, are able to start over—knowing that starting over like that is never truly stepping backwards. That kind of starting over, that kind of reassessing and beginning again, is exemplary progress.”

Other sessions pursued different topics: rethinking dorm meeting structures, bringing sexuality education to our students, considering how to teach to different learning styles in new ways.

One of the greatest benefits was to compare our experiences and share innovations. The first day of the conference, for example, McFall “found [him]self surrounded by fellow Deans of Students, pouring over data from a survey of research being done by the Hotchkiss Institute on Increases in Respect for others’ race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

“It was amazing to hear stories from schools across the nation on this issue,” says McFall. “The data showed us that compassion is increasing in our schools nationwide.”

Yet, at the same time, as Foreman acknowledges, the conference also illuminated all that we can take pride in at Dublin. “I was impressed with Dublin’s progress and leadership in the areas of many of the ‘hot topics’ of this year’s TABS conference: addressing gender identity, establishing healthy boundaries, and empowering students and adults in the classroom and the community at large,” she says.

“We had a blast,” says Jennings. “Professional Development and this kind of networking and sharing out into the community—being able to hear ideas and say, ‘Gosh, let’s try that!’ and being able to say, ‘This is who we are at Dublin. Let’s share what we value and celebrate it with others’—is refreshing, energizing, and nourishing.”