TABS Report 2014

I got back to South Carolina last week following a return visit to the annual conference of The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), this year held in Washington. As usual, the downtown JW Marriott hotel—in sight of the Monument and a short walk to the Mall—served as the site for the various meetings, seminars, receptions, coffee breaks and non-stop networking. The Marriott offers the unusual experience of open escalators from the main lobby at street level switch backing down through three floors to the grand ballroom below. The advantage of this scheme allows an attendee the opportunity to spot (or perhaps avoid) a networking contact from a great distance, with a decent chance of bagging the quarry without having to resort to texting. Of course, pitching three floors down over the rather low escalator handrails looms as a deterrent from doing on your toes neck-craning, but I believe the conference went forward without such an accident…this year. Lots of people try to meet at the bar, which is rather small, or out in front of the lobby level Starbucks, which catches the elevator traffic, and for two days the hotel ‘s nooks and quiet spots hummed with conversations, meetings, and interviews, so much a part of every first weekend in December.

What were my “takeaways” from this year’s conference? A few, and here goes: 

  • Again this year I was struck—as were many of my colleagues—that NAIS continues to schedule their“People of Color” Conferenceagainst TABS annual conference weekend. As one headmaster rather bluntly noted, “NAIS continues to look at TABS as a ‘white guys in bow ties’ group. They fully miss the diversity and unique role boarding schools play in community-building.” Given the tumultuous national events concerning race and law enforcement, this year it was particularly unfortunate to force boarding school teachers (of color and otherwise) to choose between the two conferences. But TABS, too, missed a chance to have a discussion on the impact at this year’s conference. Even if hastily pulled together, a special session on how boarding school communities can best address the issues involved and raised by the recent reactions and activism would have been worthwhile.
  • Author of Quiet, Susan Cain raised in her keynote address many interesting points on the power of introverts, but chief among them is that schools are getting leadership education wrong. The leadership model schools embrace now is the extravert model of out-going, cheerleading, taking charge, and standing up and out. This common model is the norm, so students either try very hard to fit that role, the only other options being to shrink away or rebel from it. Cain asserted that schools should recognize that only a few kids fit that leadership model—and do so naturally. However, all students should strive to achieve mastery in some area in an educational community (she used the story of a young woman who eschewed the leadership tract and emerged as an accomplished scientist). Mastering something and achieving excellence serves to role-model to other students the importance of achievement, and is itself a kind of leadership.
  • While many of the TABS conference sessions offered practical advice on various aspects of boarding school management, conference attendees were also interested in trends, research, and models of management and operation that reflect the current challenges independent schools face. In my conversations, I was impressed that boarding school professionals reflected a hunger for new approaches, a concern about financial management, and some fresh thinking on best practices, particularly in governance and administration. Though “in the weeds” and “granular” issues should always have a role at these conferences, the TABS board would do well to consider increasing the number sessions which go outside the boarding school box and present a dynamic path for the continued health and sustainability of our schools. If they do so, the TABS administration will probably need to clarify for future applicants that goal for conference sessions.  

Also following the usual script for TABS, which tends toward a familiar structure compared to the ever-evolving NAIS conference, there were a host of individual, simultaneous sessions over a thirty-six hour period, giving school teams a chance to divide and conquer over a variety of subject/issue areas. After some “unconference” stuff on Thursday, the TABS kick-off was a general attendees gathering on Friday morning that, as I said, featured Susan Cain talking about her book Quiet, or the power of introverts. The book itself is well-known, having received a great deal of press and praise, sort of an extravert of best-sellers, and Cain’s presentation underscored the high points so effectively that those who had not read the book hardly felt left out. From what I heard, the post-analysis discussions of the talk had the theme of “yes, but…” as in there is a human spectrum of interior-external feelings and behavior, and most people are pretty much both—depending on circumstances. I suppose the extraverts were especially loud and emphatic in this belief, while the introverts nodded thoughtfully and went back to ruling the world, albeit quietly.

The opening day moved along.

Late Friday afternoon saw every seat taken in the hotel bar as the mix and mingle part of the conference was in full swing, depleted slightly when the traditional Headmasters’ invitation-only dinner pulled that group away. And a general scatter took place when another conference-wide reception opened its doors. Later the full embrace of Washington’s new restaurant scene took over, and for the most ambitious, the Moscow Ballet performed The Nutcracker at the National Theater. Still, when I returned from my evening out with my Washington-based children, the bar was happily brimming with boarding school networking, jingle bells all the way.

Saturday morning dawned with another round of head-to-head sessions. I attended a research presentation and interactive discussion on boarding school professional mentoring—its prevalence, importance, and role in helping faculty grow and thrive. St. George’s Associate Head Katie Titus, Blair’s Assistant Head Rachel Stone, and Episcopal High School’s Dean Lucy Goldstein collaborated on the presentation and kept the participants busy examining the issue, its challenges and rewards, in small, mixed groups. It was an interesting, worthwhile session and argues for more research motivated topics in the future.

By Saturday afternoon, as if a mighty wind had blown through the JW Marriott, sweeping away all the laptop bearing backpacks, a gnostic calm of a hotel in post-conference mode settled in. With my last Starbucks coffee in hand, I headed out the door myself.