To Boarding Schools, With Love

Emily JohnsEmily Johns is the Dean of Students at Chatham Hall in Chatham, Virginia.

It was on a charming, southern boarding school campus 15 years ago when I said, “I do.” Though I knew I was marrying “into the family” when I married my husband on his alma mater’s campus, I didn’t fully comprehend then that I was also making a commitment to a lifestyle that would change the trajectory of my life. From dorm parenting and coaching to teaching, administrating and directing, I am deeply grateful for the privilege of working with so many incredible young people and professionals. So, on this Valentine’s Day, boarding schools, I want to say thank you for “growing me.”

Thank you, Virginia Episcopal School, for the opportunity to get my feet wet in dorm life. If it weren’t for three pregnant women all due at the same time, I am not sure I would have ever been called to fill in, and, even more importantly, to experience first hand what an exciting classroom a residence hall can be. If it weren’t for a “good luck,” a wink and a chuckle from Phil Hadley when hiring me to coach volleyball, I don’t think I would have ever experienced a championship team. Thank you for rooting for me.

Thank you, Asheville School, for inviting me to sit at the table among extraordinary professionals. If it weren’t for Pete Upham and Arch Montgomery taking a chance on me, I would not know what a quality faculty meeting could be. Thank you, Asheville School, for being so intentional about the way in which you shape your faculty culture. The wonderful balance of opening reflection/meditation, “the sharing of good things,” and institutional messaging continues to inform me in my work as an educational leader. Thank you for taking our voices, and our vocation so seriously.

Thank you, Saint Mary’s School, for allowing me the room to build, create and communicate. When Theo Coonrod first said, “Em, you’re the expert, what do you think?” I turned to look at the person behind me! But really, it was Theo who first believed in my potential to “be the expert,” to speak with authority, courage, and conviction. It was Theo and Josette Holland who really taught me how to communicate with adolescent girls, and that empowerment does not yield entitlement. Saint Mary’s School convinced me that I am indeed mission-driven.

Thank you, Woodberry Forest and Christ School, for being so willing to collaborate with me on exciting school programs. Finding colleagues among others schools in our region who are willing to step outside of the routine, and develop meaningful relationships for the benefit of our students is energizing and rewarding.

Thank you, Chatham Hall, for taking that extraordinarily generous gift and investing it where it matters most: quality teachers, and student-centered learning. The iQuest, a student-initiated experiential learning program, is quite possibly one of the most imaginative and inspiring educational programs I have seen. When you offered me a place on your administrative team, I never imagined that I would get to witness, routinely, students sharing their energy, enthusiasm,

creativity and natural curiosity. We are indeed lighting fires! Thank you for creating sacred spaces for girls to share their talents, their narratives, who they are, and who they are becoming.

It goes without saying that each and every boarding school has been a welcome home to my family and me. The round table discussions, the girls in our homes, the quirky traditions, and the crucible moments. I am reminded daily by my constant interaction with profound and remarkable people that our schools are places of transformation, and places that I am honored to call home.

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