Reflections on My First Year of Headship at TAS

By Dr. Grace Cheng Dodge, Head of School

It's a sincere pleasure to be able to write this year-end reflection after an incredible first year of headship.  I want to thank every member of our Tiger community, past and present, for your compassion and understanding of all that we have had to collectively face this year, much of which has been unpredictable, confusing at times, and unprecedented. Managing an American school in Taiwan amidst constantly changing parental opinions along with widely varying global, islandwide, and municipal mandates has been the most challenging job I have ever encountered.

Here are a few of the things that I've learned in my first year as your leader.

1. Education around the world has been permanently changed as a result of the pandemic.

…And our students have shown resilience and flexibility as skills they will need to lead the world in the future, perhaps showing more resilience and grace than we adults have during the pandemic. Virtual learning is here to stay and educators and parents have had to get used to this new way of content delivery and engagement. However, we have also seen a big increase in anxiety, depression, and unhealthy coping mechanisms amongst school-aged children around the globe. This has increased the world’s need for empathy, compassion, and concern for others, and allowing dialogue and putting oneself in another’s shoes to achieve necessary healing. 

We are committed to the work of learning together - and it is something that inspires me about our community, our collective decision to lean into the difficult conversations to not just allow our community to change as the larger education system has also done - but to intentionally grow and change in response to these massive changes.

2. Change is hard, but it can be meaningfully addressed with careful planning.

As we end year 1 of the strategic plan, I am pleased to report on the progress made in all five areas. Much of the strategic plan focuses on how students can thrive academically, socially, emotionally, and physically in a safe school environment. Our mission remains that every child will cultivate an enduring commitment to learning, personal well-being, and service… to make the world a better place. I interpret this as watching out for each other and taking care of the entire community so that we can lift up ourselves, our peers, and our neighbors, making us all feel safe at school in staying sharp, healthy, fit, having a sense of belonging, and having a sense of being cared for by everyone around us at TAS.

One important part of the School's planning efforts involves the feedback of our parents, and I am so grateful for the large number of Tiger parents who responded to the annual parent survey. The administrative team and I are currently collating results so that we can start the next academic year with renewed enthusiasm and continued streamlining in the ways we communicate with the community. Your children, our students, are our priority, and I thank you for entrusting us as being part of their educational journey. 

We have other important changes afoot beyond those related to the strategic plan and parent feedback. I am thrilled to be welcoming three new educational leaders to our administrative team - Dr. Elizabeth Gale as the Deputy Head of School, Ms. Amanda Jacob as Academic Dean, and Ms. E-chieh Lin as our inaugural Director of Inclusion and Wellbeing. The Director of Inclusion and Wellbeing is one that is particularly important for both the strategic plan and our other planned changes, especially those related to our JEDI initiatives. Please see their bios (linked within their names above) for additional information on these valuable new team members.

3. The world is getting smaller, and an ethical education is a global education. 

At TAS, we are committed to preparing students for a global world. 

Students can only thrive and succeed personally and academically when they are healthy, well, and feel safe at school.  At TAS, we are committed to providing a rich environment where students can get to know themselves, each other, and the world around them.  Not only will this prepare them for their current journey as children and adolescents in this wonderful part of their lives, we know this will prepare them for a world outside of TAS.  JEDI issues are relevant for all students at all ages and of all backgrounds. 

We have also heard from our alumni, who have asked TAS to do a better job making sure graduates know about what JEDI issues they might face after leaving TAS and Taiwan. 

JEDI is more than just about race. Issues of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are about how we approach human relationships, and how people need to interact with each other every day. It’s about understanding how others feel, understanding those who don’t look like us or those who grew up in a different background or speak a different language or have different socioeconomic means. It’s about feeling safe around others and understanding why someone else might not feel safe in the same environment. It’s about understanding one’s own identity before you get to know someone else’s, hoping that in the end, people can live in harmony, maybe even as friends, when preconceived implicit biases might have told us we wouldn’t be able to be friends at all. And I firmly believe it’s about understanding why each of us may react differently to something we hear - from imagining that we could have said the statement ourselves, to thinking “how on earth could someone ever say something like that out loud? Where are they coming from?”  We will all encounter people who will say offensive things, and worse when they are directed to each of us personally. The teaching we strive to do is for our students to know there is a difference between knowing something they say could be wrong and offensive, versus not even understanding why or how their words could have been hurtful at all. 

My dream is to have TAS be known as an inclusive, diverse, and welcoming environment for all, and a leader across Asia. That means people don’t make snap judgments about others before getting to know them as peers or colleagues. That means we don’t have students feeling like they are left out because others are purposely conversing in a different language to talk about them in front of their faces. That means people aren’t made fun of because of their skin color or accent or hairstyle or body shape. That means parents are understanding what inclusion and diversity really mean and how they can discuss these concepts at home. We should celebrate differences, not weaponize them. That means in an American school in the context of Taiwan, we don’t have staff members who are Taiwanese feeling like their non-Taiwanese bosses have more power just because they are not from here. That means we don’t have off-island employees feeling uncomfortable because they don’t have Taiwanese or Chinese roots. It also means people will feel ok being told they have offended someone and learn from the perspective of the other person. 

Having a welcoming and inclusive school also means our community knows what it means to respect and celebrate JEDI knowing that each child and each adult is different. It means people have a sense of belonging at our school and have the sense to help others feel that same sense of safety and belonging. We may have different backgrounds but we have shared school values such as respect and kindness. We want people to be eager to learn what could make someone not feel safe at school and want to do something about it to help. And we want people to recognize their privileges, celebrate their identities, and realize that everyone has implicit biases to work on, along with gifts and perspectives to share. Everyone wants to feel valued and seen, and I want everyone in the TAS community to be able to feel this way.  

4. History isn't just about our understanding of the past; it can and should inform our future.

So far this year we have placed schoolwide emphasis on recognizing that history has shaped where we as a society have ended up today.  We’ve had guest speakers like authors and artists and consultants share with us that the history of Taiwan in the context of Asia, is just as important to know the history of indigenous people on the island as well as the history of the black lives matter movement in the United States. History touches each of us no matter where we are in the world.  Based on faculty professional development to have been able to share this history, we also adapted workshops and included support staff throughout the year in sessions that were conducted in Mandarin. 

As a school, if we are teachers of history, we are committed to anti-bias education that anchors our work with children. You will hear from our associate principals about more specific work taking place in each division, but I have been so happy and heartened to see organic activities being started by students that help each other learn from and appreciate each other, and see how they want to work together to create a safe school for each other and a safer world for all.

This pandemic has not made life any easier for any of us these past two years, and COVID has revealed how crucial JEDI work is for our school, an American one in Taiwan. Our community is split on how it views health and safety and how people view getting sick, and it has definitely been split in opinion on how Taiwan has handled the pandemic and how it has affected education. I have seen opinions have been split down nationality and cultural lines, and whether people consider Taiwan their home. This gives us a huge opportunity in pushing forth in our work with JEDI to allow for further understanding of different voices and opinions, a life skill that we will all need in a constantly changing world. 

5. We all get a choice to focus on creating good instead of just critiquing what's bad in our world.

There was a recent opinion piece in the NYTimes that has stuck with me, and I'd like to share it with all of you. The title of the piece is “What I want my kids to learn about American Racism” by a South Asian immigrant father of two American-born teenagers. The father is the founder and president of Interfaith America, a nonprofit organization that promotes cooperation among people of different religions based in Chicago. 

He ends his essay with a powerful quote that has shaped my understanding of everything that has happened at TAS this year - and everything that I want for our community in the future: 

“I want my two sons to understand that responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy is not principally about noticing what’s bad; it’s about constructing what’s good. You need to defeat the things you do not love by building the things you do.”

As your Head of School, I want our entire school community to work together, to build things up not just tear things down. I want us to be united, not divided. 

It is a continued honor to be able to lead this school and to see your children thrive. I send you best wishes for a happy and restful summer break and look forward to opening the 2022-23 school year on time and live, in-person on Wednesday, August 10.