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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

On Leadership: A Conversation about St. Andrew's Past, Present, and Future
Liz Torrey

In late January 2021, Head of School Tad Roach and Head-Elect Joy McGrath ’92 sat down for a conversation about their combined 73 years of connection to St. Andrew’s, what it means to lead the school, and their thoughts about the school’s future. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and readability.
 
Joy McGrath ’92: Tad, it’s so exciting to be able to talk to you today about St. Andrew’s, and both of our journeys with this incredible school over the years. In my case, beginning about thirty years ago when I arrived as new V Former—
 
Tad Roach: —and in mine, when I arrived as a new faculty member straight out of college in 1979.
 
Joy: I think, Tad, what you’ve done in those 42 years is create this school of incredible optimism that’s rooted so deeply in the promise of our students. You’ve inspired all of us who’ve worked for you to have an incredibly high bar for what we ask of our students, what we ask them to do in the classroom and outside the classroom. I think you’ve been absolutely relentless about that. This positive framework that’s grounded in the potential of our students—it sounds so simple, but it’s a very hard thing to do every single day, and you have done it. 
 
Tad: I turned to the students very early in my career, and I asked them what they wanted St. Andrew’s to become in terms of its culture and its spirit. And what I discovered is that all of the students aspired to something much larger in their high school experience—they wanted the place to be intellectually exciting, rigorous, and creative. They wanted St. Andrew’s to be a place of kindness and humanity and diversity, and they wanted St. Andrew’s to be a place that would connect them powerfully to the questions and issues confronting the nation and the world. They didn’t want to be a gated community cut off from the rest of the world. They didn’t want it to be a petty place. They did not want the rot that comes with an alcohol and drug culture. They wanted a school that was truly distinctive.
 
So, what we as a faculty tried to do is to take those principles and see what that would look like in action. We deepened our commitment to financial aid. We cultivated a powerful visiting speaker program. We expanded the diversity of the school. We expanded our community service aspirations. We developed important new facilities for science and for the arts and for athletics to flourish. But I think it was ultimately a cultural shift. Jon O’Brien set the stage for me to be able to do that work. He did the really, really hard work that needed to be done to change the culture and to set the foundation for St. Andrew’s to become much stronger. 
 
Joy: Adults sometimes underestimate how much they can expect from young people. Someone, and I can’t remember who it was, said “Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre,” and I think that’s true. Skepticism is important, and an essential part of critical thinking, but cynicism is destructive. Cynicism can, in a superficial way, seem to be smart, but it is actually so profoundly foolish. If we think about the students that we’re educating to be the next citizens and leaders of the world, believing in them and having that optimism and those really high expectations for their conduct and their performance is just so, so important. It requires a huge amount of energy and effort initially. But once you get that thing going, as you have, it sustains itself—there’s a kind of beneficial feedback loop in the St. Andrew’s community among the students and the adults. It has this incredible momentum that we all feel. And that is, I think, why we all find the place so inspiring. 

Tad: Getting the narrative right is one of the most powerful things that a leader can do. That’s in a way what all Heads of School at St. Andrew’s get the opportunity to do: to create the narrative of this particular era and its relationship to the mission. For Walden Pell it was to create an identity of the school. For Bob Moss it was integration and co-education. For Jon O’Brien it was aspiring to become a national boarding school. And for me, the question I kept asking myself was: Could you create a school of academic and human excellence? Could a school with a very powerful academic program and a very powerful Episcopal identity and spirit actually begin to cultivate a culture that would be aspirational, dynamic, and loving?
 
When we are together as a school in Engelhard or in Chapel, any single student who stands up in front of the school will feel the love of the student body and faculty and staff in a way that’s very real and authentic. It’s all about how many people in the school are willing to give everything they have for that culture. All 320 of these kids are invested; it’s not about four or five student leaders. And if a student is not invested, the amazing quality about the student culture is that the students will say to them, “You’re not invested, and you need to get going.” It’s not me doing that work. 
 
One of the other narratives that happened in my 24 years as Head is that the very purpose of the American private school became reduced to college admission. Schools in their anxiety to remain competitive stopped exploring questions of civic virtue, intellectual curiosity, and character. College admission became the only exhibition of private school quality. What we tried to do was change the conversation from, “Where did you get into college?” to “What are you going to do when you get there?” For me, it was not particularly interesting to talk about where they were going to go—I knew they were going to go to college, like they’ve done for all 42 years that I’ve been at St. Andrew’s. What I’m interested in is: what are they going to do? What is the cumulative effect of St. Andrew’s students on these campuses in the country and in the world? What St. Andrew’s is trying to do is be a part of the phrase that I quote often from George Eliot and Middlemarch—we are trying to be a part of the “growing good of the world.” And what Bryan Stevenson has taught me through his audacious work is that’s what every citizen, every school, every college, every university should be about: the growing good of the world. I believe deeply in the ability of St. Andrew’s mission and spirit and people to do that. 
 
In a sense, that is what leadership means to me. What does it mean to you?
 
Joy: There’s this hymn that I learned when I came to St. Andrew’s: “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God.” A woman named Lesbia Scott wrote it—I think it was first published the year St. Andrew’s was founded, in 1929, which is an interesting thing—and it was actually written for children. In it, we sing about the saints of God and how they were “patient and brave and true,” and there’s this great refrain at the end of the verses about how “one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherd on the green” and “one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.” I love that hymn because there’s a teaching there: all of us can step up when there’s a crisis or a matter of moral conscience or our neighbor is under threat. No one has to have said “you are a leader” for you to confront that situation and make it right. I think that’s really embedded in our Episcopal faith where we’re called to ask: Who is our neighbor? And to stand up for that neighbor. So that’s how I always think about leadership. It’s not only for the anointed. I hope that’s what we communicate to our students every day—that expectation that we hope they will be able to do difficult things, no matter what role they’re in. 
 
Tad: I think something we share is a deep belief in students, and especially a belief in what we’ve come to call “proximity.” You’re one of the most inspiring mentors and leaders of adolescents that I know. I was able to watch your influence over the students during your earlier career at St. Andrew’s (one of whom is my oldest son) and what you did on Schmolze Corridor as a dorm parent—even though you were working on the external side of the school, you were also working really hard on just honoring, listening, loving, and believing in kids. 
 
Joy: You obviously have been such a tremendous mentor to me, starting as my VI Form English teacher 30 years ago. And my advisor Nan Mein had an effect and an impact on my life that’s impossible to quantify, as a model of leadership, scholarship, and what it means to care deeply for your students and hold them to the highest and most uncompromising standards for rigor and performance. But you know, the official rules and roles of faculty at St. Andrew’s don’t necessarily matter. A faculty member can sit at a student’s table at a family-style meal and have a huge impact on them, and they may not have that faculty member as a coach, as a teacher, as a dorm parent—but there they are in this moment where a student is struggling with something and they’re able to push them and help them contend with it. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of faculty commitment to that level of engagement and involvement. Sometimes your highest and best purpose as Head of School is just to do everything you can to facilitate that, to support those faculty members and those students so that those interactions can happen. It’s this very precious thing that we can never take for granted. 
 
Tad: I’m really grateful for the school’s size, and for the proximity of the Head of School’s office and house to the community. We do get to know the students so well and they get to know us so well, and through that connection they actually feel something much more powerful than rhetoric or “catalog talk.” We actually express love and care for our kids. For me, the lifetime relationships that Elizabeth and I have had with our students are really unusual and really powerful. The students that I’ve mentored, they just know they’re a part of our family. St. Andrew’s ultimately is a family school. I do think that separates St. Andrew’s from other places—and being a different kind of private school has always resonated with me. It resonated with me when I was a 21-year-old looking for a job a long time ago, and I found this school that described itself as a school expressly created for kids who didn’t have the ability to go to private school. I thought that was such an interesting and novel concept, even in 1979—and obviously it was very radical in 1929.
 
Joy: From the very beginning, the school had a distinct mission. Over the years, you’ve called St. Andrew’s “a countercultural school,” and that’s there in our founding mission, which was rooted in doing something different in terms of socioeconomic diversity. I think in a lot of ways, that mission calls us to always think about how St. Andrew’s can be different, and as Head of School, I’m really interested in how we can continue to bear that standard. There’s an expectation embedded in our founding about being skeptical of the way that everyone else is going and asking ourselves, is that going to be the right thing for St. Andrew’s? Is it the right thing for the school’s mission? 
 
Tad: So true. I’ve always felt that we’ve also derived a tremendous sense of independence and creativity by being in Delaware. 
 
Joy: That’s interesting. Felix duPont and Bishop Cook and others who were involved in the founding of the school were planners. I think of that mural in the Dining Hall. Those men were looking off into the distant future of the school. They were designing something for the long haul. Something that was durable, and that would have meaning for a long, long time. In that mural, they’re looking back on educational institutions that were founded centuries before, which they admired, but I always felt that they were also looking into the future and looking across at the students on the other side of the mural who were going to be the future of the school. Where all of us associated with St. Andrew’s have been so fortunate is that our school was conceived with a mission that has this incredible power across all those decades. That mural is a representation of the idea that our mission has endured and has been translatable to the present—and it will be in the future as well. 
 
Tad: From that moment you describe on the mural, both St. Andrew’s and the Episcopal Church have expanded this notion of who, exactly, the school is for. I’m really, really proud of how wide and inclusive and powerful that story is today. For me and for Elizabeth, this has been the story of our careers. We need a new mural—as Elizabeth has argued—to complement the original, one that reflects just how this vision has expanded and widened and embraced us all. 
 
Joy: The question of who the mission is for is the thing that’s changed. We’ve been able, as an Episcopal school, and as a school of faith and learning, to follow that calling and include so many more people in it.
 
Tad: If you’re lucky enough, as Elizabeth and I have been, to have been in an institution that by its mission and spirit makes you more generous, more thoughtful, more kind, then you’ve been blessed in your life. And then you give it to another generation. 
 
When you really get down to the last days of your career in a position like this one, you realize: It’s just love. That’s all it is. It’s loving and believing in people, and what happens to kids when they realize that adults actually care about them and believe in them. I know everybody says, “What’s the secret sauce? How do you do it?”
 
But it’s simple: you just love kids, and you believe in kids. Find a school that does that, and you’ll have found a great school.