After ten years as a faculty member in the Concord Academy community, Laura Twichell ’01 is leaving to become Head of Upper School at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. At CA she has held many positions: current Interim Dean of Faculty, co-chair of the mission review committee, Director of Community and Equity, and Interim Academic Dean. Twichell has also taught English and French. She strives for equity, is motivated by lifelong learning, and wants to live in a world where all people can be their full selves. In the interview below she encourages us to grow and to remember that “you are enough.” We will miss Twichell and wish her the best of luck in this exciting new chapter of her life. The following is an interview transcript.
How did you discover your passion for education?
I remember having insights into teaching in elementary school and thinking, “I could explain this better than my teacher.” I was a little naive and overly confident then, but I already knew I wanted to teach. In high school, I showed my advisor an article about a group of people that started a charter school because I was so excited about that idea. At that time, I knew I wanted to teach, but my response to that article was probably the first sign that being an administrator might be interesting to me, although I wasn’t thinking about that work at the time. Administrators were a little invisible to me, and I didn’t know what that kind of role entailed. All I knew was that I wanted to be a teacher, and the idea of starting a school was intriguing to me, too.
What was your favorite class as a student at CA and what was your favorite class as a teacher?
There were so many classes I loved at CA! All of the arts classes I took were highlights. I mainly worked with Jonathan and Cynthia and loved every minute. I loved biology and ended up studying that subject in college, along with French. A class on modern Irish literature at CA also stands out. I was swept away by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
I also remember as particularly meaningful work I did in a class called comparative history (a 10th grade course then) with teacher José de Jesus. I advocated to define the Issei, Japanese immigrants to the US, as “explorers” instead of studying a conquistador, which really didn’t interest me. I think what interested me was flipping the narrative on exploration—I didn’t want to study another story of a single European man “discovering” and pillaging a place. I appreciated the ability to make that choice, and learning to pursue my own interests within the framework of my classes was a good lesson for me that I carried through my college and graduate school work.
As a teacher, I loved teaching French 1 and Freshman English side-by-side because they were such different experiences and kinds of classes that required different teaching skillsets. I really enjoy working with ninth graders to lay the foundation for high school, and I got to do that in both of those classes. I developed an English elective on home that Nick Hiebert now teaches, and I really loved that class, too. It was an opportunity to bring some of my favorite texts into the classroom.
As co-chair of the mission review committee, you shaped the values we live by at CA. What motivates you everyday? What are your core values?
Wow, what a big question! I think our work on the mission review committee wasn’t so much about shaping CA’s values as it was about clearly articulating them. Of course, revising a mission does shape the future culture of an organization, but our goal was a statement that honored CA’s values and vision for itself.
I will answer by saying that I have a few “favorite” parts of the mission. I feel very strongly about CA’s value of “striving for equity.” Although it’s a new phrase for the mission, that work has been part of CA for a while, so the language was updated to describe this value. Including this language has generated more energy around this work, and I am very thankful for that. I also really appreciate the line, “we challenge and expand our understanding of ourselves and the world” because it invokes growth. I am motivated by life-long learning and opportunities to continue to grow in my understanding of myself and the world around me. I have learned so much about myself as an adult, even just this year, and I hope to continue to be open to evolving. I hope students see love of learning as applicable to the classroom but also to themselves and their community experience. How can we bring curiosity to ourselves and our interactions with others? I’m still working on this and aspire to grow my curiosity. I think all of these things—a commitment to equity, a love of learning, and curiosity—can be grown and practiced.
At the 2020 Convocation, you challenged us to participate in building up a community that supports every person and ensures that every member is seen, heard, welcomed and embraced. You said, “Being in community erodes division. Being in community erodes prejudice. Being in community erodes isolation and fear.” You encouraged us to show up to events, get to know our classmates and connect with our teachers. Could you share what the CA community means to you?
CA has been a home for me for a long time. I was a local boarder, and I think I chose boarding because I was subconsciously seeking a home. The Courageous Conversations framing that Rob shared this year has three parts—introspective, interpersonal, and institutional—and I was very much laying the groundwork for the introspective part as a student at CA. I think my student experience was a lot about planting seeds for myself that then took root as I got older. The opportunity to be part of a more diverse community than my hometown and to start to understand my own identity was so important to me. And then I got to continue that work as an adult at CA, both for myself and in trying to support that experience for students.
I think the path of least resistance, especially this year, can be a very isolating one. It’s so easy to get caught up in our screens and online life while having very little in-person interaction with other people. The CA community lowers the barrier to connecting with others. This was pivotal for me as an introverted and shy high school student, and something I hope students today lean into, as well.
When I wrote the convocation address in the fall, it felt like society could break apart. There are still many divisions today. The isolation of this year made it even harder to bridge across divides, but I saw so many examples of conversation and being in community that healed division and created connections. Being in community and being proactive about building relationships takes work (spoken like a true introvert!), but I stand by this advice!
At the beginning of the year, you also encouraged the CA community “to honor, to unlearn and to grow,” how have you grown this year?
I’ve grown so much this year! One thing I am proud of in my career is putting myself in positions where I will have to grow, and this year is no exception. That is not always the most comfortable route, but I have grown so much since I started out. You could have knocked me over with a feather in high school, and it has taken a lot of work and growth to develop my voice and become more resilient.
This year I took on challenges, tasks, and roles I never imagined I would do, and I think the framework of “honor, unlearn, and grow” does describe what I had to bring to my work. I always had on my mind how to honor where students and adults were this year and what they were able to do in the exhaustion of living with so many stressors. This did require some unlearning of my usual assumptions, and I will bring this unlearning forward with me.
I also had to learn how to be forgiving of myself and to do what I could and not be too upset about the things I couldn’t do. There was more work than was possible to do well all the time, so I had to do my best and honor my limits. I have grown in my capacity to accept my limits and let go of perfection over the past several years. It has taken me a long time to learn this, but I think it’s a very important skill that many of us have to learn the hard way. I hope more students will practice this.
I have also grown in my ability to start from a position of gratitude. Practicing gratitude helped me get through this hard year. I am truly grateful for so many people and things this year, and I think remembering those things as much as possible helped me to stay positive.
As the 2020-21 school year comes to an end, do you have any summer reading recommendations?
I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to over the past few years, but I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist over March break and highly recommend it as a summer read. It is both a fast-paced read and very thought-provoking. I finally got around to reading On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, one of my favorite authors, and recommend this book as well, although Lee’s Native Speaker remains my favorite. A few other great summer reads might be Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. I have been told my taste runs a little heavier than average, so I offer that as context. Mostly I would just advocate for reading books you like and that keep you reading over the summer!
Your wisdom, kindness and empathy have inspired us. What legacy or message would you like to leave at CA?
You are really too kind to say this. You asked such thoughtful and generous questions here—thank you! I guess I would just say that all of us have the ability to make the lives of those around us a little better by making space for them to be whoever they are and want to be. Sometimes that work is pushing for systemic change, and sometimes it requires introspective self-improvement, often both. This work is selfish work, too. I want to live in a world where I can be my full self and those around me can be their full selves, too.
I want to end with one of my favorite phrases—a simple one—that I find powerful in tough moments and I hope everyone remembers as they move forward this summer and into the future. You are enough. It moves me every time I think of it, and I am guessing many others experience it with the same skepticism that I do. But I encourage everyone to keep it nearby. We do our best to grow, and in those efforts, we also have to be kind and true to ourselves. You are enough.