Tao Is the Way – Gould’s New Head of School
NEW HEAD OF SCHOOL TAO SMITH ’90 AND THE PATH BACK TO GOULD
By Kim Siebert MacPhail ’73, P’07
Photos by M. Dirk MacKnight, P’10
This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the GAzette
From the moment Tao Smith ’90 set foot on campus as a prospective student, he felt an immediate connection. It was the summer of 1987, and things had not been going well for him at public school in Pomfret, Vermont.
“I stood out from the other kids my age,” Smith says. “Private school was not in our purview, but I needed a change. We’d looked at a few other schools, and liked them, but when we came up here, I felt like I belonged in a way I hadn’t felt anywhere before then. We were driving away—not even out of sight of the field house roof—and I turned to my mom and said, ‘That’s my place.’”
Including that day in 1987, Smith found his way to Gould Academy three times. First, as a three-year student. Second, as a ski coach and faculty member, from 1995 to 2001. And third, as the 39th head of school—and the first alumnus to serve in the role—arriving just in time to lead Gould through reopening plans in the face of the pandemic.
Finding the Way to Gould, Part One
As Smith tells the story, he was born “at the tail end of the hippie movement” on a houseboat in Sausalito, California. His father worked as a fisherman, a blue-collar, New England-conservative, “realist” from Vermont. His mother was a free-thinking, first-generation American, New York “idealist” with opinions that put her decades ahead of her time. Their neighbor was author Shel Silverstein. Their social circle included musicians Neil Young and Stephen Stills.
When he was 3, the family moved back to Vermont, joining the larger, back-to-the land movement taking place in the mid-’70s.
“So many of the things I love in life come from growing up in rural Vermont,” Smith says. “There was an aspect to the place that was open and welcoming, in the Robert Frost tradition. But, at the same time, it was not very sophisticated.”
“I felt like I belonged in a way I hadn’t felt anywhere before then. We were driving away— not even out of sight of the field house roof—and I turned to my mom and said, ‘That’s my place.’”
The differences between his family and their neighbors increasingly set Smith apart from his public-school classmates. “Conversations around our dinner table were interesting, to put it mildly,” Smith explains. “There was a lot of philosophical and political discourse. I got to see, firsthand, differences in opinion, and viewpoint of the world.”
While the seeds of intellectual curiosity had been planted before he got to Gould, Smith credits his teachers, like English teacher Mac Davis, with igniting his interest in learning.
“At Gould, the program matched my passions and interests, whether academic, out-of-doors, or athletic,” he says. “I was accepted for who I was by the adults and the other kids for the first time in my life.”
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Finding the Way to Gould, Part Two
After Gould, Smith attended the University of Vermont, majoring in comparative religion and minoring in history.
An avid skier, he badly wanted to join the UVM ski team, which had won the NCAA championships two years in a row. But Smith had not been recruited to the team.
“I went to the ski team director’s office in the fall, introduced myself, and said that I’d really like to join the team.” The director was skeptical, but he told Smith what he’d have to do.
“It was the first time in my life I had to actually work for something I wanted,” Smith says. “School and athletics had always come pretty easily. I kept telling myself if I could outwork everyone on the team—be the fastest, the strongest—I’d have a good chance.”
The team had ten slots and nine were already filled. Ten other aspirants, besides Smith, were vying for that last spot. On the day the roster was due to be posted, Smith went straight to the director’s door and saw that he’d made it. He was number ten.
“The coach congratulated me but said they’d picked me not because of my racing results, but because of how hard I worked for it. They wanted that [attitude] on the team,” he recalls.
“It convinced me there is very little we as human beings can’t accomplish if we put our minds to it. If we believe in it. If we can will it with every ounce of our being, every molecule in our body.”
Five years and two more NCAA championships later, Smith graduated, having taken a lower course load to be able to train and compete. Simultaneously, Gould was starting to invest in the competitive skiing program and Smith was invited to apply as ski coach. He’d always liked working with kids at summer camp jobs and volunteer programs so he decided to take the job and take some time to figure out what to do with his life.
But he had one stipulation: He also wanted to teach.
“I got to Gould in the fall and was unsettled to find that I didn’t have any classes assigned. I went to talk to [then Head of School] Bill Clough and [then Assistant Head of School] Dutch Dresser and they told me I’d be gone too much of the winter. But I really wanted to teach. So they gave me two sections of 10th-grade history, enough to get my feet wet. The students I had those first two years can probably attest to the fact that I was a better coach than I was a classroom teacher.”
Smith now sees he was naïve to imagine he could step into a teaching role without the life experience to understand how to create connections with students and how to make the course material relevant. Also, as predicted, his coaching schedule posed obstacles. To address the problem, he and former English teacher Lucia Owen co-taught an elective they called “The Idea of Religion” that drew on Smith’s college studies and allowed him to observe and learn from a master teacher.
“We taught that course for three years and had so much fun,” Smith says. “It helped me become a better educator, and I’m thankful.”
Smith also learned a valuable lesson from former history teacher Paul McGuire.
“When I came back as a faculty member,” Smith recalls, “Paul dug up some old correspondence between Gould and my family about some trouble I’d been having as a student. He said, ‘I usually burn these things but I want you to have them. They serve as a reminder that we are all works in progress—every one of us, every day of our lives.’”
Finding the Way to Gould, Part Three, this time as Head of School
Smith left Gould after six years, during which time he’d helped build Gould’s competitive ski program; led trips abroad; taught history, French, and Ideas of Religion; served as a Davidson dorm parent; restarted the dormant Outing Club; coached mountain biking, lacrosse, and tennis; and learned more than a few lessons from his former teachers/now colleagues.
“I was so young,” Smith says. “I figured if I wanted to get back into education, I could at a later time. I started looking around, from Google to manufacturing. But at the same time, Killington Mountain School was going through a head of school change. I knew the president of the board of trustees from ski racing who said ‘Why don’t you apply?’ I took a look at the school and knew I could leave it better than I found it.
“I didn’t know much [at 29] about running a school,” Smith admits, “but I spent the next 19 years at KMS following three simple guidelines: Leave a place better than you found it; treat other people the way you’d want to be treated; and, if you have the right attitude—the right outlook—there’s very little you can’t accomplish when you put your mind to it. Running a school is complex but being successful at working with people is that simple.”
Coming back to Gould with his wife, Dawn Barclay, a hospital physician, and their children is a homecoming made particularly challenging by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, Smith says, his family takes things one day at a time and is thankful, given their busy schedules, whenever they can be together.
His typical day as head of school is, at this moment, full of meetings. By the end of the fall trimester, more than 900 Covid tests had been administered, and there had been no positive cases.
“There are two overarching priorities: the health and wellness of students, faculty, employees, their families, and the Bethel community; and the continuity of Gould education,” Smith says. “Being in person this year requires being able to tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. We know there will be students here all through winter break and all next summer. Gould may never have a completely empty campus again for some time.”
Envisioning the Way Forward as Head of School
Tao Smith has a more intimate and multifaceted understanding of Gould than any previous newly hired head but he says he will nonetheless take the next year or so to identify “the inherent strengths of this place and then sing them to the rafters.”
“A revolution is not needed here,” he explains. But Smith does see evolution as a necessity, one that will accentuate and enhance Gould’s assets to make it the best version of itself that it can be.
“I learned early on that you don’t make someone or something better by trying to turn it into something that it’s not,” Smith says. He expresses frustration that Gould’s location has not been celebrated enough.
We have the most beautiful campus of any boarding school in New England, nestled up against a beautiful town. It’s the root of all our good fortune and impacts our curriculum, the people we attract, the decisions we make about sustainability.”
“That’s our signature strength!” he says emphatically. “We have the most beautiful campus of any boarding school in New England, nestled up against a beautiful town. It’s the root of all our good fortune and impacts our curriculum, the people we attract, the decisions we make about sustainability.”
He also points to the curriculum and the faculty.
“The quality of education and the quality of the people here are better, in many ways than when I left 20 years ago,” he says, although the faculty has lost some of its joie de vivre during five years with three leadership changes.
“This is hard work that we do,” Smith says. “Everyone needs to feel as though they are in this together—with camaraderie and spirit and trust—[especially] right now in the climate of the pandemic, social unrest, political upheaval, and calls for racial justice.”
Putting the pieces of his vision together, Smith holds close to his personal watchwords: acceptance and belonging, home, intellectual curiosity, hard work, respect for others, respect for the land, people as ongoing works in progress, community, communication, leaving a place better than you found it.
“There are no original ideas,” Smith admits. “But I keep coming back to the Maine State motto: Dirigo, meaning ‘I lead.’
“Rather than following, Gould should be doing something unique. We should be leading. Let’s go deeper with something that we already are.”