Whether they’re learning how to live in a dorm, enduring discomfort on Out Back, or just watching their teachers go about their lives on campus, students at a boarding school learn countless important lessons outside the classroom.
That’s an idea that animates Holderness School’s new Dean of Students, Mb Duckett Ireland. Having spent the last 11 years as a form dean, English teacher and coach at Choate Rosemary Hall, Mb knows just how all-encompassing a private school education can be. She also knows how important it is for faculty and administrators to create an environment where all students can be comfortable growing into their true selves. “Helping students through that process of identity development and self-understanding and fashioning themselves to be ready for the world is what drives me,” Mb says. “And I just love conversations with teenagers, because they’re intellectually adults, but just have this joy that sometimes I think we lose sight of as adults.”
We’re excited to welcome Mb, her wife Sarah Duckett Ireland, and their two-year-old daughter Livi to campus this summer. But we couldn’t wait that long to talk to her. Here, Mb tells us about the unique challenges today’s students face, why she loves experiential education, and what drew her to Holderness.
What first interested you in Holderness School?
I think it was the emphasis on experience as important to learning, coupled with still having a very strong academic program. The way students get to go outside —they get to actually do lots of hands-on things. A lot of schools use experiential learning as kind of a buzzword, but Holderness has been living it for a really long time. So that was a really exciting prospect to me.
Why makes experiential learning so exciting?
I was involved with the Environmental Immersion Program here at Choate. It’s an interdisciplinary curriculum where all the classes kind of talk to each other about the environment and solving environmental issues through an interdisciplinary lens. I think that sort of approach to learning is very real-world and applicable to what happens when you graduate from high school and college and go out into the world. I think it’s a really meaningful way to learn, and it makes things stick with students much better than sitting in a classroom all the time. Having a student population that’s willing to sign up for a school, like Holderness, knowing that they’re going to spend 11 days in the woods and three of them by themselves? It just attracts a certain type of student that’s very much my vibe. I went on a NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School] semester right after I graduated from college because I didn’t feel like I had done anything different enough while I was in school. I had always wanted to, but just never got to a place where I was willing to step outside of the classroom comfort zone. So it’s exciting to work at a place that values that so early and really emphasizes it.
You served as chair of Driving Equity at Choate, an interdepartmental team created to heighten cultural competency through training, curriculum review, admission work, and hiring practices. You were also a longtime faculty adviser to Spectrum, Choate’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance. Holderness has made a strategic initiative to grow our culture of inclusivity. How do you see the Office of the Dean of Students as aiding that initiative?
It’s really important work. It’s the foundation of everything that I do. If a Dean of Students office isn’t deeply, deeply involved in equity and inclusion work, then they’re not serving the students correctly. Whether it’s partnering to make programming with Jini [Director of Equity and Inclusion Jini Rae Sparkman] and her office, or making sure that we’re constantly involved in training around unconscious bias to make sure we check ourselves as adults so that we’re doing our best for all of our students and each of our students individually. I think you can’t be in the world of serving students well if you’re not constantly reflecting on your own experience and trying to better yourself also.
What drives you as an educator?
Trying to help students. I think high school is a really exciting time in the life of an adolescent, particularly at a boarding school. Whether the student is living there or not, it doesn’t really matter because they’re spending more time away from their parents than they ever have before. There’s this great opportunity for students to explore different versions of themselves, different aspects of their personality that they want to cultivate and to look around at all of these adult models they get to see up close and to say “Wow, there are so many ways to be a successful adult in the world, and I get to see so many of them in action outside of just the classroom.”
What particular challenges do today’s students face?
I think it’s harder to be balanced these days. Everybody talks about the kind of drive to get into the right college and do the right thing and get the right job. It all comes back to finding a way to live a balanced life. Academics are important, but they’re not everything. Sports are important, but they’re not everything. Sleep is important, but it shouldn’t be everything – but it should certainly be something, right? So whether it's sleep or not sleep, live your life online or live your life in person, put every hour you have into homework or do something for you – it wasn’t as much of a machine when we were in high school. When we were in high school, there wasn’t as much of a predetermined way or path to be on from a societal point of view. I think knocking yourself off of that path can be a really daunting prospect but it’s a really important thing to do in order to be true to yourself.