Theresa Smith returns to Webb after a sabbatical leave


Eva Annabi

Dr. Smith presents a slideshow about her findings during her sabbatical as VWS sits quietly in their all-school meeting during February of 2023. To enforce communication between the student body and the administration, she wanted to be transparent about her plans and share what she had done with the entire school.

You may have seen Theresa Smith, the Associate Head of Schools, on campus recently, whether she may be sitting in the front of chapel, eating in the dining hall, or teaching her Advanced Studies Art History class. But wasn’t she gone for a few months? What was she doing?  

On May 17th of 2021, nearly two years ago, the Board of Trustees announced that Dr. Smith would succeed Taylor Stockdale, the current Head of Schools. Dr. Smith will assume her new position in July of 2023,  just five months away. In order to prepare for her new position, she spent the fall semester of the 2022-2023 school year on sabbatical leave. 

A sabbatical leave is meant to provide faculty members the opportunity to take time away from their teaching responsibilities and other school-related commitments. Some teachers utilize this period of time to travel, explore a specific interest, and pursue other opportunities.  

Rather than taking the traditional route of stepping back and completely resting from all work, Dr. Smith spent her time on sabbatical differently. Dr. Smith spent the fall gaining academic insight from other professionals that would help her to create her own ways of growing the Webb Community.  

“I wanted to get ready,” said Dr. Smith. “Being Head of Schools is a big job and I wanted to make sure that I was ready to do it, thinking about what I needed as a leader to think around how to help the school continue to grow and advance in the next 10 to 20 years,”  

To be more productive in her studies, Dr. Smith traveled to several other locations and institutions across the country; in doing so, she was able to talk to certain professionals and live new experiences that wouldn’t have been as achievable by staying on campus. She visited other boarding high schools as well as colleges and universities, where she was given the chance to talk to other educators and investigate the things that other administrations were doing.  

For example, Dr. Smith spoke with the president of Wellesley College.  

“We’re going through this process of building our one school meeting and not being a girls’ school and a boys’ school anymore,” said Dr. Smith. “I asked how she was navigating some of the challenges around gender and what it means to be a women’s college right now.”  

In the process of transitioning into a one school model, Dr. Smith considered her conversation with Wellesley’s president to think through what the role of male and female categories might still play at Webb in hopes of simultaneously joining together while still outlining those differences. 

At Tufts University, she spoke to a professor who talked about a climate program that had been recently integrated due to the rising focus on climate change today. Dr. Smith hopes to also be able to adapt our programs to meet the realities of the world.  

Dr. Smith found that a reoccurring theme throughout her exploration was innovation. Towards the end of her sabbatical, she visited the Interactive Commons of Case Western Reserve University, a place where faculty and administration consider new kinds of educational platforms. The school originally planned to build a cadaver lab, but due to its expenses and difficulty, replaced the idea with hallow anatomy, which allows you to explore the anatomy of different species with virtual reality goggles. Dr. Smith’s takeaway from this experience was to think about how Webb might be able to improve its learning capacities in similar ways.  

“It’s really interesting to me to visit some of these places and see how we can continue to innovate here,” Dr. Smith said.  

A specific subject that Dr. Smith studied more in depth was artificial intelligence.  

Before leaving for sabbatical, she took inspiration from Lonnie Jonhson, a scientist who had given a presentation about the role that AI played in the world in February of 2022. Dr. Smith took a picture of the presentation, shocked to see how capable AI software was becoming, but also wanting to learn more about its power and function in society. In September of 2022, Dr. Smith also read an opinion piece about the death of college writing as a result of Chat GPT, an AI generator that uses keywords to artificially compose writing.  

In response to the rise of AI, she asked herself how Webb students may be able to receive education that is relevant, as well as how the administration can intertwine the work we do with the changing world. 

Coming back to campus after her sabbatical, Dr. Smith felt that she had accomplished a lot of her goals that she set before leaving. However, because she could only do so much in the span of a few months, she still spends her time currently following up on her research. Even after her sabbatical, she has continued to stay in touch with educators who she didn’t have the chance to speak with before. For example, she plans to meet with a professor who studies AI at Stanford University during March due to scheduling conflicts that didn’t make it possible to do so in the fall.  

“[Sabbatical] removed me from the ‘everyday’ of life,” said Dr. Smith. “When we’re here at Webb, we’re very involved and busy, and to remove myself from that and come back with an eye towards having a slightly different role was very healthy for me, and healthy for the school.” 

Dr. Smith will spend the rest of the year leading up to her fulfillment as Head of Schools by continuing to imagine how to transform Webb into a more innovative space, as well as teaching Advanced Studies Reading and Writing Art History. 

“I’m thinking about this moment in Webb’s history where a lot is expanding and we’re on this new horizon as a school, and how we can embrace some of these questions and challenges so that we’re taking advantage of our time,” said Dr. Smith.