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Leadership Chronicles

Two professional headshots

Left: Tony Featherston ’80 | Right: Dr. Shante Oniyide ’02

  • Alumni
Leadership Chronicles
Eliott Grover ’06

Tony Featherston

The summer after Tony Featherston ’80 graduated from Boston College, he played on the history department’s intramural softball team. When he accepted a sales job in Hartford, one of his teammates, a history professor, expressed disappointment.

Featherston asked why.

“I just thought you’d be a teacher,” the professor replied.

“I remember laughing at him,” says Featherston. “I thought that was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard in my life.”

By his own account, Featherston was not a serious student. He started high school at Newton North, a public school in Newton, MA, where he was one of 3,000 students.

“They paid attention to the kids who set the school on fire, academically and literally,” says Featherston. “I was happily in the middle, just kind of sliding through without anyone really noticing. And that was perfectly fine with me.”

Everything changed after he failed a chemistry test and the teacher called his parents. “He thought I wasn’t living up to my potential,” says Featherston. “So the jig was up at that point. My parents started investigating independent schools.”

He enrolled at Tabor the following autumn. The dynamic relationships with peers and teachers—forged through layered interactions in the classroom, dorm, and athletic fields—were like nothing he had ever experienced. “Just being known and being connected to teachers in a way that I never had in public school really made a lot of difference,” he says.

It’s been almost forty years since Featherston laughed at the professor who thought he’d make a good teacher. Today, he is an established leader in the world of independent education. He has worked as a teacher and a director of admissions, and he has served as the head of school at two prestigious New York day schools, Elmwood Franklin in Buffalo and The Town School in Manhattan.

One of the throughlines of Featherston’s career has been an unwavering commitment to diversity. His first teaching job was at Concord Academy. After four years in the classroom, he moved into the admissions office where he was heavily involved in recruiting students of color. Later, as the director of admissions at Kent Denver School in Colorado, he helped push the school to hire its first diversity director.

During his six years as the head of Elmwood Franklin, Featherston continued this important work while overseeing every aspect of the school’s operations. The job description for a head of school includes meeting enrollment goals, ensuring academic standards, hiring and leading faculty, fundraising and managing capital projects, and much more. While the scope of the job is dizzying, the emotional investment is often the hardest part. “It’s not the work, it’s the weight,” says Featherston. “You have the weight of this community on your shoulders 24/7.”

At both Elmwood Franklin and The Town School, which Featherston led for another six years, he treated the work of stewarding school culture as a solemn duty. “A huge part of the role is pastoral care,” he says. “You’re holding a community in your hands.” At Town, he advanced the school’s already robust diversity efforts and spearheaded a number of strategic initiatives.

Throughout his tenure as a school head, Featherston relied on a lesson he learned early in his career. At first, he thought people would adjust to his leadership style. He quickly discovered the opposite was true. “Everybody is different, so as the leader, one of the challenges is that you have to adapt your leadership to be effective for each of the people that are working with you,” says Featherston. “I might have an admin team of seven or eight people and they all need different things in order to be excellent at what they do.”

Identifying talented leaders is now what Featherston does for a living. In 2018, he joined Resource Group 175, a consulting firm that specializes in head of school searches. All of his colleagues are former school leaders, experience he says is invaluable when it comes to understanding what a client school is doing well, what can be improved, and what kind of conditions it needs for its next leader to be successful.

“We measure our success on whether our placements stay for more than five years,” says Featherston. “We’re not a ‘do the search and run away’ sort of firm. We continue to work with our clients through the first year of a head’s tenure to provide mentorship in that spirit of ensuring success and longevity.”

The success and longevity of Featherston’s own career might have surprised the reluctant student who once laughed at the idea of working in education. Somewhere out there, however, a softball-playing history professor got the last laugh.

Shante Oniyide

Dr. Shante Oniyide ’02 knew she wanted to be a teacher when she was five years old. Her father brought home a chalkboard he found on the sidewalk and they hung it on the wall of their Brooklyn apartment.

Smiling Black woman with group of young elementary school children

“I came home every day and pretended to do everything my teacher had done in school,” recalls Oniyide. “I had my little dolls and I taught them math and reading. This was going to be what I was going to do.”

By the time she was eight, she knew exactly what kind of teacher she wanted to be for her students. Her third grade teacher, Ms. Bernstein, was an inspirational role model. “With her,” says Oniyide, “I felt seen, I felt valued, and I never felt like there was something I couldn’t do.”

Her vision for her career in education crystallized during her senior year at Tabor. Her sister’s son, whom the family calls Ty- Ty, was not meeting typical speech and development milestones. Oniyide decided that when she got to college, she would study special education in order to be a resource for her sister and an advocate for her nephew. From her own experience in grade school, she recalled special ed students being separated and stigmatized. “All I knew in my mind was that can’t happen to Ty-Ty,” she says.

Oniyide matriculated at Syracuse University and majored in inclusive education. “Hearing this word ‘inclusion’ was a stark contrast to what I saw when I was in school,” she says. “It was this idea that students who may have a disability or be in special education can be included in the general education classroom.”

After graduating, she taught special education in Brooklyn for ten years before moving to Virginia in 2013. She joined the Hampton City School system, where she co-taught with general education teachers, and was soon asked to become the special education instructional leader. Colleagues who noticed her penchant for working with people and offering fresh ideas encouraged her to pursue administrative roles. After earning an Educational Leadership and Administration degree from George Washington University, she became an assistant principal.

One of the many responsibilities assistant principals are tasked with overseeing is their school’s special education program. Most administrators, however, do not enter the role with Oniyide’s background. Working closely with her school’s special-ed teachers, they were able to help their students reach new heights. By the end of Oniyide’s first year as assistant principal, students with disabilities at her school met and exceeded state expectations in reading and math.

An insatiable learner, Oniyide decided to pursue a Doctor of Education degree from George Washington in 2019. The fact that she was raising four children and working full time did not deter her. Oniyide says, “As soon as they told me what the cohort theme was, which was equity, I immediately tapped into my own experience as a special-ed teacher and being an aunt of a person that had autism.” Her research, which focused on the training that school administrators receive to run special education programs, found that many principals and assistant principals were underprepared for running these programs.

In 2022, the same year that Oniyide published her dissertation, she was promoted to principal. The role gave her an opportunity to implement many of the recommendations from her own research while honing her broader leadership skills.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned about leadership is that you can’t do it on your own,” says Oniyide, citing the importance of clear communication. “You have to be organized, you have to see the big picture, and you can’t be the only one to see it. You have to bring other people in to see that big picture with you.”

During her first year as principal, Oniyide announced that her school’s theme for the year would be “Success is our story.”

“Success is not the story of every student, and it should be,” she says. “I didn’t want it to just be a slogan. I wanted it to be part of the culture within our building.”

In her second year, Oniyide built on this momentum with the theme “Expecting Excellence.” It’s a phrase she tells students and colleagues often. “If we don’t set our expectations high, our students are not going to rise to those expectations,” she says. “We’re not going to use disabilities or socio-economic status or the fact that we’re a Title 1 school as excuses. I think back to my third-grade teacher. She didn’t expect anything less of me because of my zip code.”

Maintaining high standards is not incompatible with having fun, which Oniyide says is also an important part of her leadership style. “I try to keep a sense of humor,” she says. “Teachers are stressed. They’re underpaid and they work their tails off. While I try to let them know this is serious work and we have high expectations, there have to be opportunities to laugh and smile.”

In reflecting on her journey, Oniyide credits Tabor as being the stepping stone that fueled her own education while imparting an important lesson about teaching. “What Tabor helped me add to my toolkit was that teaching kids about academics is great, but you also have to teach them about life,” says Oniyide. It’s a lesson she has strived to instill in her own children and the generations of students whose lives she has touched.