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The Great Muffin Bake Off of 2021

Plating the muffins
Faculty and staff pairs beginning to make their muffins
The final muffins
Faculty and Staff participating in the muffin bakeoff
The Great Muffin Bake Off of 2021

On a balmy July morning, Tabor’s senior leadership team kicked off a three-day retreat. It was the first time the group had met in person since Tony Jaccaci became Head of School in July 2021. There was an ambitious agenda. In addition to charting a course for the 2021-2022 school year, Jaccaci wanted his team to bond and learn how to work together as effectively as possible. 

That first morning was a productive session. Gathering in the Great Room at the Head of School’s house, they talked about their individual leadership styles and discussed various challenges they had encountered as educators and administrators. After lunch, they were ready to return to meetings when Jaccaci threw them a curveball: they would be spending the afternoon in the dining hall. The reason? They were competing in Tabor’s first Great Muffin Bake Off. 

“I was trying to think of something that would require people to be creative and to problem solve,” Jaccaci says. “My wife and son have been very into The Great British Baking Show. I watched this process and saw how people would problem solve in really impressive ways. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a fun way to do it and in the end just have some sort of thing where everybody wins?’ Or at least that was the thought.” As it turned out, the afternoon was not without drama. Things got heated. And not just in the ovens. 

Six months after the bake-off, several participants rehash the competition in a spirited group interview. For some, the wounds are still raw.  

“If it’s not noted in the article that the results are under protest for perpetuity,” Dean of Students Tim Cleary tells this writer, “I will come after you.” 

The competition began with Jaccaci explaining the rules. Each team would use the same recipe, a classic blueberry muffin, but they would have the freedom to creatively incorporate a number of sweet and savory toppings. Teams were selected by drawing names from a hat, and three jurors were enlisted to evaluate the muffins. “We had some of the highest quality judges we could find in all of southeast Massachusetts,” Jaccaci says. 

Once the baking commenced, Jaccaci functioned primarily as a cheerleader and emcee. As he bounced from station to station, encouraging the teams and snapping pictures, the judges looked on carefully. 

“I found it very interesting to watch the body language of those who were doing the baking,” says Interim Co-Director of College Counseling Lauren Boucher, who served as one of the judges. “There was fear in the faces of some and complete comfort in the faces of others.” 

One stress point concerned the sharing of resources. Each team had its own station in the dining hall’s kitchen, but they had to get their ingredients from a central hub. 

“There wasn’t always enough for everyone to have everything at their station at the same time,” Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications Stacy Jagodowski says, “so people were constantly taking stuff from each other. At one point, I had everything I needed, and then I turned my back and everything was gone. And I’m like, ‘Where’s my butter? My butter is gone!’”

Even after the teams secured their ingredients, they were not out of the woods. The recipe was simple, but it required conversions. This exposed holes in some of the competitors’ math backgrounds. A more technical challenge emerged when it was time to mix everything together. Among other criteria, the judges were evaluating their whisking abilities.   

“Texture is super important,” says Boucher, a devoted fan of The Great British Baking Show. “I don’t like a muffin that tastes like cake. There can’t be too much sugar. The other thing about muffins, and something that I saw happening, muffins should not be over-stirred. In fact, before you put muffins in tins, they should be barely blended. Otherwise, they come out tough.”

One team struggled to find the right consistency. 

“Conan stirred his batter for like 30 minutes,” Boucher says. 

“He ended up with scones,” Cleary says. 

“I actually like scones,” Boucher replies. “I would not call those scones.”

Without naming names, Jaccaci confirms that one team produced muffins that “could’ve been used as pucks for our hockey program.” 

When the scorecards were tallied, Jagodowski and O’Connell were crowned champions. The result took everyone by surprise, including the winners, but a theory quickly emerged to explain their success. 

“I actually thought PJ and Stacy would come in dead last,” recalls Bethany Daniels, Executive Assistant to the Head of School. “I thought Tim [Cleary] was going to win. But at the end, PJ and Stacy threw all this candy and all this fun stuff onto their plate, so maybe it came down to presentation.”

“Exactly!” exclaims Cleary. “It wasn’t about taste. It was all presentation. Ours was delicious. But it was just a muffin because that’s what we were told. Presentation was one of the categories. I get it. But come on! The categories have to be scaffolded, and taste should matter more.”

Despite protests from jilted competitors, the judges stand by their verdict. 

“We ultimately weighed our decision on the final product,” says judge Rick DaSilva. “And while each batch reflected different talents and baking styles, they also represented the teams themselves. Walking through the kitchen gave us insight to the random partnerships — how they communicated, shared responsibilities, and made decisions on the recipe and instructions.” 

The results may be disputed, but the competitors unanimously agree on one thing: the bake-off brought Tabor’s senior leadership team closer together. 

“It was a good opener,” Daniels says. “Normally we’re in presentations or we’re just in meetings, and this was a nice way to let loose and get to know each other on a different level.”

“It was fun to see where everyone stands when the gloves come off,” Jagodowski adds. “And, I learned that Tim is super competitive.”

Cleary shrugs. “I’m one of those ‘if you’re not first, you're last’ people.” He laughs before offering a more sincere reflection from the day. “When we’re at work, we can be so siloed in what we’re doing that we lose sight of the fact we’re people and not just professionals. So I’ve seen some carryover from the bake-off. Like when we sit in meetings now, there’s some offbeat humor and humanizing moments that I hadn’t experienced before.”

This is exactly the outcome Tabor’s new Head of School had in mind. “It was wonderful to see the group in a pretty low stakes competition, and to see everybody get into it and just literally roll up their sleeves and have a little fun,” Jaccaci shares. He pauses, and then adds, “Although they did make it high stakes pretty quickly.” 

“In the end, Tony’s challenge was successful,” says DaSilva. “Each team earned praise for navigating the kitchen, following the recipes, and eventually making muffins. However, it was also informative, showing that while Tabor’s senior leadership team can indeed ‘bake,’ the community is fortunate their talents are found outside the dining hall.”
 



Teams

  • Team #1: Tim Cleary (Dean of Students) & Christina Kennedy (Dean of Studies)
  • Team #2: Stacy Jagodowski (Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications) & PJ O’Connell (former Director of Advancement)
  • Team #3: Bethany Daniels (Executive Assistant to the Head of School) & Steve Sanford (CFO) & Eric Long (Director of Admissions)
  • Team #4: Conan Leary ’97 (Director of Athletics) & Derek Krein (Interim Dean of Faculty)
  • Team #5: Roxanne Dunlop (Controller) & Tim Cheney (former Director of College Counseling)

Judges:

  • Rick DaSilva ’89 (History Teacher, Associate Director of International Center)
  • John Doyle (Director of Catering, Flik Independent Schools)
  • Lauren Boucher (Interim Co-Director of College Counseling)

*Not all senior leadership members participated, titles represent those as of the time of writing