Feature: The Call to Teach
The influences of SPS teachers remain strong among these alumni who have chosen careers in education
With 90 percent of her students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, and maybe one child per class at reading level, the school life Caitlin Farr Dobson ’99 enjoyed at St. Paul’s appears to bear little resemblance to that of her third graders in Oakland, Calif. It was the same for Becky Soderberg ’94 during her days teaching art to juvenile offenders. Even Will McCulloch ’95 sees differences in his admissions work at New Hampshire-based boarding school New Hampton. But each of them describes a strong connection between their experiences at St. Paul’s and their work as educators – in three ways especially.
The SPS graduates see value in the diversity of their students and recall how living among classmates unlike themselves enriched their lives. They assume potential in each student, not just the ones with obvious promise. And, they are replicating with their students the intentional and supportive relationships they were grateful to share with their St. Paul’s teachers.
The emphasis at St. Paul’s on inclusivity made an impression on McCulloch, a financial aid student and the first in his family to attend boarding school. “We had African-American guys from Philly, kids from the Midwest, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jewish kids,” McCulloch says. “Some were quite wealthy, some were quite middle class. Our basketball coach, Steve Morris, embraced it and encouraged us to connect with each other. That really stuck with me. The van rides – I remember them more than any particular game.”
In his work as director of enrollment management at New Hampton School, McCulloch travels the world, trying to persuade students in Russia, Korea, Finland, Germany, Japan, and beyond to leave the safety of familiar surroundings to attend school in New Hampshire, a place very unlike home. In selling New Hampton, McCulloch is selling his memory of a nurturing and safe environment at St. Paul’s. “It’s a perfect time for boarding schools to emerge as a great opportunity for kids to connect with other students from all around the world and with adults who care,” he says. “All of the inspiration for the work I do was my own experience as a student at St. Paul’s.”
Duke University English professor Tom Ferraro ’75 has been no less influenced by his education at St. Paul’s. His inspiration was born in the classroom. Ferraro’s parents, a doctor and a nurse, instilled in him an appreciation for science. It wasn’t until he came to SPS that Ferraro discovered an affinity for literature, art, and music. Equally influential, Ferraro says, was the way his St. Paul’s teachers enhanced their classroom lessons by tying the material to their students’ diversity of ideas and life experiences. He had never experienced that. “Literature is stronger,” Ferraro says, “when it’s seen in its cultural context.”
Ferraro adopted this interdisciplinary approach and a teaching style that lets the distinct thoughts and learning styles of his students direct the lesson. “I like the mix,” he says. “Who’s the engineer in the room and says what needs to be said? Who’s the dancer? The intellectual stimulation is what’s best about teaching; the way community is generated out of the diversity of individuals and the way people become individuals by rallying around a subject. I learned that from the classrooms of St. Paul’s.”
Caitlin Farr Dobson teaches language arts to nearly 50 third graders a day at Cox Academy in Oakland, Calif. But, for a majority of the time, her most meaningful role is counselor. The school’s demographics illustrate why. Suspension rates are high. Nearly 90 percent of the students are minorities and half of those are English-language learners. The school brings in a food bank once a week, and the neighborhood surrounding Cox Academy has the highest crime rate in Oakland. “It’s a very highly traumatized population,” Dobson says. “It has become really important to me to work with this population because they need so much support.”
Dobson’s eagerness to nurture her students in all areas of school life is textbook SPS. She relied on the mentorship of athletic trainer Maren McElwee and English teacher Suzanne Wilsey during her years at St. Paul’s. McElwee acted as a sounding board and supporter when Dobson needed to talk, while Wilsey was hugely encouraging of everything Dobson tried. Wilsey continues to support Dobson, contributing to her DonorsChoose campaigns, whether she is raising money for computers, books, or school supplies. Dobson didn’t set out to teach a needy and disadvantaged group of students, but she’s come to love it because of the relationships with students and their families. And, she’s discovered she gets as much as she gives. “There are days when you are having a hard day and there is a former student who comes to visit you,” she says, “or my old kids will knock on my door and say, ‘I just need a hug.’”
History teacher Simon Parsons ’03 has taught at private and public schools since graduating from St. Paul’s, and is now an educator at St. John Regional School, a K-8 Catholic school in Concord, N.H., just up the road from St. Paul’s. Like Dobson, Parsons draws a parallel between his experience at St. Paul’s and his work as a teacher. He says he aspires to teach with passion, in the mold of his own former teachers, and find a balance between challenging and supporting his students. “I now emulate that model in my own personal and professional life,” he says. “I find it rewarding that I can help students feel inspired by providing the right amount of support.”
The personalized attention from teachers at SPS still stands out for Parsons. He recalls struggling with a math class. Parsons says his teacher didn’t lower her academic expectations, but she let him know he didn’t have to struggle alone and worked with him outside of class, a setting Parsons found less intimidating. History class with Dr. Berkley Latimer was similar. Parsons was inspired by Latimer’s passion for history, the subject Parsons now teaches, but also by his support after class had ended. “I especially appreciated his attention to developing my individual writing voice,” says Parsons, “both during class time – free poetry writes about topics under consideration – and during office hours. It was much like the college setting, where the instructor can identify and remedy issues in a student’s work in a more influential way than during regular class time.”
The value of this teaching style was reinforced when Parsons taught ecology with SPS faculty member Rick Pacelli in the summer Advanced Studies Program. Pacelli, Parsons says, showed him “the importance of maintaining a classroom that values mutual respect and being kind and compassionate.” That intentionality of St. Paul’s in fostering relationships with students was also apparent to McCulloch – during his first visit to School grounds. He was considering two schools at the time. The decision to accept the offer to enroll at SPS became an easy one after he met former longtime faculty member John Green in the admissions office. Green made St. Paul’s feel like a second home, McCulloch recalls. He later worked with Green in the admissions office as a campus tour guide and remains in touch with him, more than 20 years after graduating.
Green’s example has not only influenced McCulloch’s admissions work, but was also a guide in his years as a house parent. “That aspect of spending evening time with students is as important as any practice or any class,” McCulloch says. “Just recognizing that students do remember the impact you make – you don’t always know that impact at the time.”
When Graham Browne ’04 told his New Jersey guidance counselor he had received a scholarship for underprivileged students to attend St. Paul’s, she told him he’d never make it. His mother believed otherwise. Fortunately, his teachers at St. Paul’s believed in him, too. The belief that others showed in him was a defining experience for Browne and one that continues to resonate in his own work as an educator. In the Winter 2017 issue of Alumni Horae, Browne shared his plans to open a college-prep middle school for underserved students in Queens, N.Y.
Forte Prep opened in August 2017 and enjoyed a successful first year. The scores for the school’s fifth and sixth graders on the state’s standardized math and English tests outranked local, county, and state scores. That was hardly a given for a school in which 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, and 20 percent are English-language learners. Browne attributes that success, in part, to a culture of “presumed potential,” a culture he first experienced at St. Paul’s. At home in New Jersey, college was out of reach for many students. At St. Paul’s, Browne says, the question was never if, but where you were going to college.
Forte Prep’s commitment to its students’ achievement begins before they enroll. Browne and staff members visit the homes of every student to learn about their dreams and their parents’ expectations. Browne later reminds students of those early conversations, when they find that success doesn’t always come as quickly as they’d like. “I’ll say,” shares Browne, “‘When I went to your house, and you told me you wanted to be a veterinarian one day, and your mom was so excited for this opportunity, we talked about how to be successful. No one here doubts that you can do it.’”
When other school leaders visit Forte Prep, it’s the culture they are most interested in replicating, Browne proudly says. “There are schools that have far more resources than we do, so that’s not necessary to be exemplary. Once you get the culture, you can build the academics.” Seeing the potential in students, as Browne does, and letting them know you believe in them is an important step in the learning process. For many years, current SPS fine arts teacher Becky Soderberg taught art to kids few would assume had promise – girls just out of juvenile detention and students with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Soderberg saw otherwise.
In her first year of teaching, a low-functioning special education student created a piece of art that was chosen for display in the Boston mayor’s office. Soderberg used self-portraiture with the girls released from juvenile detention, believing she could help them develop self-esteem through art. Soderberg, who has taught art at St. Paul’s for the past seven years, says her perspective stems from her time as a student at SPS. “I didn’t always have the easiest time,” she recalls. Her 3-D art teacher, Tim Miller, saw her art skill and encouraged it. The art studio became a place where Soderberg excelled, and a retreat in the evenings.
“It was a quiet place,” she recalls, “where I could just sort of feel good about myself.” Regardless of the setting – a specialized school for students with significant challenges or St. Paul’s – Soderberg has tried to do the same for those she teaches. “It’s about always finding something positive in what people are working on,” she explains. “I can’t control what happens when they go home, but I can provide a good experience.”