Getting Spoiled In The Big Apple

By Mary Koepke — September 01, 1990 6 min read

Sarinda Parsons is about to take a bite of tempura. In between the batter-dipped shrimp and the miso soup, the Connecticut teacher chats with three educators from different states. They laugh and struggle with chopsticks while comparing the admissions philosophies of their respective private schools.

Parsons and her colleagues are being treated not only to delicacies at a Japanese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, but also to three weeks of lectures, seminars, and study, enlivened by some wining, dining, and socializing.

The annual event—sort of a cross between graduate school and summer camp—is called the Klingenstein Summer Institute. Each year, 50 teachers from private, independent high schools are chosen to attend on the basis of essay writing and recommendations. The experience is designed to convince bright academics with one to five years of teaching experience that they should stay in precollegiate teaching.

Keeping young talent in the field is important, according to Pearl Kane, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Too many good teachers resign before the paper on their bulletin boards has the chance to fade. Kane developed the institute nine years ago and has been directing it ever since.

The group the institute serves is at a high risk of leaving the profession early, mainly because few intended to teach in the first place, says Kane. Since the program began, only a handful of the participants have been education majors. Most studied liberal arts or science with a passion as undergraduates and then wrestled with whether to pursue an advanced degree or find a job in the “real world.” They discovered that private schools were hungry for their enthusiasm and knowledge—with no licensing or additional course work strings attached.

These types of teachers, Kane notes, often become restless and leave the classroom in search of an intellectual challenge or leadership opportunities. The institute’s message is that those things can be found in teaching.

The first goal is to show teachers that they are important. “We try to do that by treating them well,” Kane says. Participants aren’t chauffeured around in limousines or put up at the Ritz, but they do get subway tokens, housing, and most of their meals. The perks include tickets to a comedy club, a visit to a Mets game, a picnic in Central Park, a cocktail party, and several dinners on the town. Not only do the teachers see four Broadway plays, but they also meet the stars afterward. “We’re treated like kings and queens,” says Parsons.

But three weeks’ worth of subway rides and free meals rarely affect career plans. So participants also get food for thought. Weekdays are packed with lectures. This year, educator Eliot Wigginton preached the value of learning by doing la Foxfire, political scientist Dennis Dalton raised questions about the effectiveness of the lecture method, writer Alfie Kohn argued against competition, and American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker argued for incentives as a way to improve schools.

The lectures are designed to “expose participants to complexity,” says Kane. If teachers realize that there are many different ways to approach teaching, then their jobs will be more interesting. “We want these young teachers to see themselves as part of a profession—which is both private and public—not just as a teacher in one school,” she says.

After the lectures, the teachers meet in discipline groups—science, history, math, English, or foreign language—for in-depth dialogues. A master teacher in each subject area facilitates the group’s discussion. Topics range from how to use a meandering stream to teach the principles of physics to what to look for when grading an essay.

Participants wind up with a bounty of new ideas from their colleagues. Chris Carlsmith, one of several participants who teach at an American-style school abroad, explains: “Here you get the benefits of hearing not just other possibilities, but hearing different people’s experiences with those possibilities.”

Learning a few practical tips is particularly helpful because most of the participants jumped into the classroom cold. “The irony of private school teaching is that most of us are untrained,” admits Parsons, who began teaching right after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in French. Kane says that while private school teachers eventually pick up the tricks of the trade, the institute helps “accelerate the process.”

The sessions differ from departmental meetings back home because no egos are involved. Says Carlsmith: “We’re not competing against each other. The only competition here is to make yourself a better teacher.” Parsons agrees. Intense discussions and even disagreements among participants are “free of resentment and anger,” she notes. “Maybe that’s because we don’t work together.”

Both master teachers and novices learn from one another. Tony Asdourian, a beginning physics teacher from New Orleans, describes what he has learned from Kevin Mattingly, a 1983 Klingenstein alumnus who returned this year as a master teacher. Says Asdourian: “I used to worry about becoming static after teaching the same course for years. But watching Kevin, I realized that he is always striving to improve. I feel I could do that.” And Mattingly says that he “steals” practical ideas from the younger teachers all the time. “They have good instincts,” he readily admits.

But even more valuable than the lectures or the group meetings, says Asdourian, are the snatches of conversation shared over dinner or in the dormitory suites. “We’ll talk for four hours about the issues we believe in,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be directly related to a classroom issue. The conversation just gives me a better understanding of the psyche of other teachers and how they approach things.”

Although Kane has no formal statistics on the institute’s graduates, many keep her informed of their careers. Some decide to teach in public schools; others transfer to private schools they heard about at the institute. Many say that if it weren’t for the institute, they would have left the profession altogether. Mattingly, for example, says that after teaching science for a few years, he started looking for a job in his field of study—environmental science—because he was “feeling limited.” But after attending the institute, he changed his mind. “It broadened my sense of the possible within secondary education and made me think about what being a professional in the field was all about,” he explains.

It’s too early for this year’s batch of participants to know how the institute will affect their careers. But most are already gushing about it. Says Parsons: “Here, 50 people have reaffirmed that education is the right place to be.” She adds that she would love it if her mother and sister-in-law—both public school teachers—could have similar experiences.

Even Asdourian—a self-described cynic—can’t hide his enthusiasm. “I was worried that I was going to be with a bunch of idiots sitting around and listening to jargon,” he confesses. “But I’ve learned that there are young, intelligent teachers out there who are academically rigorous and feel the same way I do about commitment to the kids. Talking with them has affirmed the feeling that teaching can be an active, intellectual field.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Getting Spoiled In The Big Apple