Go to the Head of the Class
Alumni leave the Hill inspired to teach
By William Billiter
The Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch once wrote, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but rather a fire to be kindled." Nearly two millennia later, more than a thousand dedicated Hamiltonians tend hungry young flames in classrooms throughout the country and around the world, teaching their students perhaps the most important lesson of all — how to keep their own minds alight for a lifetime.
Matthew Baumgartner '03 understands Plutarch's epigram better than most. As a classics major he read Plutarch in the original Greek. An award-winning teacher at Brown Summit Middle School in North Carolina, and now at Rockingham Senior High School, he has a particularly tough assignment — reviving Latin, oft maligned as a "dead" language, and making it sing for modern adolescents. "Humor is a very important tool," he says. "The more I can make students laugh, the more they tolerate learning. I also try to make connections between Latin and classics with any- and everything in contemporary society."
Baumgartner considered becoming a teacher back in the fourth grade, but he did not seriously pursue it as a career choice until he was a sophomore at Hamilton. "I had gained a deep and abiding love for Latin from my high school teacher, and decided to begin working with languages again at Hamilton," he says. "Before I knew it, I was taking both Latin and Greek. I knew that it was something I would want to continue, and I just fell in love with all of the romantic notions of teaching."
Carl Rubino, chair of the Department of Classics, director of the Senior Fellowship Program and the Edward North Professor of Classics, and Professor of Classics Barbara Gold left enduring impressions. "I looked at [them] with awe and envy," he says. "They were quite inspiring. I had a great deal of respect for their opinions, their intellects, their lofty positions, and for the respect they commanded from the class." Baumgartner models his classroom style after Rubino's, playing devil's advocate, using humor and even sarcasm. Rubino, he recalls, "was challenging, thought-provoking, harsh at times, yet rewarding…. He embodies what I strive to be — an esteemed scholar."
"Doctuh" Mike Woods, professor of music, also made a deep impression. "There has never been another educator in my life who brought so much passion and fervor and love into the classroom," he says. "Doc Woods gives his soul to those lucky enough to be his students." Woods also encouraged Baumgartner's love of jazz, which he uses regularly in his own teaching.
Gerard Griffith '95 knows a thing or two about igniting young minds as well. He, along with a seasoned principal and three other teachers, founded KIPP Infinity, a charter school in the northern reaches of Harlem and the Bronx, a few years ago. The middle school, where Gerard teaches seventh-grade math and directs the special projects program, has grown from 80 students in 2005 to more than 200 today. In the same span, KIPP Infinity students have progressed from remedial-level math skills to some of the top test scores in New York City. And in a recent article in the New York Post, KIPP Infinity was named the second-best middle school in Manhattan.
"A lot of people think that charter schools are selective, choosing the best students that apply," Griffith says. "But KIPP Infinity is not selective at all. Parents sign their students up via lottery, and we literally pull names out of a bowl to offer enrollment. We have special education students, students with learning difficulties and others with special needs, and we teach them all."
Griffith got a taste for teaching in one of Professor of Geosciences Barbara Tewksbury's courses at Hamilton. "Barb asked me and three other students to help her develop a new interdisciplinary course exploring how geologic events influenced the human development of Africa," he recalls. "We assisted with research and the formulation of lesson plans, and I found that I really enjoyed the work."
Some of Griffith's earliest students are now in their sophomore and junior years at college. "That's huge to me," he says. "They still keep in touch with me, those relationships are strong…. It's a joy to feel like you're making a real difference."
Bridget White '07 didn't set out to become a teacher, but she found herself drawn to the ranks of Teach for America, a national teachers' corps serving low-income areas that also gave Griffith his teaching start. White is completing the first of a two-year stint teaching special education in grades K-5 at an inner-city school in Phoenix, Ariz. She explains, "Teach for America builds its annual corps mainly by recruiting high-achieving college students in campus leadership positions. Most of us have no background in education studies, so TFA trains us in a trial-by-fire crash course for five weeks over the summer. It essentially amounts to sticking a bunch of overachievers in a room with underprivileged children, with the mindset of 'If no one is learning, no one is teaching.'"
She points to the most unforgettable moment of her four years at Hamilton as the foundation for her commitment to teaching. She was a sophomore on a choir tour in Poland, and the choir, directed by G. Roberts Kolb, professor of music, was preparing to sing Mass in Krakow during Holy Week after seeing the concentration camp at Auschwitz earlier in the day. "Needless to say, our pre-concert energy was noticeably subdued that night, having spent the afternoon looking at piles of teeth and the singed locks of children's hair," White says.
"Before entering the church, Rob said something that I doubt I'll forget anytime soon. He talked about how we'd all just witnessed the unspeakable horrors of what we humans can do to each other. He juxtaposed that with his hope that our music reminded us of the potential for good that we humans can do for each other.
"It's a message that obviously resonated deep within me. So now I teach with thousands of other people, all of us trying to do the same thing the Hamilton choir did in Poland — working together to accomplish something meaningful."
Teaching in a low-income community with few resources and where many students speak little or no English tests White's commitment daily. "It's not just about multiplication facts and spelling," she says. "Many students lack even the most basic social skills and positive role models to show them how to behave. In many cases, they've never known any alternative to violence." Still, she insists, "Little victories go a long way. Whether it's starting a sentence with a capital letter or reading 15 words correctly in a row, my students' achievements are hugely meaningful to them and to me."
Stephanie Gray '02 also teaches special education and, like White, had few thoughts of becoming a teacher while at Hamilton, despite a minor in education studies. "I actually got into my field by mistake," she says. "Best mistake I've ever made."
After graduating with a concentration in theater, Stephanie accepted a job at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. "I loved it because it used my theater background from Hamilton, but I soon realized that I loved working with kids more than I loved performing," she says. She applied for a teaching assistant position in the Indianapolis public schools and within a year had enrolled in the special education graduate program at Butler University.
Gray, like many others, points to the College's focus on effective communication skills as a crucial facet of teacher training. "More than anything, Hamilton's focus on writing and speaking has been instrumental to success in my field," she says. "Learning how to organize your ideas on paper and then express them conversationally is a huge part of teaching, especially in the realm of special education. Staff meetings, conferences, professional development plans, lesson plans, all involve writing and speaking, sometimes simultaneously. You have to know how to write and communicate effectively to be an effective teacher."
Challenges can come from parents as well as students. "I was having trouble with a student and took a break to call his home," she recalls. "I wanted his family to talk to him about his behavior when he got home that afternoon. His father answered, and after I'd explained his son's behavior, he said, 'I can't help you. Between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., he's your problem.' Then he hung up on me. It was a terrible feeling because I knew that I was not having success with this student. Even worse, I knew that no one else was even trying to reach him. Those days are tough."
Still, Gray has no regrets about her career choice. "It's so clichéd, but I feel like I learn more from my students than they do from me," she says. "I'm doing the job that I was meant to do."
Sarah House Murphy
Sarah House Murphy '99, who teaches fifth grade in Hudson, Mass., echoes Gray's sentiment. "I may be teaching kids, but often kids end up teaching me," she says. She recalls a particular attachment to a class that began school in 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.
"We made a plan to adopt an entire elementary school in Mississippi," she says, and students wrote letters to the school to find out what people's most pressing needs were. They then held drives to collect school materials, clothes, books and toiletries. And, Murphy says, "they wrote letters to the kids in Mississippi to help boost their morale and helped contact local businesses to get the supplies shipped south."
Later that year, when the class worked on a literature unit about the Dust Bowl and the pictures of its victims by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, the students "were so moved by the images of the time period and by the hardship of the migrant workers that they created their own exhibit of Hurricane Katrina images," she says. "On my toughest days, I think about that group of kids, their generosity and their commitment to finding a way to make a difference."
She majored in communication and gained valuable experience as an Arthur Levitt Scholar, traveling to area high schools to talk about her thesis on the glass ceiling in corporate America. She acknowledges Professor of Anthropology Bonnie Urciuoli for encouraging her through the process of tailoring her message for high school students. That experience, coupled with Hamilton's focus on critical thinking and effective communication, proved invaluable in forming her own teaching style.
"It's an amazing experience when you have the chance to work with a teacher who inspires you and shows you how to write well, how to communicate effectively, to question things and to seek your own validation when trying to find the right answer to a problem," Murphy says. "I didn't find that until I came to Hamilton. Now, that's my goal as a teacher for each day I step into the classroom."
Julie Ross '84, a professor of legal research and writing at Georgetown University Law Center, also points to Hamilton faculty members as an inspiration for her own teaching. "Many of my Hamilton professors certainly set high standards for classroom teaching, ones I aspire to meet," she says. "I think teaching style is a very individual thing, and I don't think I could ever teach in the same styles as Professors [Eugene] Tobin, [Robert] Simon, [Jonathan] Vaughan or [Douglas] Hermann. However, I try to be as accessible to my students as they were to me."
Julie always had the prospect of teaching in the back of her mind. After law school and several years in private practice at a small firm in California, she and her husband moved to Maryland, where she decided to make the leap. "I think the small class size at Hamilton and the opportunity to get to know many of my professors outside of the classroom was a factor in my decision to teach," she says. "It gave me a sense of how rewarding teaching could be and how much of an impact a teacher could have on a student's educational experience."
As a psychology major and senior fellow at Hamilton, she conducted extensive research in cognitive psychology during her senior year. "While some of the substance of the psych courses that I took and the research experiences have proven valuable, particularly in the academic and other counseling that I do outside of the classroom, Hamilton's focus on writing and speaking has been even more helpful to me as a teacher and as a trial lawyer in Los Angeles," she says. "All of the courses that I teach involve some sort of writing or public speaking component for my students, and my job requires a great deal of professional writing and speaking."
Frank Anechiarico '71, the Maynard-Knox Professor of Government and Law at Hamilton, shares the enthusiasm of Ross for his own students. "I very much value staying in touch with students after they leave Clinton," he says. "There are scores that have inspired me by their guts in sticking to an employment or educational goal after being told 'no' more than once. I'm always inspired by how mature our students become after a short time on the Hill."
Anechiarico has taught at Hamilton for more than 30 years, often directing the programs in Washington and New York City, and offering courses on constitutional law, the criminal justice system, public administration and the military in American politics and law. He pays homage to Eugene Lewis, who began teaching in the Government Department as a new assistant professor when Anechiarico was a first-year student, for drawing him aside and telling him to think about graduate school.
Lewis and Grant Jones, professor of anthropology, were early role models — "very dedicated teachers who knew how to get students going in class" and who, Anechiarico says, "pioneered the lecture/discussion model that dominates Hamilton today.
"Of course, I would never say that I could duplicate the range of Eugene's style. He had periodic back trouble and once led a seminar while stretched out on the floor where none of us could see him. We behaved as if he were hovering behind us, which he ordinarily was."
The Hill was a different place when Anechiarico came back as a Hamilton faculty member. Kirkland College was enriching the community but foundering financially. There was a new concrete campus on the other side of College Hill Road, the Vietnam War was over, and distribution requirements were gone. Some things remained the same, however. Many of the people he respected and liked as a student were still here, and Anechiarico received a warm reception from his former professors, including the legendary Ed Barrett.
"I took a year-long course on Shakespeare with him," Anechiarico remembers. "We were more disciples than students of Ed. He was enthralling in the classroom, especially when he read from the plays, and he held us to a high standard of writing. Of course, I had gone through the then-required first-year writing course that demanded three perfect essays to pass. The essay grades were simple: Yes or No. I closely guard the secret of how long it took me to get my first Yes."
Thomas Acampora '04, who has taught social studies for the past three years at the inner-city Baltimore Talent Development School, remembers a student who turned his life around. "Vic Fenner was a troubled youth who dropped out of school in sixth grade, but came back due to a court order. He came to our school, not really wanting to be there but having to be there. He was basically homeless and had a severe drinking problem.
"And we, as a faculty, basically adopted him — my vice principal used to wash his clothes, I took him grocery shopping, other teachers chipped in to buy him clothes and school supplies, we counseled him. And he totally turned it around! Within less than a year, he was a straight-A student, talking brightly about his future, and even though he still battled the bottle, he was winning that war, too.
"And then, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot within a block of the central administration building for the Baltimore City public schools. I, along with others, had worked so hard with him, it was just so painful. I helped him turn his life completely around only to watch the street reclaim him."
What, after such a tragedy, keeps Acampora coming back to the classroom? "I work with truly amazing students and am often stunned by what they have endured and have overcome," he says, telling of children who are succeeding in spite of homelessness, disabilities and family responsibilities that would stagger an adult.
"I know so many students who have bloodcurdling and heart-wrenching stories of abuse, neglect, poverty and hardship. And yet, still, they come, ready and willing to learn."
Acampora knew he wanted to be a teacher early in childhood.
"When I was 7 years old I asked Santa for a classroom blackboard," he says, and he recalls circling 92 courses that he hoped to take in the Hamilton College catalogue when he received it as junior in high school. A history major and Senior Fellow, he never got to take all of them, but his intellectual curiosity hasn't wavered. "I try to teach from an interdisciplinary perspective," he says. "Having a solid liberal arts education allows me to know and understand what my colleagues are teaching, and so I am able to connect it with my own course content."
"I draw inspiration from a lot of my professors at Hamilton," he continues. "Specifically, I think of Gillian Gane, who taught me the value of wait-time. Professor Gane would ask a thought-provoking question and then remain silent until a student spoke up. She refused to provide us with her opinion or her response, so that we'd craft and create our own.
"She wasn't the only one — I remember similar experiences with Professors Kevin Grant, Al Kelly, Vivyan Adair, whose course on Education in a Liberal Society helped shape my educational philosophy, and Esther Kanipe, who introduced me to a lot of the issues around learning disabilities that I face in the classroom and how to deal with them."
Lewis Lawson '69 cites his father as one of the main reasons he decided to pursue a career in education. "His advice to me was 'Son, if you want to be wealthy, don't be a preacher or a teacher, but if you desire a life full of satisfaction, don't let anything stand in your way.'" Now nearing four decades of teaching English, history, geography and public speaking at Collegiate, a private preparatory school in Richmond, Va., Lewis says his positive experiences "would require a book," while there has been "only a thimble on the negative side."
By extraordinary coincidence, two of his colleagues at Collegiate are also Hamilton alumni — Ben Greenbaum, also of the Class of 1969, and Arthur "Pete" Follansbee '76. "We joke about Hamilton some and share old stories," he says, "but in that we are worked like rented mules, we don't have this opportunity very often. On occasion we will go to a local pub together so as to not lose that Utica Club feeling and to seize that Genesee moment."
Lewis realized in high school and later at Hamilton that teaching would be a worthy vocation. He cites the example set by several professors, particularly Don Potter, "who taught me to really care about the student even if one were not good with the subject matter (geology in this case)," Ed Lee, Warren Wright, "who was particularly effective with his use of the Socratic method," and coach Gene Long. Lawson took a few education courses to keep his options open, and he credits Hamilton's broad liberal arts approach for the well-rounded and versatile approach he brings to the classroom, including the ability to address his students' questions from multiple perspectives.
"Every course I took emphasized writing and speaking skills," Lewis explains. "My Hamilton education has given me a confidence in these areas that many of my contemporaries seem to lack. We really learned how to think and write. Hamilton has made many of my later challenges a breeze."
Greenbaum, too, recalls public speaking classes as "both demanding and extremely helpful" in his teaching career. A pre-med student at Hamilton who now teaches earth science and geology, he did not decide on a teaching career until graduate school. But he cites a variety of Hamilton professors for their commitment and command of their disciplines. And Greenbaum has made a similar impact on his own students. Several years ago, he and a class of seniors exhumed the newly discovered remains of a Confederate soldier at a Gaines Mill, Va., battlefield in a story that made national news.
Like many Hamilton alumni who teach, Lewis willingly risks sentimentality in describing why he has continued to return to the classroom year after year. "This will seem corny — of course, it is to make a difference and to inspire others, to make this a better world," he says. "But beyond all of the obvious reasons, I have been able to make many wonderful friends in my students, who have perhaps been a greater influence on me than I have been on them. It's wonderful to continue to grow and expand every day."