An educator’s journey
Is teaching a craft, a performance, an art form? Or is teaching a calling?
Teaching is like no other job. To know how to solve an algebraic equation is quite different from teaching someone else the knowledge and cognitive steps necessary to solve it. A teacher must not only elicit a single student to think critically, work creatively, and act judiciously, but a teacher has a whole classroom watching.
Take a look into the lives of five Cornellians with a passion for education.
The student teacher
Madeleine Koenigsberg, a junior at Cornell, remembers the moment in high school when she unearthed a discovery about herself—the kind of revelation that clarifies a potential path yet to be fully explored.
Koenigsberg’s English class was divided into groups. One group performed a play. The other groups came up with questions. Koenigsberg’s group led the class discussion.
“I found I really enjoyed it—being up front asking questions,” Koenigsberg says. “I’ve always enjoyed my English classes, and it just seemed a natural fit for me.”
The college educator
Cornell College Professor of Education Jill Heinrich was teaching high school English when an idea began to take shape, sparking a new and exciting direction for her career aspirations.
“I taught high school English for 11 years and absolutely loved it, but I was also ready for a new challenge,” Heinrich says. “I wanted to find a career path that was equally rewarding—that would still allow me to make a difference in students’ lives.”
She realized she wasn’t ready to leave the classroom. Teacher education, on the other hand, would keep her in the classroom while making a big impact across many other classrooms, which led her to get her doctorate in English education.
“Teaching is a daunting profession, and I never flattered myself that I had all of the answers,” Heinrich says. “Still, I was excited to pass on to my students what I had learned and loved about my profession.”
Heinrich doesn’t just teach future teachers. She has a deep knowledge of the education system as a whole. In particular, she’s explored how poverty impacts education, influenced by the theorist Pierre Bourdieu who argues that poor students lack what their middle-class peers take for granted—cultural capital.
Middle-class parents pass on knowledge and skills often necessary for success in our culture. In low-income homes, when that cultural capital is missing, class inequalities perpetuate.
So, how do you teach history when your students are struggling with depression, anxiety, and the extreme issues of poverty? Heinrich teaches her students to commit to a sustained mentoring relationship with disadvantaged students by showing them that you care, that you understand the hardships they are facing, and that you are there for them every step of the way.
“Every student has potential, and there is joy and privilege in helping them to realize it,” Heinrich says. “However, to do so, teachers must challenge, nurture, and support them, because such actions say to them ‘you are capable and worthy of my time and my interest.’”
Heinrich urges her student teachers to keep the end goal, the future lives of their students, in mind despite any upheavals. It’s not just the mental health of their students that teachers should be mindful of as they move through their academic years. They need to find ways to keep their own well-being supported, she says.
Heinrich knows that teachers will have highs and lows in their careers and when the inevitable low period hits, she wants to make sure the teachers she’s trained can counter any negative self-talk with the knowledge that they are making an impact on student lives.
It’s an exceptionally tough challenge we’ve placed on educators. Not all schools get equal amounts of financial support, which can greatly impact a teacher’s ability to fulfill the rather daunting duties they are tasked with achieving. America’s schools belong to the local communities they serve, a long-standing tradition in education. That local control can foster connection and support, but it can also allow for great funding disparities when our nation’s schools are primarily funded through local property taxes. One district may spend $19,000 per student annually, Heinrich says, while another district can only afford $4,600 per student.
Economically strapped districts struggle to provide teachers the support services and resources they need to meet their students’ needs. Some superheroes (otherwise known as educators) fight to get those resources, but that can take its toll.
“Even when those resources are available, teachers and schools often struggle because the demands can be overwhelming,” Heinrich says. “Whether the issue relates to student anxiety, a learning or behavior disorder, or school violence, schools are expected to keep students safe and meet their needs—regardless of the cost or emotional toll.”
The new teacher
Nalik Davis ’16, a history major who completed his secondary education certification at Cornell, is teaching U.S. history, government, and economics to 11th and 12th graders at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California. He also coaches football. Before Eisenhower, Davis taught seventh graders in Los Angeles. Although he’s changed schools and grades, what hasn’t changed for Davis is his teaching philosophy and passion for bettering the lives of his students.
“I believe that everyone has the potential to succeed in the classroom—it’s just a matter of how much effort you put in as a teacher,” says Davis.
“Students will always reflect their leadership, so if my leadership in the classroom is showing kids that I care by being on time, putting all I can into my work, giving full effort, and showing my best to them—that will reflect in them.”
“They will start to care, they will start putting in the effort, and they will start investing in their education. If you can get to that kid for a good five to 10 minutes and build a relationship with that kid, then they will trust you forever.”
Davis is a self-described relationship guy. He emphasizes that teaching is all about building relationships with the students first, which builds trust between the teacher and the student. Only then can you teach history or coach them on the football field, he says.
He works with students who are distracted by their home lives, by hunger, and by the social media-driven pop culture that permeates their landscape. Davis knows that he can only reach his students if he can form connections with them, especially the kids who struggle with outside issues that can’t help but impact their mental health in the classroom.
“The kids were extremely lost,” he says of his seventh-graders in Los Angeles. “And they were just looking for some type of attention, some type of love because they were so young.”
Davis doesn’t blame parents but points to society at large. If parents are working 15-hour days just to pay the bills, it impacts the students. Davis says he has students who show up to football practice hungry because they don’t have enough money for breakfast. Teachers and coaches have to find ways to reach students who are struggling with a lot more than just their algebra homework.
Davis remembers what it was like for him as a student. He wasn’t the best student in middle or high school. Something shifted the way he saw his own education and what sprouted that change were coaches and teachers who took the time to connect with him, who built a relationship with him, and who showed him that they cared about his future. He attempts to be that example to his students today.
“As an African American, I thought that it would be extremely important to change the dynamic—the way people look at an African American—and show that there are African Americans who are educated and do well and shine the light on other ones. So when I’m in front of the classroom, they see someone who looks like them and shares their story—and they see that they can do it as well.”
Davis remembers sitting in on classes taught by his grandfather when he was young. Despite admiring his own grandfather’s teaching abilities, Davis didn’t come to Cornell with the dream of teaching. It was the education faculty that swayed him, starting with an education class that he loved.
“When I got to Cornell, Jill, Kerry, and Kate [Education Professors Jill Heinrich, Kerry Bostwick, and Kate Kauper] really helped me and changed my life forever,” Davis says. “I’ve never had people show so much care and love and invest so much in my future. They showed me new ways of teaching. I don’t know where I’d be without Cornell. Everyone there was so supportive in my educational journey.”
The mid-career educator
Making an impact on people’s lives appears to be a central theme for many educators. Susan Caponi Arvidson ’88, who majored in religion and elementary education at Cornell, says her interest in teaching stems from a desire to help people. She knew she wanted a career that would impact others in a positive way, and teaching seemed like the right fit for her.
Arvidson began her six-year teaching career in a first-grade classroom in a small Iowa town. After a few years, she moved to Des Moines to teach fifth grade. As much as she loved teaching, she aspired to connect even more deeply with her students. So she pursued her master’s degree in school counseling at Drake University.
She began her 25-year school counseling career in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she still works as a lead school counselor for the Saint Paul Public Schools, building a comprehensive school counseling program for all 37,000 students.
Arvidson’s teaching philosophy sounds similar to Davis’s philosophy, which sounds a lot like Heinrich’s philosophy.
“People are doing their best and showing up as their best selves in each particular moment,” Arvidson says. “This is a very helpful lens for me to use when a child is dysregulated and is having a behavior issue. Even in a difficult moment like that, the child is doing the best that they can right then. If I can approach her or him with compassion and acceptance, I can build trust, help the child get regulated, and teach new skills for the future.”
Arvidson sees school counselors as change agents who shine a light on past practices that are not meeting the needs of students in order to recommend relevant change that bridges the achievement and opportunity gaps.
Today Arvidson urges new educators to practice self-care so they will be around to teach for a long time. Educators bring their hearts as much as their minds to work each day, she says.
“An outstanding teacher, school counselor, or administrator truly loves their students. They go home at night and think about their students—wonder if they are getting enough to eat, if they have a safe place to sleep, whether they will be at school the next day,” she says. “This truly is a calling and a vocation. School counselors may have over 500 students in their hearts each day. The work is so important and the pressures can be intense. Self-care is essential to sustain a long career in education.”
For Arvidson, being an educator is central to who she is, and she is proud to have touched the lives of so many students over the course of her career. She’s especially proud of one of her most recent accomplishments. When she started as the lead counselor, her district had 41 elementary schools and only 13 of them had a school counselor. Today, every elementary school in St. Paul has a school counselor.
The retired educator
Patsy Ophaug Graham ’74 volunteered for the Red Cross and participated in Girl Scouts when she was a student in middle and high school. She quickly realized she had a knack for relating to kids and decided to get her certification to teach swim lessons. That became her summer job every year until she graduated from Cornell.
Graham’s teaching career spanned 41 years. She began her journey as a third-grade elementary teacher in an open classroom, a popular concept in the ’70s that emphasized the practice of “learning by doing,” in which students learned at their own pace, moving from one interest center to another. Standardized curriculum or tests were not used in this model.
Graham became certified to teach special education, leading her to another position as a resource room teacher for elementary students, which she did for 20 years. She taught in the gifted and talented program and took on a leadership role as the district coordinator for the program.
Then Graham decided to pursue a goal she’d had since she had discussed it with her advisor at Cornell—a master’s degree, which became part of her journey as an educator throughout the ’80s.
For her last 17 years of teaching, she worked primarily as a special education resource teacher in Northfield (Minnesota) Public Schools. With all those years dedicated to teaching, she has a firm teaching philosophy.
“I believe that teaching and learning are life-long processes,” Graham says. “They need to involve motivation, engagement, and derive meaning to be effective and lasting. I have found that making the connection between pupil and teacher is essential for learning to begin.”
Graham’s philosophy reiterates what Nalik, Heinrich, and Arvidson have intimated—it’s all about relationships between the teacher and the student. Graham also wants people to think about the educators who have made a difference in their lives and to remember at least one teacher who made a difference for them.
Answering the call
Although Koenigsberg is still earning her educator’s credentials as a Cornell junior, she sees her future career as a calling and one that incorporates craft, performance, and a creative sensibility.
“Teaching is all of these—anyone might have the talent to teach one person, but for an entire classroom, you have to be entertaining and informative,” Koenigsberg says. “The greatest teachers are the ones who try to teach everyone who comes into their classrooms, and I believe it’s similar to a calling.”