Princeton program helps grads thrive in classroom careers

The “first day of school” held added meaning for Jason Griffiths ’97 this year. On Sept. 5 in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg neighborhood, Griffiths and six teachers welcomed 50 high school freshmen to the Brooklyn Latin School, a new public high school modeled after the prestigious Boston Latin School. In addition to being Brooklyn Latin’s first day, it was Griffiths’ first day as a principal anywhere.

Located on the top floor of an elementary school building, Brooklyn Latin is “specialized,” in New York City public schools parlance, which means that students are required to take a test for admission. Griffiths spent months planning for the school’s opening, visiting 45 middle schools to recruit qualified students, studying the practices and traditions of Boston Latin with its headmaster, interviewing and hiring teachers, and designing a rigorous liberal arts curriculum. But on the first day of school, when he finally left the building at 8 p.m., he felt like he had spent most of his time checking off administrative tasks.

Determined to leave with a different feeling the next day, Griffiths tried to keep up with an ambitious schedule. He arrived a little after 7 a.m. and later walked outside to greet arriving students, gently reprimanding one for spitting on the sidewalk. He met with the school’s guidance counselor to discuss the status of some just-admitted students, spoke with two teachers about the previous day’s lessons, and sat down with a prospective student and his father. (“He can start tomorrow,” Griffiths told the grateful father and son.) Griffiths walked into classrooms and read over the students’ shoulders as they drafted journal entries. In the hallway between classes, he confiscated one student’s hooded sweatshirt — Brooklyn Latin has a strict dress code, including school ties — and asked another about her first day learning Latin, a subject that the school’s students are required to study for four years. With lunch period just a few minutes away, he returned to his office to check his calendar. “I’m sure I have lots of phone calls and e-mails,” he said as he scrolled through the rest of the day’s schedule, “but they can wait until after the school day is over.”

Much of what Griffiths knows about leading a school came from a one-year residency with New Leaders for New Schools, a New York-based nonprofit group founded by Jon Schnur ’89, but the young principal’s career in education began at Princeton, in the University’s Program in Teacher Preparation. A history major at Princeton, he studied pedagogy and issues in education as an undergraduate and returned a year after graduation to complete his student teaching. Griffiths, who taught history and coached football at a high school in northeastern Pennsylvania for five years, now sees himself as a “coach of teachers.” And while he admits he has much to learn in his new job, he is determined to make the most of the opportunity. “I’ve never, ever worked as hard as I am right now,” says Griffiths, “but I also have never been so fulfilled professionally.”

As rewarding as it has been, Griffiths’ career in education almost never happened. He joined the teacher preparation program because he cared about education and enjoyed working with children, but he always had envisioned himself as a lawyer. As a recruited football player from Scranton, Pa., he had heard what a Princeton degree could mean for one’s career. Princeton was a place for bankers, doctors, and lawyers. Teachers? They went to Bloomsburg, a state university not far from his home. But in his first job after graduation, as a legal assistant in Philadelphia, his plans changed. Legal work just didn’t click, and he returned to Princeton to student-teach and become certified.

Griffiths’ story is not uncommon among young alumni who pursue teaching. As much as they love working with students and feel drawn to the profession, they often hesitate to make the choice. John Webb, director of the Program in Teacher Preparation, is well acquainted with the predicament: “There’s this thing — ‘Why are you wasting your Princeton education to become a teacher?’ — which every single one of the students in the program has to answer to somebody. You mention that and they all respond to it because they’ve heard it before. ... This is not unique to Princeton. Students at all of the highly selective liberal arts colleges hear the same thing, which reflects some kind of an unfortunate perception of teaching as a profession, nationwide, I think. And it impacts our students greatly.”

The question seems antithetical to the idea of “Princeton in the nation’s service,” says Russell Cannon ’06, a recent graduate who is completing his student teaching in Trenton this fall. “The first time I heard it, I didn’t know how to respond,” he says. “But I know that if I had gone anywhere but Princeton, I almost certainly would not be teaching.”

The service ideal veils the financial reality of the teaching profession. The 19 primary and secondary teachers included in a recent Office of Career Services survey of the Class of 2006 reported an average starting salary of just over $37,000. While higher than the national average for first-year teachers, it is still markedly lower than the more than $55,000 average salary reported by peers from the Class of 2006 who left school with jobs. Nor is salary the only negative facing teachers. Teaching has “lost much of its prestige in our society,” says Caroline Horowitz ’04, who taught in New Jersey last year before moving to Minneapolis, but Princeton alumni entering the profession “can only be a good sign.”

There are more than 2,000 Princeton alumni teaching in kindergarten-through-12th-grade classrooms, and about 285 serve in leadership positions as principals, deans, curriculum leaders, and superintendents. While some come to the education profession after long experiences in other fields, the most consistent group of new teachers from Princeton comes from the Program in Teacher Preparation, a part of the University landscape for nearly 40 years.

At its beginning, the program was entirely extracurricular. Steve Hahn ’68, who first considered becoming a teacher when he led outdoor expeditions for younger students during his undergraduate summers, remembers meeting with the teacher-preparation program’s first director, Henry Callard, in a small office near Nassau Hall. Hahn, now the headmaster at Portledge School, a small independent school on the north shore of Long Island, keeps on his bookshelf a copy of Our Children are Dying, Nat Hentoff’s 1966 profile of a troubled school in Harlem, which he received as the Teachers College Book Prize at Princeton in 1967. Callard inscribed the book to “the member of the junior class expressing the most constructive interest in educational issues.” Hahn pauses after reading those words and adds, “I might have been the only member of the junior class expressing interest.”

As a senior, Hahn was happy to trade some time from his senior thesis in economics to see if teaching was right for him, so with Callard’s help, he landed a student-teaching assignment at Princeton High School, teaching 11th-grade algebra and trigonometry. Hahn would meet informally with Callard to talk about what he had learned from life in the classroom, and Callard, a former prep-school headmaster, would share advice. “It was a really reinforcing kind of experience,” says Hahn, who has devoted nearly four decades to teaching and academic administration. “[Teaching] became the best part of the day for me.”

In 1969, the state of New Jersey authorized Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation to certify secondary school teachers (it now certifies elementary school teachers as well), and interest quickly grew. The program was drawing between 40 and 50 students from some class years in the 1970s before declining in the 1980s. Today, the typical class is around 20 students, and Webb says that individual attention remains an important part of the program.

Students typically begin teacher prep during the sophomore year, though there is some flexibility for students who join later, including an opportunity to complete student teaching in the fall semester after graduation. The University also allows alumni of any year to return to the teacher-prep program to complete the teacher certification process at a reduced tuition rate.

The first step in teacher preparation is completing an “introductory practicum” to learn about teaching, the program, and the program’s expectations. In the junior year, most students complete courses in educational psychology and a seminar in teaching and learning, in preparation for “practice teaching” at an area school. This student teaching most often is completed in the fall of senior year, with an accompanying seminar. Because of the competing pressures of the senior thesis and other requirements for academic majors, Princeton seniors have the option to student teach for eight weeks, but most opt for the state standard of 12 weeks. It can make for an exhausting semester; the program’s office bulletin boards display snapshots of smiling undergraduates proudly wearing “I survived student teaching” T-shirts.

Webb has sought to make Princeton a player in the national debate over teacher-training standards, and took part in a Capitol Hill briefing last year. He noted that some educators believe teachers should be prepared in larger institutions offering a full range of teacher-training courses, and asked: “Is it still possible for small, highly personalized, clinically based programs, such as those found at Princeton ... to produce excellent teachers, or do we put them all out of business? And if we go down that road, what kind of message do we send about teaching and learning?”

In Webb’s view, though Princeton students may miss out on typical teacher-training courses, the rigors of a Princeton education, combined with the experiences offered by the teacher-prep program, more than compensate. Teacher preparation at Princeton is relatively light on courses, but there are seminars with local educators and informal conversations with experts in the field and advisers in the teacher-prep program, all of whom have classroom experience. Students appreciate the balance of practical and theoretical training, according to recent graduate Cynthia Casazza ’04, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Flemington, N.J. The curriculum, she says, gave her confidence in “planning lessons with big ideas in mind.”

Traditional education colleges are sometimes criticized for courses that do not reflect what actually happens in the classroom, says Webb, a longtime teacher of French and English as a second language who was an adjunct professor at Hunter College before coming to Princeton. The Program in Teacher Preparation tries to avoid that disconnect by maximizing in-classroom experiences while maintaining ties with active professionals. “The students are in contact with that everyday reality,” he says. “When they emerge from the program, they have a pretty good sense of what it’s really like out there.”

The final step for teacher-prep students is to present a portfolio, compiled throughout the program’s courses and practical work, that demonstrates an understanding of New Jersey’s standards for teachers. The portfolio is a comprehensive collection of a student’s experiences, Webb says, and each student completes a portfolio defense before being recommended for teacher certification, answering questions from a University professor in the student’s subject area, a content specialist from a nearby school district, and the student’s teacher-prep adviser.

For all the work and cooperation that area schools provide, the teacher preparation program reciprocates with programs like QUEST, a two-week summer course for laboratory science teachers, led by Princeton faculty, and Teachers as Scholars, a series of small seminars in which some of Princeton’s top professors interact with local teachers. The outreach programs were started by Marue Walizer, Webb’s predecessor, who now works for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation as the national director of Teachers as Scholars. She says the programs are a way to thank the local school districts for fostering the education of Princeton’s students. “I really felt strongly that the University had intellectual resources that weren’t adequately available to teachers,” Walizer says. “It’s a nice quid pro quo.”

The majority of teacher-prep graduates find teaching jobs soon after graduation, Webb says, and though they are only certified in New Jersey, few have had trouble transferring their licensure. While many search for work in affluent schools, the program routinely sees graduates seek out challenging assignments in disadvantaged inner-city schools as well, according to Webb. But do teacher-prep graduates stay in teaching? Based on anecdotal contacts, Webb suspects that they follow different career paths. Some have long careers in the classroom, some move up to leadership positions in their schools, some pursue careers as consultants in education, and others leave education for other avenues. Todd Kent ’83, the program’s associate director, is working to find out more about the routes teacher-prep graduates choose through a Web-based survey of about 500 alumni, expected to start this fall.

Recent graduates are already making a major impact. Well before his 30th birthday, David Hill ’00 became the founding principal of the Stax Music Academy Charter School, which was created to help revitalize an urban neighborhood in Memphis. Katherine Princiotta ’96, a biology teacher in West Windsor, N.J., was honored as one of the state’s outstanding secondary teachers at Princeton’s Commencement last June.

Even students who leave teaching say they value the experience of teacher prep. Phil Novack ’02 left a high school teaching job in Hopewell, N.J., to work in politics with a gubernatorial campaign in his home state, Michigan. He jokes with his boss, candidate Dick DeVos, that stump speeches are nothing compared to standing up in front of a room filled with 16-year-olds. If Novack had gone directly into politics, he might be a few steps higher on the seniority ladder, but he has no second thoughts. “Having that knowledge, having that experience,” he says of his time as a teacher, “is something I would never trade.”

For those who stay in the classroom, the right position can make all the difference. Emily Moore ‘99, who teaches English at New York City’s selective Stuyvesant High School, says that she has the best of all worlds. She teaches a variety of courses to bright, motivated students: composition to freshmen, an elective on “great books” to seniors, poetry courses for seniors and juniors. This fall, she began working on a Ph.D. in English. Moore says she might consider teaching college students someday, but in the near term, she is happy to stay at Stuyvesant.

Daniel Mark ’03 also teaches in Manhattan, at his alma mater, Ramaz High School, a private school. He says that friends mistakenly assume that he got into teaching because he loves history, but it’s “not history, it’s the teaching” that keeps him motivated. “I wake up in the morning and I love going to work,” he says. “I have a smile on my face when I turn that corner to go to school because I can’t wait to get there. As tired as I am and as hard as I work, I love it. What more could I ask for?”