by John Potter
At The New School, the teaching environment is unique and rewarding, and our staff usually stay many years. Only six out of 31 staff members have been here less than eight years, a striking piece of data by any measure. Such longevity leads to a very tightly knit group working in a highly collaborative manner. As a result, bringing in new faculty members is both exciting and daunting.
Our faculty represent the heart and soul of the school. New School teachers have freedoms that teachers in most schools would envy. They create their own classes based on their interests and passions—consistent with our curriculum guide—and we encourage them to develop their own unique approach, always bearing in mind the highly dialogic nature of this environment.
On the flip side, being so small means we ask much of our teachers, all of whom wear many hats. They may have fewer students than teachers in larger schools, but they put an extraordinary amount of effort into their classes, their assessments and their relationships with students and their parents. The effort they put into designing a course for a class of ten takes more time for our teachers because of the latitude they have.
As teachers in most small schools will tell you, our salaries can’t compete with the public schools or some of the wealthier independent schools, yet we attract amazingly talented teachers. Why do these talented, creative people choose to work here? And why do they stay so long?
Juana Gomez-Diez has taught Spanish at The New School for 14 years, having turned down repeated offers of higher paying positions at big name prep schools in Washington, DC.
Students often stay with her for four or five years, and achieve a remarkable level of fluency. When asked what keeps her here, Juana says she is endlessly grateful for the freedom to create classes in her own style and the chance to work so closely with her students, with whom she develops a powerful bond. “I am not micromanaged,” Juana says. “I believe in mixing language instruction with cultural studies, often through film. In this I am supported and encouraged, not restricted.”
So what do we do when an outstanding faculty member leaves?
I have a system that might make some people wince, but it winnows the field very effectively so that I’m not inundated with responses from those who might well be less passionate. More times than not, it has brought me excellent applicants. My teacher ads don’t simply ask for a cover letter and resume, they contain a challenging prompt to which the applicants must respond. For example, a well loved, multi-talented humanities teacher moved to another country after being with us for several years, leaving a huge professional and personal hole in the staff. We had big shoes to fill.
My ad for her replacement read, “Write an essay about what it means to be a Renaissance teacher.” I received only ten responses, of which four were thoughtful and well written.Of those, one in particular stood out, and that was from Jacob Cholak, whom we ultimately hired. The ad didn’t include the name of the school. Jacob was so intrigued by the ad that at first he thought it was a hoax placed by his friends to see what he would come up with. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay:
“Real learning is an act of aggression. One must kill one’s own assumptions and then ransack the past… But there are fragments which, reconstituted, provide new life.”
“My small apartment consists mostly of books. I try to read three a week. Sometimes I read four. My students need me to know everything. I can’t and never will. But: Russian symbolism, German idealists, ancient Near Eastern poetry, Zoroastrianism, political economics, Chinese zen painting, paleolithic fertility icons, Ethiopian garage bands, and C# programming. I’m a young, old-fashioned generalist in an old, specialized world. I’m learning Akkadian. I rode through Asia on a motorbike.”
I also require an applicant to design and teach a class before I make the final decision.Jacob taught a class on the culture surrounding The Great Gatsby, using a film clip,pieces of art, a short reading and an analytical discussion with the class. The students ate it up. I hired him
Echoing Juana, Jacob loves the freedom we’ve given him to follow his passions. As a film school graduate, he badly wanted to start a film program at the school, and he pitched it professionally. He now has the equipment and time to train students to use it, and is planning a film festival for February. He is actively collaborating with the rest of the staff to film exhibitions, unusual classes and school events. Half of his classroom is set up as a living room, with couches, chairs and lamps, over which hangs a large pull-down screen for viewing films.
Jacob appears to have settled in for the long haul.
Our new theater director, Steve Elm, had the task of bringing together six high school students (no warning for them) to coach them into creating a cohesive production in 90 minutes (between 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM).
The result was nothing less than sensational. Steve’s extensive theater experience is breathing energy and inspiration into the department and this is proving to be infectious.
We work extremely hard to find and retain people who will add to the richness of the mix we have. It is imperative that we hire people who will not only be successful teachers and mentors, but who will ultimately blend their own considerable strengths with those of the rest of the faculty as they grow into The New School community.