What got you interested in the area of education?
I went to Wellesley College, which is a women’s college, and Wellesley sends you out into the world on a clear mission around gender equity. I planned to head to law school to become a civil rights lawyer and make the world more equitable for everyone. But college was exhausting, and I thought to myself, “I’ll take a break for a year and move to the city, enjoy my life.”
So I got a job at a law firm, and while I was there, I was utterly appalled at the ways in which different folks in the firm were treated. Women were treated badly, even if they were partners. The same was true for people of color and anybody who wasn’t heterosexual. And I remember wondering, “How do all these folks who are so amazing, these absurdly, incredibly accomplished people—whether they’re attorneys or assistants or whether they’re PhD students working down in word processing—how do they keep their dignity intact when they’re being treated so badly at this firm?”
And it struck me that the reason my coworkers were able to stand up to others’ efforts to make them feel small was the fact that they had a strong sense of their own competence in the world. That competence came, for the most part, from their education. So I went straight from the law firm to my first teaching job, and I’ve never done anything else.
That’s a really powerful story, and I know that you still teach a couple of classes. How do you, as a teacher, try to instill those principles of dignity and respect in your students?
For me, getting those principles happens in two ways: it’s the “what” you teach and the “how” you teach. With respect to “what” I teach, I try to make sure that in my courses, there is a lot of representation of different narratives, different voices. Even in a Bioethics class, which will naturally feature a lot of philosophers who are white and male, it’s important to elevate less frequently represented voices of authority: women, people of color, and disabled philosophers included. Making sure my students come into contact with those competing perspectives in the course of their education helps to build them into well-rounded thinkers.
With respect to “how” I teach… I try to make sure that students are engaged in the process of learning with one another with real curiosity and respect, and the recognition that all of us have dignity, have something to offer. At the school where I currently work, Lawrenceville, we use the Harkness method. If you know Harkness, you know that it really relies upon the students engaging in dialogue with one another to make the learning happen. Kids don’t arrive ready to do that, of course, but after four years of deliberate training to the work of actively listening and sharing ideas with one another, students become empathetic and critical thinkers who are prepared to lead us into a brighter future.
What kind of traits do ready-to-graduate seniors tend to have?
For one, all of them have learned to take greater responsibility for their own learning. They’ve had to be the agent of that learning and have also, in every case, worked to support somebody else’s growth—whether that’s listening with grace in the classroom or helping a friend to make a hard decision to do the right thing.
Students have also had rich opportunities to exercise their passions, whether on the soccer pitch or the stage… or both, ideally, right? Because they’ve been able to try new things. In fact, one of my favorite Lawrenceville traditions is the Spring Dance Concert. Most of the student-dancers choreograph and perform their own pieces. But one dance, the Director designs especially for senior guys. Now, these are typically guys who’ve never been in a dance recital in their lives; they’ve ever never done anything remotely like it. But they get up on the stage and perform this complex choreography, and everybody in the audience goes nuts because the boys have taken a risk trusting others would support them. I hope that every kid at our school walks across the graduation stage feeling like they were able to take some productive risks for themselves.
Lastly, every successful senior at our school has at some point heard the word “no.” They’ve heard, “sorry, kid, it’s not gonna work out.” This is hard, of course. Our students are extremely high-achieving kids unaccustomed to losing out. Still, Lawrenceville seniors emphasize how important it is, at some point, to fail. They learn through it and can ultimately talk with pride and not embarrassment about the things that didn’t go their way.
Throughout the pandemic, a lot of students felt more disengaged having to attend through Zoom and without proper interaction with their classmates. What are the ways to better engage students in the classroom?
We have to give students the sense school isn’t something that’s just happening to them—it’s something they’re driving. When you’re passionate about something, you can get into a flow state. The central challenge of schools right now is that students feel most engaged on the soccer field, on the stage, or while working on the newspaper. It almost never happens when, say, they are writing a lab report. There are plenty of forward-thinking researchers asking the question, “how can we bring more of the qualities of those co-curricular activities students love to the work that we do in the classroom?”
WT, of course, is poised for that kind of learning. Part of the curricular transition you are making is about creating opportunities for student-led and project-based learning. Students are always more engaged when they are driving the learning process and when they feel that the work has real value.
How do you see technology and education interacting as we get these new tools for teaching and learning?
There are amazing tech tools for learning, and obviously, during COVID, we learned about a thousand of them. But it is important to keep in mind that in the classroom, technology is a means, not an end. As teachers, we should first ask, “What do I want students to take away from this experience?” Only then do we ask, “How can I use technology to help us to do that?”
That said… our greater reliance on tech in the COVID era means that most days, in most classrooms, screens are up. We need to ask ourselves whether that is the right choice given how hard we have all worked to be back together in person. In short, the possibilities of technology are extraordinary and we all spend too much time on screens. We’re all of us wrestling with finding the right balance.
You talked before about the growth mindset and understanding that learning and getting better is a process. Do you know specific programs or practices that you’d like to implement to better accept mistakes as part of the process and effectively learn from them?
The structures that we, as adults, create have an enormous impact on your mindsets. If every mistake you make in a class “counts,” you are not going to take risks and you certainly aren’t going to feel ok about failing. For this reason, teachers need to invite more (what we call in this business) “formative” work: low-stakes and non-graded assignments so students can practice before they have to perform. We can also encourage peer feedback, and equip kids with rubrics and models that help you understand what good work looks like instead of leaving you feeling like you’re being assessed on criteria you don’t know in advance.
Unless we create the context, all that talk about “growth mindsets” is kind of empty talk. I can’t just say, “be okay with your failures!” and expect you to do that. You’ll respond, “well…you still counted it, Kooistra!”
WT is moving in the right direction though! Semesters make practice and performance loops possible in a way that trimesters don’t. When you only have nine or ten weeks, everything you do matters too much, right?
A growth mindset, however, depends on growth. We need to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our mistakes. When we do something wrong, we need to be able to say “I blew that and I’m really sorry if I in any way made you feel small, made you feel like you didn’t belong, or in any other way hurt you.” We also need to be able, as a community, to forgive one another, to help one another grow. One of my favorite writers is Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the book Just Mercy. As founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson and his team both exonerate innocent folks and work for clemency for those who have served time after making terrible mistakes. Stevenson firmly believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” This is a mantra I believe we in schools can learn from given we want our schools to be safe and brave, places of real growth and transformation.
Last question, what are you most excited about Winchester?
I’m so excited about the people. When talking to students, I could see how lit up they are about the work they’re doing, and the faculty are equally passionate. I got to meet with the Department Chairs to hear their ideas for developing new curricular opportunities for you folks. What they had sounded really compelling. I thought, “Yes! Those are classes that I would like to take!”
I also loved seeing how invested you are in one another. When I was touring with Tommy and Jocelyn, we stood by the library – where there’s glass everywhere – and they were pointing to different groups, shouting out their schoolmates. “There’s so and so, they’re doing this project for this class, and there’s so and so and they’re doing this other thing…” I’m thrilled to be coming into such a positive and creative environment. And, I can’t wait to explore Pittsburgh!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.