An everlasting love of teaching: WRA's longest standing tradition

An everlasting love of teaching: WRA's longest standing tradition

"For over thirty years I have had all kinds of students in class but the common denominator that makes me honored to teach WRA students is that they are humble and kind."

Sarah Horgan, History Department Faculty


"I admire the students who are true thinkers. I believed I was a good student as a kid, but I don't believe I was as insightful as some of the students that we have. I admire people I can learn from, and there are lots of kids who I do learn from, purely because of the way they engage in the world."

Todd Gilbert, Interim English Department Chair


"You get to see students develop a personal integrity, learn to be compassionate, respectful. And that's what's fun — watching them grow up. In that stretch from freshman to senior year, you watch them become better, more confident people. It's the human qualities that are the ones that I most enjoy about our students."


Jeff Warner, English Department Faculty

"Curiosity and humility are two things that lead to joy in the classroom. I love when the classroom is filled with laughter. Over the years, I can't tell you how many times I've said, 'I can't believe I get paid to do something I enjoy so much and I have so much fun doing!'"


Julianne Lopez, Modern & Classical Languages Chair starting in the 2017-18 academic year


"I was just telling a student this morning that I loved his willingness to be wrong. He's new to my class, but he was just sitting in the front row, spitting out wrong answers and just laughing about it. It sort of takes the air out of the room when someone has a wrong answer in an environment where you're supposed to be right all the time. I like it when kids take risks and they don't care, in a social way, whether they're right or wrong."


Hardy Gieske, Mathematics Department Chair starting in the 2017-18 academic year


No two members of Western Reserve Academy's faculty are the same. While some coach on the athletic fields, others lend assistance to students in the science lab after school. There are those who prefer classic chalk and chalkboard while others embrace the high-tech tools in The Center for Technology, Innovation & Creativity. Some have taught at Reserve for decades and some still consider themselves brand new. But for all the things that make them unique, there's one thread that ties them all — a genuine love of teaching.

This is never more obvious than when you speak with students, past and present. When alumni think back to their time Reserve, they remember names — Fraser, Stretch, Hallowell, Fiedler. Often, when current students talk about those who inspire them, they can't help but mention their choir teacher, their economics teacher.

But more importantly, faculty will often say they feel the same way about their students — that they are inspiring. Because just as our faculty make Western Reserve Academy a special place — so do the students give life to the institution. Faculty and student, together, keep Reserve a place where learning thrives and where these venerable brick buildings forever ring with laughter, inquiry and discovery.

CREATING CHANGE ON A HISTORICAL CAMPUS

At an institution as old as Western Reserve Academy, the memories linger. Alumni are cherished, history is archived with great care and school traditions are recognized, appreciated, even doted upon.

As in all historic places, striking a balance between time-honored customs and forward-thinking progression can be tricky.

"There's a lot of great conversation about that," explained Todd Gilbert. "On one hand, you have the history and the traditions that are so important, but there's also this tension that exists as we are moving into a modern era. It's a pretty cool thing to experience."

English Department faculty Sasha Maseelall '96 has also witnessed the intermingling of the historic and the current — in fact, it's a characteristic of the school that she greatly appreciates.

"In the seven years since I returned to the school, I've witnessed Reserve hold on to what we love about it but also grow and stretch, and I like that," she said.

For every change that disrupted the status quo — whether it was a new dress code or the 1972 decision to readmit female students — it's possible that faculty members over the years have been having the very same conversations as Gilbert and Maseelall.

The truth is that since first opening its doors, the school has never once been a stagnant institution; it is always moving forward. In this sense, as the school sits on the cusp of great change, it is doing exactly what it has done since opening in 1826 — it is evolving.

AN EVOLUTIONARY SCHOOL

Spearheaded by Head of School Christopher D. Burner '80 and Associate Head of School Kate Mueller, Reserve is undergoing the most significant transformation to its academic program that the school has ever seen.

These changes include a move beyond Advanced Placement (AP) courses, a schedule that encourages balance and collaboration and literacies for today's students. In the summer issue of WRA Magazine, we will fully explore the new curriculum and all it will offer our students.

For faculty members like Sarah Horgan, the new curriculum is a welcome and thrilling change.

"I'm excited to be part of this pedagogical transformation at WRA and applaud our administration for listening to teachers and being willing to try a new approach to teaching and learning, and allowing more time on fewer topics to be our new normal," she said.

History Department Faculty Sarah Horgan in her classroom.

"The different approaches to teaching will also have a new look and feel that I think students will enjoy," she added. "There will be no more 'sage on the stage' as there has been in the past. Students will be more directly involved in their learning in our more student-centered approach to teaching, and this will feed their curiosity and encourage them to be more engaged. Teachers will be updating the material in our courses to create lessons that feel more relevant and useful to our students and, hopefully, more empowering. Students will be designing their own experiments in science class, cross-examining witnesses in mock trials in their history courses, interviewing refugees and composing poetry that expresses their pain in English class, and designing imaginary cities in geometry class. In many cases, students and teachers will be learning alongside each other rather than the student merely being the receiver of information. And students will benefit from classes that go into greater depth and allow teachers to pursue their passions."

The tide of change is more than curricular; it is an ongoing visible effort on campus. The Admission Office is set to move into a fully restored and refurbished President's House by June. Seymour Hall, WRA's primary academic building, will be out of commission for the 2017-18 year as it undergoes an exciting restoration and modernization. Classes will be held in every available space across campus, with a majority taking place in the learning pods taking residence near the WRA Stadium.

For a number of the longtime faculty members, this isn't the first time they're venturing into the unknown.

"When I came to Reserve in 1985, the school was going through a transition period — a new dress code, new buildings being constructed," said Horgan. "It was an exciting time to be working at the school but also a time when the faculty was having very robust discussions about the direction the school was taking and how to move forward."

LONGSTANDING FACULTY MEMBER'S LIFE AT RESERVE

When Jeff Warner's three daughters learned to roller-skate, they strapped on their skates and launched themselves down the Wood House hallways. Inside the 54-year-old dormitory, they played countless rounds of hide-and-seek and foosball table matches. It was a childhood unlike any other, and one that Paige '15, Margot '13 and Sara '09 loved.

English Department Faculty Jeff Warner in his classroom.

"They were pretty horrified when they found out that we were moving out of the dorm into a freestanding home on campus," Warner admitted with a smile.

Children of WRA faculty grow up in a rather unique neighborhood where, for nine months out of the year, they share parts of their life and have a chance to interact with 400 high schoolers.

"Faculty kids grow up wanting to be the kids that they see around them," said Warner. "My family would come for sit-down meals, and there were some disadvantages to that — it was not a place to get into a fight about eating your beans — but the advantages were that my children grew up eating at a table with kids from all over the country and all over the world. That's pretty special."

For other members of faculty, the pull to Reserve manifests in different ways. Gilbert is approaching the end of his fourth year teaching at the school and finds himself particularly drawn to being a part of an almost two-centuries-old legacy.

"I like being a part of the narrative of this longstanding tradition," he said. "I love that there are people who came before me, that there will be people who come after me and that's kind of neat. There will always be this place where we made our mark."

But when asked what keeps the faculty tied to Reserve, they can all agree on one indisputable reason.

"For us teachers, it's the students," said Gilbert. "If the students aren't willing or able to explore the opportunities that we present, it's frustrating. But that's not the case here. Here, the kids are receptive to learning, in fact, they're excited about it. They're thrilled to have teachers who want to share their passions, and that's a wonderful thing."

WELCOMING OUR NEW TALENT

As the current faculty navigates new waters, they do not travel alone. Incoming faculty members will join them on the journey, including new Department Chairs Hardy Gieske and Julianne Lopez.

Gieske comes to Reserve after a long career in independent boarding schools, including four years at St. Andrew's School and, most recently, nine years at The Lawrenceville School. In the coming year, he will take on the role of the Mathematics Department Chair.

Before he can say for sure what his vision is for Reserve's mathematics, he plans to meet with his new colleagues and collaborate with the department.

"I want to know what their ambitions and visions are," he said. "Certainly in a quality institution like Reserve, there's already a lot of wisdom, experience, ambition, desire and vision within the current faculty. I want to keep them moving toward further successes and collaborate with them to determine what the next best version of WRA's Mathematics Department looks like."

In this respect, his fellow newcomer and Modern & Classical Languages Department Chair Lopez is of a like mind.

"As a department, it's not about what I want, or what my vision would be, but what we, together, as a group of minds, really decide is in our collective interest," she said. "I tend to be someone who, rather than assert my will, is more interested in collaboration. That being said, there are some things that I think any language department should consider, and I'm sure will be among our conversations. Beginning to delve into global education across the board, is one piece I am hopeful would be a part of our department discussions. How can global education be promoted not only within the department, but throughout the school?"

Interim English Department Chair Todd Gilbert in his classroom.

Lopez hails from Brewster Academy, where she has taught Spanish since 1998. From 1983–98, she lived in Chiapas, Mexico, where she founded the school Finca Santa Cruz, La Concordia, and taught English at Colegio La Salle in San Cristobal de las Casas.

As new faculty prepare for a new life on campus, two current faculty members are taking on new roles. History Department Chair Diccon Ong '81 will be WRA's first Chair of Department Chairs, and Gilbert will move into the role of Interim English Department Chair. They were chosen for the passion they exude for their respective fields and in teaching young minds, as well as for the deep connections they have forged with their colleagues and pupils. In the face of incoming change, they are both more than up to the task of keeping this ship on its course.

"With the new schedule, with us being in the pods, with a sort of different academic vision overall — I want to provide stability for my colleagues, so they continue to feel good about the work that they're doing," Gilbert said.

THE TUG TO WRA

When asked what drew them to Western Reserve Academy, no faculty member's answer is the same. Sometimes, they reference the obvious love of learning within both fellow teachers and the students. Faculty have mentioned the close proximity of the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the appealing combination of both the small-town charm and an erudite environment, even the delicious meal they ate at Ellsworth Hall.

For Lopez, all the personal interactions she enjoyed made Reserve an ideal new home.

"I have to say, I'm a bit in awe of my new colleagues!" she admitted. "When I was there, I was so delighted to be in an environment where there was such a highly intellectual feel to the community. And of course, the students! My tour guide did just a fantastic job of giving me an insider view of what life was like as a student. We talked a lot about the school culture. Seeing how the community comes together in so many different ways, at so many different times and seeing how students were so well grounded and so interested in learning — those were things I found not only appealing but comforting."

Gieske also remembers walking around the campus, meeting a great number of students, staff and faculty. During his visits to the dorms, the classrooms, the dining hall, the athletic facilities, he was struck by something very special.

"There seems to be a real commitment to values and character and what kind of person you are," he said. "I'd say this in particular seems to matter a bit more at Reserve than at potentially some of the very competitive schools out there. That had real appeal, for me."

Both new chairs are not only fully supportive of the incoming changes to the school, it was one of the reasons that the transition to WRA was so enticing.

"I'm excited to continue designing and developing courses where the curriculum can serve the student needs and go broader and deeper than just being handed a list of requirements," said Lopez. "No two groups and no two classes are the same. Being able to have flexibility to adjust, to really suit and tailor to the student's needs, is a wonderful thing."

WORDS OF WELCOME

In the beginning of the year, the incoming freshman class is welcomed by members of the senior class who line the brick path, ready to greet the new Pioneers with huge smiles, cheers and waving posters plastered with kind and encouraging words that all carry a similar message — welcome home.

New faculty members don't receive quite the same rambunctious reception, but the overall tone is the same and is one that resonates across campus.

"To our new faculty members, I would say this — I'm really glad you're here!" said Gilbert. "We have a wonderful variety of people here who really do love and care about the students. Jeff Warner, Gerard Manoli and Sarah Horgan are perfect examples of teachers who have been here a long time and are still just as invested today as they were when they first started. Their involvement in the school and with the kids is super inspiring. I'd want our new faculty to know how excited everybody is to be here and to know that this is a place where you can be as excited today as you will be 20 years from now."

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