11/22/2007 Jill Colford Schoeniger ’86

Educating Young Minds

Lara Margolis Knight ’02 pursued a career in teaching to help students understand new ideas. She probably never imagined that one student’s idea would leave her speechless. In her second year with Teach for America at a Texas high school, Knight received an offer she had to refuse from a student known in the school to be a gang member. You might call it a case of “teacher shock.” 

“Being new to the school, I hadn’t heard any of (his) stories,” says Knight, who currently teaches chemistry at Altholton High School in Columbia, Md. “As a result, I didn’t treat him like I expected him to cause trouble, and he never lived up to his reputation in my class.”

After the student missed significant classroom time due to court appearances, Knight spent hours after school helping him prepare for the midterm exam. Following his exam, the student expressed his appreciation on his own terms.

“He thanked me for being so nice to him,” Knight remembers. “Then he told me he wanted to do something nice for me. So if I ever had any trouble with my neighbors, I should tell him and he would take care of it.

“I didn’t know what to say. I finally just thanked him and told him that I thought my neighbors were all very nice. I realized he had tried to offer me the nicest thing he could think of.”

Knight is among a growing contingent of Franklin & Marshall alumni who have carved out rewarding careers in education. Despite not always knowing what to expect, the teachers describe life in the classroom with passion. Their stories reveal a spectrum of challenges and rewards along the annual voyage that begins each September.

A Liberal Education

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Like many college students, Scott Feifer ’87 was unsure of his career path prior to graduation. In between the required classes for his English major and Religious Studies minor, he decided to try a few education courses off the beaten path. His decision led to a career in teaching, which recently earned him the 2007 Teacher Impact Award from WGAL-TV, Rotary, and Capital Blue Cross.

“At the time, F&M had a few education classes on campus taught by Millersville professors,” says Feifer, an English teacher at Landisville Middle School near Lancaster. “For me, it started from not knowing what to do.”

The College has forged a close relationship with Millersville University to create opportunities for students to gain secondary teaching certification. For elementary teaching, students may opt for the urban education semester at New York City’s Bank Street College of Education. Both arrangements allow teachers with liberal arts backgrounds to enter classrooms with a broad knowledge that strengthens their impact on students.

Karyn Convey, assistant dean for international programs, doubles as the College’s liaison for students interested in pursuing careers in education. A former English, journalism, and sign language teacher, Convey works closely with Millersville to ensure a smooth certification process for F&M students.

She believes the liberal arts background is a key for teachers. “You can immerse yourself in a major and have a depth of study for a subject area while developing an ability to think critically,” says Convey, who taught two years of high school in Massachusetts. “The best part of teaching is discussion with students and the critical-thinking process.”

Convey expresses excitement about a recent trend of students combining international study and education. “Students are increasingly choosing to teach abroad, and many of our off-campus study options provide preparatory opportunities, such as interning in local schools abroad.”

Eric Lanks ’95 took advantage of the College’s arrangement with Millersville to carry on a family tradition: Both his parents were teachers. A seventh grade math teacher at Nanuet Middle School in New York, Lanks tries to instill the value of a broad education to his students.

“It’s all about keeping your options open,” says Lanks, who also fondly recalls his time on the 1995 F&M baseball team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament. “I always have students asking me, ‘What do I need this for?’ I try to explain to them that the more areas in which you have ability, the more choices you’ll have down the road.”

At the George Jackson Academy in New York City, Kelly Moloney ’05 also knows the value of a liberal arts education. George Jackson is a nonprofit boys’ school for low-income students who are gifted. An English and ancient history teacher, Moloney wants her students to have the same type of background she has acquired.

“The great thing about F&M is you get a well-rounded education,” Moloney says. “I happened to take Classic Greek History and just got hooked. At another school, you might not have that full experience. You might take a specific track. At George Jackson, we want the kids to be well-rounded.”

More Than a Teacher

Although Moloney exudes passion in describing her job, her voice changes when she talks about the students’ lives outside school. For many of her students, Moloney represents a lifeline to a better world.

It’s a role she embraces.

“Some kids have a lot of baggage. They’re poor, and they’re going through things people in middle school shouldn’t have to deal with. These kids have been exposed to drugs, violence, and broken homes. School becomes a safe place. You become more than a teacher, and it can be emotionally draining. They’re dealing with issues I never had to deal with as a child.”

For this group of alumni, teaching often goes beyond reading and writing; it requires an understanding of the complexities in young people trying to find their niche in the world. Feifer remembers his own challenging experiences as a student.

“I wasn’t comfortable in middle school or high school,” Feifer recalls. “Sometimes, I look around and can’t believe I chose to work in middle school because I used to be so uncomfortable here.”

“Middle school is such a difficult age, both physically and emotionally,” says Lanks. “Students are getting to the point where high school is close, and the grades start to count, but they’re not quite there. They’re asking ‘why do I have to try in seventh grade?’ It’s a challenge to keep their eye on the ball.”

It’s also a challenge to meet state testing requirements, according to Jessica Galeano ’03. A biology teacher at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore, Galeano’s job requires preparing students for Maryland’s state exams.

“Keeping up with mandated tests is difficult,” says Galeano, who teaches freshman biology, paramedical biology, and anatomy/physiology. “Some teachers get discouraged by it, because we have to teach to the test.”

Every day presents a new challenge. They might have to deal with students with drug problems, or cram the required material before a mandated exam. But whatever challenges their careers in education present, the teachers agree: the payoff makes it worthwhile.

Reaping the Rewards

Feifer takes his passion for teaching outside the classroom. Several years ago, the middle school teacher began hosting writing circles after school hours to encourage students to find meaning in life through writing. Feifer’s circles expanded to domestic violence shelters, drug recovery programs, and detention centers.

“We’re all trying to make sense out of life,” Feifer says. “Every moment presents something to see and understand, things that are powerful and truthful. I meet people in detention centers who are smart, vibrant, and intelligent. The writing reveals that people are strong and resilient.”

Part of Feifer’s own strength came from teachers who helped him through difficult times in middle school. “The teachers made a way for me, and I feel grateful for them. I just know that kids trust you, and they need to know that what they say matters.”

Feifer teaches with a philosophy he learned at a workshop given several years ago by author Nancy Aronie: Look everywhere for your teachers, because your teachers won’t always be wearing teacher clothing. “I’ve been trying to incorporate that in my classes ever since. Look around. Our children, our addictions, our mistakes—everything teaches.”

“The classroom is what you make of it,” says Feifer. “You can take a student’s pain and transform that into strength. It’s one of the great privileges of being a teacher. I want my classroom to be a place of social justice, but I also want it to be that what I say goes!”

Knight also enjoys meaningful interaction with her students. It’s the best part of her job—even if they’re offering to “take care” of her neighbors.

“The most challenging students are often the most rewarding,” Knight says. “Some of them actually try to make life difficult, but they’re also the ones who need me the most. These are the students who can really blossom once they see that someone else cares about them and believes in them.

“There’s nothing quite like seeing a student begin to take pride in their work, or having a student smile in class for the first time, even if it isn’t until the last week of school.”

For Galeano, the joy of teaching also extends beyond her classroom. As the director of her school’s marching band, she prepares the marching unit for parades and football games each fall. Loch Raven didn’t even have a marching band until Galeano insisted on starting one. She understands that students can learn from extracurricular activities as well as from classroom teaching. 

“I’m in love with my job,” says Galeano, who has also coached indoor and outdoor track. “I never have a day when I regret it. It doesn’t feel like a job. This is like my play time.”

And, sure, teaching has its other perks. “There’s a saying that the three best things about teaching are June, July, and August,” Galeano laughs.

Teaching can be a challenging, frustrating, and draining way to earn a living. However, these teachers—armed with a passion for learning and a dedication to their students—find meaning in educating young minds. 

It’s what makes them successful teachers.

“The best thing is the excitement,” Lanks says. “You never know what you’re going to get on a daily basis. Every year, new students come in and take you on a new journey.”

At the same time, the teachers take their students on another journey—one that leads to a promising future.
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