Academic Lens: When Teachers Become Students

Posted by Charley Stern


“I wish I could be a student here.” In my first few months working at Proctor, it’s hard to count how many times I’ve heard my fellow faculty say these words. I hear it in the dining hall, I hear it when faculty speak with visiting families, I occasionally hear it when teachers are (gently) reminding their students how many wonderful opportunities they have at their disposal.

And it’s no wonder why the grown ups feel this way – classrooms that feel far more like college seminars than typical high school classes, 2,600 acres of woodlands that serve as a scientific field site as well as an endless playground of trails, and off-campus programs all over the world – Proctor is an extraordinary place to be a student. 


Much to my delight I’ve found that this sentiment is a reality. If we find time in our busy schedules, we faculty can become students at Proctor by sitting in on classes, collaborating across departments, and guest teaching when the subject in another classroom aligns with our own field of study. I am a director in the Theater program, a filmmaking teacher, as well as a member of the Communications team. And in the in-between, I’ve had the chance to teach an acting workshop to the 9th graders before they attended the fall play I directed (Almost, Maine), guest perform and teach classes on turning personal stories into performance pieces, and co-teach a seminar on dramatic works which examines housing in America and the inequities and complexities that come with such a lesson. Currently, I am a guest teacher and student in an English/History collaborative class titled Culture and Conflict, where the students are studying a play written by inmates of a New Jersey prison called Caged. 


Culture and Conflict is a course that I wish I could have taken in high school. According to its teachers, Ellie Moore and Mel Maness, the class seeks to: 

Explore themes involving the family, politics, war, alienation, gender, migration, and issues of cultural assimilation. The aim is to examine cultures and ensuing conflicts from the perspective of various ethnic/racial/national backgrounds and to investigate how people of differing environments make ethical decisions during desperate times. Students will examine nonfiction work/critical essays, primary-source historical images, film, political cartoons, poetry, novels, stories, and music. By delving into such areas of strife, we will strengthen our empathy for those who have not had their stories heard in the past and consider how our attitudes, knowledge, and experiences might influence our relationships today. 

As a theater director, I believe Ellie and Melanie’s line: “strengthening our empathy for those who have not had their stories heard” is at the heart of this unit and why they’ve chosen to study a play rather than another literary form. After all, what is the act of putting on a play but an experience where we take on the stories and voices of others? My first questions to the class were: “Why a play? Why not an article or a documentary? What is it about this medium that helps us best get to the issues we’re diving into?” Ellie and her students responded that by bringing the words of the inmate-writers to life, rather than reading an article about them, we honor their stories as well as give them voice and agency. 


In short, by bringing this dramatic text into our classroom we are fulfilling the goal of the men locked up: teaching people on the “outside” to what life is like on the “inside” through vulnerable, autobiographical stories. Through incarceration, these inmates' voices have been stripped from them – by reading their words, we give them a chance to speak.


Each week of this first year at Proctor has brought new opportunities and roles. I don’t know what next week will bring as a teacher, or a student, but I’m looking forward to finding out. 

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