Teacher alums discuss their decision to return

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Alum Teachers
Photos by Sofia Milonas.

One would expect the seniors to use the skills gained from freshman gym and track to sprint from Townsend Harris as fast and as soon as possible. For a school where teachers assign homework on a three-hour-a-night basis, and give tests both sporadically and endlessly, it’s a wonder that so many former Harrisites are attracted to teaching at THHS after finishing their high school careers here.

Among these returning alumni are science teachers Shi Bing Shen, Sarah Oberlander, and Philip Porzio; English teacher Katherine Yan; and physical education teacher Lauren Caiaccia.

Ms. Shen explained that teaching was not her initial career choice, nor was coming back to THHS to teach, but she is extremely happy with how things turned out.

She said that, “As a child with typical Asian parents, I was expected to go to medical school after finishing high school.” She added that she took a two-year leave to pursue a research project, but her parents eventually could not afford it. “I had to take a scholarship as a teacher’s assistant, which meant that I had to teach classes, and I fell in love with teaching. I considered my alma mater because I knew the kind of kids who go here.”

She added that the environment suits her and makes her feel comfortable. “We still get those naive kids who are not living in the real world in this school. But I like it; I want to be in the unreal world. I don’t mind being in la la land because I think this is better. It’s more intellectual this way; there’s more of a positive environment.”

Ms. Yan, another returning alumna, mentioned that her time at THHS as a student was different compared to the one that current students have. She said that although many aspects remained the same, there is definitely more school spirit and school activities going on. For one thing, the enrichment and activities at THHS have expanded greatly since her days here. Having said this, Ms. Yan added that if the choice were possible, she’d have chosen to attend the current school too.

“The courses are still rigorous and intensive academically, but I feel now there is more of a sense of community. Students do not just show up for school and leave after. At 5 p.m. on any given day, you can find students practicing for SING, FON, the school play, a robotics competition, or a fencing match. Perhaps there’s even a Phoenix reading or a Nerf evasion tournament to attend.”

Like Ms. Shen, Ms. Yan is proud of the students that choose to attend THHS, claiming that she came back to teach because the students inspired her. “The students are serious about their academics, and they are also serious about their many diverse interests. They bring so much more into the classroom.  We have artists, writers, musicians, scientists, engineers, philosophers, and humanitarians to name a few. The students make teaching exciting every day.”

Long time teachers, like Physical Education teacher Keith Hanson, English teacher Judy Biener, Social Studies teacher Linda Steinman and English teacher Georgette Wallace, have taught and are currently working with these alumni. They all said that they are happy to work with their former students, but working with them on a professional level is a different experience.

Mr. Hanson commented that working with his old students is “great and no problem.”

Ms. Wallace explained that she maintains her strong connection with her old students  and feels “motherly” towards them, but that “it is strange to now have ‘grandstudents!’” However, she notes that she is excited about former students coming back to work in one of the best schools in New York City.

“It’s nice that their experience at THHS was so good that they want to spend their time here and recreate that experience for other teenagers,” she said.

Dr. Steinmann and Ms. Biener recollect their first encounters with former students. While both were surprised to come across the teenagers they taught in their workplace, they feel that these students-turned- teachers are truly embodying the Ephebic Oath.

Dr. Steinmann explained that working with such teachers has truly strengthened and enriched  her relationship with them. She has taught both Ms. Caiaccia and Ms. Oberlander, and had somewhat different reactions to seeing them in school again. While she was pleasantly surprised to see Ms. Caiaccia teaching after she returned from a trip to India, she felt as if Ms. Oberlander had never left the school. This is because Ms. Oberlander came back to Townsend Harris as a student teacher shortly after her graduation.

Dr. Steinmann also stated that students who return as teachers shows how greatly their experience at THHS has affected them as individuals.

“By [them] having had such a long relationship with Townsend, it becomes more apparent that the Ephebic Oath is something that the students of  Townsend Harris take seriously.”

Ms. Biener also had the opportunity to teach most of these students, including former English teacher Caroline Cross, who is no longer at the school.

While complimenting their work as students and remarking that they don’t look all that different to her these days, she said that she is particularly happy to see her former students giving back to their communities by teaching in the school they once called their own, as if they truly “came back to their comrades in the ranks.”

Additional reporting by Alexa Luciano and Evan Noblesala

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