Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2008
Filling the Gaps:
Mellon Fellow makes award-winning transition to K-12 teaching, mentoring
“What I have always appreciated about the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is that they see a gap and then fill that gap, and the Mellon award to me was that…It was the bridge I needed to make my career,” says Anne Clark MN ‘93. It was through her Mellon Fellowship that Ms. Clark found her calling as a secondary school educator and advocate for education improvement.
As part of her graduate studies in literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ms. Clark taught a course for undergraduates who had failed the English placement test. Her students, she says, fell into three main categories: mostly urban football players, mostly rural hockey players, and students with language-based learning disabilities. “They were the students who really taught me how to teach, and I just fell in love with it,” says Ms. Clark. “I discovered that I really wanted to find out where my students came from and how they had arrived at college with these significant struggles.”
Ms. Clark left UW and moved to Boston, where she got involved in city-level school reform. “I was working with high schools that wanted to change and learned a lot about what supports change and what gets in the way,” she recalls.
Her efforts not only engaged her in then-superintendent Thomas Payzant’s nationally noted Boston Public Schools Plan for Whole-School Change, but also led her to what would become her school home. “Through that work, I came to know Linda Nathan [who] told me that she was interested in helping to start the first Boston public high school for the arts...It was creating, rather than fixing,” says Ms. Clark of what attracted her to the project. Ten years later, the Boston Arts Academy [BAA] is a thriving, urban public high school, and Ms. Clark is a star teacher who serves as curriculum and special education coordinator.
For her work at BAA, Ms. Clark received a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award in October 2007. Regarded as the “Oscars” of teaching, the Milken Educator Awards recognize outstanding K-12 educators across the nation. Unaware of their nominations, winners are surprised with their awards at school assemblies.
“It is a tremendous honor. You don’t apply [for it]…it means people I work with, people in my city, have put my name forward,” Ms. Clark said. “The most exciting thing to me was how excited the kids were. One 9th grader said to me the next day, ‘Miss Clark, did you see our award on the news?’ And I thought it was so great because she said our award. They really see it as something that recognizes them, not just me.”
Based on her experiences and the success of BAA—created through the ProArts Consortium, an association of arts universities and colleges—Ms. Clark believes students and educators would both benefit from more collaboration between higher education and K-12 education worlds. For the schools and universities, she points out, it’s a matter of self-interest: “[The ProArts schools] were intricately involved, and continue to be intricately involved, in the creation of [BAA] because they understood that in order to better serve their students they needed to understand what kind of preparation their students were getting.
“In order to make students more successful, we need to overcome that traditional gap. If everyone is committed to student achievement, why would we not be interested in collaborating? When you’re a college teacher, you should understand what happens in high school, and when you’re a high school teacher you need to deeply understand the world your students are about to enter into. By having that open communication with colleges we’re boosting student achievement on both ends.”
Collaboration between schools and universities, Ms. Clark says particularly benefits high-need students. “When college is a new idea for kids, a lot of demystifying needs to take place in order for them to be successful. Most of my students are the first in their families to go to college, and it’s really important not only to prepare them skill-wise, but to help them imagine themselves in a college context.”
Preparing teachers well, Ms. Clark notes, is key to their students’ achievement—and to their own. As coordinator of new teacher mentorship at BAA, Ms. Clark believes that mentoring is essential to the success of all teachers. “There’s no one great way to be a teacher. New teachers need mentors in plurality. You need a community of colleagues. Teaming,” she says “isn’t just nice. It’s essential to being an effective teacher. I’ve learned to rely on my incredible colleagues. You can’t be Michelle Pfeiffer by yourself.”
In a time when many public school districts are cutting arts education, Ms. Clark strongly defends the need for arts education for all students: “[The] arts are not extracurricular. A training in the arts gives you a training in focus and a training in what it means to be committed to something. [It] teaches you mastery, how you achieve mastery and what mastery feels like, and I think for learning that’s very important.”
As a full-inclusion school, BAA accepts students based solely on their artistic merit and academic classes include students of mixed learning levels and abilities, “My most dyslexic student ever was also one of our greatest actors ever,” recalls Ms. Clark. “He was thoughtful, articulate, even adamant about how his art helped him address what was difficult for him. When you meet students like mine and see what really makes them want to achieve, you cannot deny the power of the arts.”
The arts, Ms. Clark argues, can also be an effective tool for non-arts teachers: “I believe, as a teacher, that you are best served when you approach students through what they can do, not always what they can’t. If I’m struggling with a student in my humanities class, I can watch that student in his or her arts class, where that student is a genius. So clearly it’s my problem, because I can see all the student is capable of through the arts.”
Ms. Clark’s future plans involve improving teacher development on a national level, but she has no plans to leave the classroom just yet. “One of the things that gives me pause about moving beyond where I am now is I don’t want to give up teaching,” she says. “A couple of weeks ago, I had a girl come back—a young woman I should say now—and show me her college diploma and say, ‘I didn’t think I could do this, but you did.’ That’s really powerful.”