Why I Teach: Dr. Emily Pickering Lights Sparks in History

“It’s exciting when you see that spark. That’s what I look for. It’s the spark.”

Lighting Sparks in Upper School History, English, and Interdisciplinary Studies

Emily Pickering—Dr. Pickering, Mrs. Pickering to her students—says she teaches because she has always loved being a student. It allows her to read and to learn. Hers is a scholarly life with a passion for literature and history, and she delights in passing on that passion and scholarship to her students.
  • Historical/Literary Beginnings

    Spending her early years with her grandparents, Pickering’s first language was Hungarian. When she was in fourth grade, she and her parents traveled in Europe for a year. She was allowed to choose two books to take—not an easy choice, but she managed: Alice in Wonderland and Aesop’s Fables. Another treasure that she traveled with was her collection of Breyer Horse figures. It was 1963, at the height of the Cold War. Because of some passport complications, the family was stopped for three days at the Czech frontier. Passage to the West was gained only by bribing a border guard with Pickering’s toy horses.
  • Education and Empathy

    When her husband was posted to Dublin for several years, Pickering earned an M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Trinity College, University of Dublin, focusing on the works of a nineteenth-century novelist. That process, she says, particularly writing and defending her thesis, “gave me a great deal of sympathy for my students… It’s a very vulnerable place to write something, submit it, and see it returned marked simply ‘Revise.’”
  • At the Collision of Cultures

    Perhaps because her family is from Hungary, strategically located in Eastern Europe and periodically torn between warring empires, Pickering is especially interested in connections among cultures and disciplines. Whether she’s teaching English, Modern European History, American Studies, or The Great War, she includes art, music, literature, and history. Context is important. A tenth grade session on the Northern Renaissance is spent on art—not just for the sake of the art, but to give students an understanding of the importance of religion and its iconography as they prepare to study the challenge of the Protestant Reformation and the response of the Catholic Church.
  • A Community of Scholars

    Pickering’s senior honors seminar, The Great War, is a favorite right now. The reading list is a heavy dose of histories, commentary, and literature, ranging from Tuchman’s The Guns of August to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The windowsill of her classroom is loaded with neat piles of printed articles and chapters from a host of sources that supplement the regular readings. 

    “This course is structured as a seminar, its success depends upon exacting preparation and enthusiastic participation of all stakeholders.” Among the stakeholders is Pickering herself. “They and I are in it together,” she says. “I always say to them, ‘You are historians.’ So they develop a sense of being part of a community—a scholarly community.” She writes to authors about works that she’s using in her courses. Often they respond, allowing her to pass on these connections to her students, proof that they really are part of a larger intellectual world.
  • In the Classroom

    At the end of September, the class is studying Russia before the war. On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday afternoon, as the students come into the classroom, Pickering is holding a large gold Imperial Eagle. She is Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, Grand Duke of Finland, King of Poland, etc. Her titles are written on the board. Students in teams represent her cabinet ministers. They must report and advise on current issues—industrialization and financing the railroad, relations with the French, the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War, civil unrest, and a pesky fellow named Vladimir Lenin. 

    Not only do they have to be thoroughly familiar with the issues, they have to understand the character of their Tsar, his ego, his pet hates, and his power to consign them to Siberia at any moment. “Down on your knees,” says the Tsar (alias Emily Pickering) to the first minister to present his topic. “One knee or two?” asks the student. “Two!” The ministers have to use strategic psychology; they go to great lengths to couch their reports in flattery, their arguments in terms designed to appeal to an autocrat. When they slip up, the Tsar is fierce. Although, as Pickering delights in their efforts, it’s hard for her to keep a straight face.
  • Tricks of the Trade

    Theater and role-play are effective, as in the Russian scenario, but when asked about teaching skills, Pickering says: “Patience, humility, curiosity, an unfailing willingness to be surprised—which I am on a daily basis and couldn’t be happier about—and sincere and sustained enthusiasm.” Hard work is also part of it. “Every night, it’s a pretty relentless thing, but that’s the joy of it.” 
  • Literary Insights

    It’s no secret that Pickering is especially partial to 19th-century literature. But not all of it. Dickens, for instance, “was so busy doing handsprings around the margins—showing off—it was a distraction to me.” She loves George Eliot, and particularly admires Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch because of her quiet determination to make the world better. She has “an affection for the Puritans—John Winthrop and Anne Bradstreet” and admires their habit of restraint, the ability to “say enough but not too much,” a quality that she hopes to teach her students. On the lighter side, she likes Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope. As to the moderns, “I do love Gatsby. It’s perfect. But Tender is the Night, despite (or perhaps because of) its flaws, is my favorite.” But she really doesn’t like The Catcher in the Rye “and never could understand the popularity of On the Road—talk about self-importance!”
  • The Payoff

    It’s a cliché that teachers never know the full impact of their work. For Pickering, there are glimpses. The 2013 yearbook was dedicated to her. “Mrs. Pickering is adored by all who know her. She mentors us and makes us the best that we can be.” Franklin & Marshall College, her alma mater, gave her the 2014 High School Teacher Award, nominated by a former student: “While my high school experience would not have been the same without Dr. Pickering, neither would my college experience. I would not have been as prepared, enthusiastic, or passionate.”
  • The Future

    Pickering will continue to teach because she loves “being in the classroom with the students, hearing their perspectives and their wisdom.” She hopes to travel, especially in Eastern Europe. She would like to learn German. And, of course, she will continue to be a student and read and read and read.


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.