On Teaching: Meeting of the Minds Q&A with Shipley Teachers

Even before COVID and the socio-political tumult of recent years, teachers nationwide expressed concerns over burnout, ongoing political and social pressures, and meeting the increasing demands beyond academics. We asked: Has COVID irrevocably changed teaching? What training will help new teachers succeed in the current landscape? What does the future of teaching hold? Our panel weighs in on these questions & more.

Our Panel

Jenny Rieg Gellert ’99
3rd Grade Teacher
13 Years teaching, 1 at Shipley
BA, Trinity College; MA Elementary Education, Fordham University; MA Special Education, Fordham University Read an Alumni on Campus Q&A with Mrs. Gellert.

John Hornung 
Upper School English Teacher
30 Years teaching, 6 at Shipley
BA English, Yale University; MSEd, Bucknell University; Guidance Counselor Certification, Grades 6-12

Kirsten Small

Middle School English Teacher
34 Years teaching, 25 at Shipley
BA, Smith College; MEd, University of Virginia

In spite of the recent challenges, Shipley teachers have remained dedicated to their craft and their students, who, along with their parents and guardians, reported high levels of satisfaction in customer surveys conducted by the School in the spring of 2022. That dedication and care is on display everyday and in these responses.

Q: How has teaching changed since you first entered the profession?

The basics feel very much the same—we read great books, discuss them, and write about how they apply to our lives. The books I teach have changed, I think for the better, because schools like Shipley have put an emphasis on making sure everyone’s story is studied and celebrated. Books that might have been considered risky or problematic when I first started to teach (for example, The Laramie Project) are now considered to be part of the new canon that includes a more representative selection of voices: LGBTQ+, people of color, women’s voices. The debate over which books we read is a lively, passionate, and important one that we engage in each year.

Something that has changed is that teachers (along with many other professions) are expected to be available/on-call much more today than when I first started teaching. The availability of texting and email makes it much easier for students and parents to contact teachers with questions that they might not have picked up the phone to ask.

Gellert ’99: From 13 years ago, when I began my career, until now, there have been advances in understanding the connection behind psychological well-being and academic success. In addition, our society is just beginning to listen to and empathize with those who lack privilege and power. I feel proud to come from, and work at, a school that is cognizant of how impossible it can be to thrive, both academically and socially, when you feel you don’t belong or that your voice is not heard or represented.

A new role I hope all teachers are taking on is looking within to evaluate our own biases in order to create and advocate for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive educational environment. In my opinion, a teacher in 2022 is tasked with modeling awareness, reflection, and an eagerness to grow into a more culturally competent teacher and community member. John’s answer is a perfect example of that work. When we look critically at the materials we use, the content we teach, and the way in which we teach it, we are using a new framework to help everyone thrive.

Small: Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the profession has changed, or if I have. Certainly, the truth lies in between. I would say I agree with John that teachers are more available to everyone, including parents, guardians, administration, and students because of technology. That means a significantly larger portion of our job is to respond to emails, for instance, than ever. Although I rue the loss of time that I could be spending on curriculum development or meeting in person with a student, I do very much treasure the conversations I have had that help me to understand the fullness of a child’s experience in my classroom.

I agree with both John and Jenny that it cannot be understated how crucial it is to be a culturally aware and competent person in this job if we are tasked with being on the forefront of holding and molding kids’ hearts and minds. As John noted, our book selection discussions are quite worth the price of admission!

Q: Do you think COVID has permanently changed the teaching profession? If so, how?

Hornung: I hope not. I think the most important aspects of teaching are the relationships between student and text, student and peers, and student and teacher. I hope that never changes.

Gellert ’99:
COVID has helped us all remember how vital relationships are to everyone’s happiness and success in our schools—student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, and parent to teacher! I am appreciating my in-person access to each of these constituents, something I may have taken for granted in previous years.

Undoubtedly. We now have the capability and experience to teach virtually, and we are still working to comprehend the import and impact of that. And what is yet to be fully understood, however, is the relationship between the new virtual or hybrid workplace and these students who have been shaped by this experience. Most importantly, It has centered the conversation about the role of mental health in education for sure.

Q: What kind of training do you think aspiring teachers need in order to be successful in today’s climate?

I think most people learn best by doing. That’s why student teaching continues to be an essential part of teaching programs. Having a mentor you can trust is an important part of learning to be a teacher. And continuing to seek out people who can continue to mentor you is an important part of continuing to grow as a teacher throughout your career.

Gellert ’99:
I think personal work on understanding your own biases and how they can affect your teaching should be mandatory training for teachers (and everyone). Similarly, education and training in Growth Mindset would benefit aspiring teachers who will hopefully see their teaching missteps, which will happen, as steps in a long road of getting a little bit better every day—a wonderful concept to model and pass on to our students.

Again, I can’t agree more with my two colleagues: the best teacher is experience, and understanding yourself in the classroom is crucial. I found that as a spanking new teacher, I emulated my favorite teachers and lessons from my own education. That taught me my most valuable lesson: steal shamelessly from the good ones out there. I’d like to rename that “collegiality” or “team teaching,” but truthfully, new teachers, watch and talk to great teachers and take plenty of notes. Then be willing to give it a go. That’s my additional advice.

Q: What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a teacher?

Hornung: 1) Make sure you join a community of teachers who are committed to supporting you and supporting the students. 2) Make sure you enjoy working with students. It may sound obvious, but don’t go into teaching if you don’t like kids. 3) If you find that you stop enjoying working with students at some point, listen to your heart, and make the leap to another profession. 4) Keep reading.

Gellert ’99:
Each day of teaching, especially at the elementary level, is full of a long and varied list of responsibilities. Pay attention to what is going well for you—what parts of the job come easily, bring you joy, or excite you the most. Lean into those parts, especially during or after difficult days. Find, and hold onto, trusted mentors. Be honest. Be humble. Ask questions. Troubleshoot problems and celebrate success!

Once again, I appreciate and agree with the words of my colleagues. I would add: Be willing to fail because that means you are taking risks and modeling honest assessment for your students. But the place you cannot fail is in making a connection with each student.

Q: What excites you about the future of teaching?

Hornung: What excites me about teaching today (and looking toward the future) is what excited me about teaching on the first day I entered the classroom as a student teacher—the fact that students still connect to literature on a personal level. Despite the feeling that technology has overtaken our lives, students still have the ability, and the NEED, to connect on a deep, deep level with the characters and situations in great books. The whole point of literature is to make us more empathetic beings, to put ourselves in the shoes of people who seem very different from us and then learn that we have so many things that bind us together, despite our apparent differences.

What works every time I walk into the classroom is that I know for sure that it will be a totally unexpected and unique experience with kids. Teaching will never change in that regard. Nor, as John pointed out, the essential desire of students to make meaning of their lives through the lenses we introduce or provide. The essence of this remains intact. What’s exciting and left to be seen is how this will all interact with what happens tomorrow.

Are the Teachers Okay?

In the winter of 2022, Shipley conducted its annual colleague well-being survey. The results underscore the heavy burden Shipley’s teachers, like educators across the country, have endured as a result of the pandemic and socio-political tumult of recent years.

Key Findings
Eye-opening scores for: Burnout, morale, and appropriate reward* for teaching colleagues. General positive emotion was also low. 

Highlights: Perceived physical safety and positive relationships in their lives, as well as higher scores for feelings of meaning and accomplishment.

The Heavy Lift
Shipley is focused on attending to colleague well-being and compensation as an institutional priority in support of our strategic goal to recruit and retain outstanding educators. Well-being initiatives and evaluation of benefits have been an important part of this work.

*Appropriate reward refers to obtaining financial and other employment benefits commensurate with their job performance and experience.


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.