Providence Day School is where passion meets learning
Each weekday around noon, five young adults gather in a classroom at Providence Day School with Marcus Smith, Upper School English Department Chair and Director of Fellows of Providence Day’s new Teaching Fellows Program.
As members of the inaugural class of the Teaching Fellows Program, the young adults are learning to become educators and leaders in independent schools. They meet regularly with Smith to discuss their experiences inside and outside the classroom. Recent topics of discussion also included personal and financial skills, such as financial literacy and boundary setting.
Providence Day School’s Teaching Fellows Program was created to support the school’s growing diversity of its student body, and to develop leaders who share the school’s commitment to diversity. While there are many different teaching fellowship programs across the country, PDS says its program is unique because of the amount of support given both institutional and peer – and the breadth of experiences offered.
“Issues of diversity and how institutions are participating in that have become a top priority,” Smith says. “I think part of the challenge is for institutions to decide what level of engagement they are going to take. What I love, and what I’m proud about, is our level of effectiveness. We’re not preaching. It’s not political. It’s just developing young people.”
Born out of introspection
After the summer of 2020, many institutions across the country were taking a closer look at their efforts to promote diversity, equity and belonging. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery spawned a movement calling for racial reckoning, and in Charlotte, leaders at Providence Day School discussed how the school would respond.
“We were having conversations about ourselves and how we are participating in change,” Smith recalls. “We were asking questions about growing diversity in our school, and the challenges of getting faculty of color and retaining strong teacher leader talent.”
Smith suggested the school create a teaching fellow program. As a young student, Smith attended an independent boarding school in the northeast. When thinking about what would make the PDS teaching fellow program successful, Smith drew upon his experience and what he would have liked to have had more of as a person of color from Georgia attending an independent boarding school in Connecticut: ongoing support from the school and a cohort of peers.
“They would drop you off at the school and that was it,” Smith recalls of his youth. “There was a big retention issue because there wasn’t much support once students got there.”
Smith felt that to recruit and keep faculty of color, the school needed to develop educators and provide them with a range of skills for navigating both their professional and personal lives.
“Our goal has been not only to identify talented young people, but to help develop them. So wherever they go, the chances will be greater that they will weather any storms,” he says.
The fellowships are a one year position at PDS. Fellows receive a salary and benefits. Teaching fellows start with pedagogy learning and observation and then expand into lesson plans and doing independent work. They receive Equity, Inclusion & Belonging training and professional development opportunities.
PDS Fellows serve as advisors for PDS affinity groups, such as Black Student Union, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and Hispanic/Latinx Affinity Group. Fellows also have an opportunity to engage in activities matching their interests, such as working with sports teams or holding internships in different departments.
Smith said many teaching programs throw students into the classroom at the start, where they sink or succeed. That’s not the case at PDS, where Fellows gradually grow their skills and expand their experiences, he says.
“This is an investment,” Smith says. “Investment is the key word to being truly effective. You have to invest in something as opposed to donating. I think that that is one of the things that separates us from others. We are shifting from a place of finding people and throwing them into the fire, to finding good people and helping them become great.”
In their own words
QCity Metro talked with the five PDS Teaching Fellows, who shared their experience with the Teaching Fellow Program.
Francisca Weirich-Freiberg, 24, is from Newark, N.J. She studied Anthropology at Princeton University and is interested in teaching English. Weirich-Freiberg said that because she didn’t study education, she appreciates how the PDS program lets her observe and gradually take on more responsibility.
“Right away I felt like this program had a more supportive environment. I felt like it was a better way to segue myself into this career and field,” she says.
Jalen Haffaney, 22, is from Delaware and studied History and Africana Studies at the University of Delaware. He decided he wanted to be a teacher when he had a part-time job at his college’s early learning center helping students in Kindergarten through 6th grade. He comes from a family of educators; his mother is a teacher, and he plans to pursue a career working with middle school aged students. As part of his fellowship training, Haffaney has interned with the school’s admissions team and he is helping with PDS’ middle school basketball team.
“There are a lot of opportunities that go beyond the classroom,” Haffaney says. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to be versatile, to step outside my comfort zone and see different pockets of life and experience new things.”
Haffaney also appreciates his peers and mentors in the Teaching Fellow Program. “It’s great to be with people who look like you, who are similar ages, and who are going through that early stage of life, while having the support and wisdom of people who have been there and done that and want you to succeed.”
Larkin Denlinger, 22, is from rural New Jersey. She studied Biology and Education at Colby College. Denlinger was nervous about taking a position in Charlotte, where she didn’t know anyone. But she says after talking with school leaders she knew it was where she wanted to be.
“I talked with them about experiential learning, of being in nature and the opportunities to do that,” she says. Denlinger says the program’s approach to teaching has boosted her confidence around students. Prior to becoming a Fellow, Denlinger had only worked with middle schoolers, and she was nervous about teaching high schoolers. Through her experience advising an affinity group, Denlinger has been able to connect with students on a deeper level than she expected.
“High schoolers are not as scary as they seem,” she says. “We get to have a more personal interaction with the students, and as such are able to grow and feel more confident ourselves.”
Will McCorn, 29, is from Maryland and studied Sociology at Livingstone College. He has 10 years of experience working in education, and he says has been actively involved with social justice issues his entire life. He was initially wary of working with an independent school.
“I came in with my own biases. I saw the institution from the outside as elitist,” McCorn says. “But when I got here, I realized there are a lot of people here who are doing the work of being present for students of color and people with marginalized identities. Speaking with Marcus Smith, and seeing his passion, it made me feel this was a space where I could thrive and really make an impact.”
McCorn works in PDS’ Equity, Inclusion and Belonging office. McCorn says he has been impressed by the quality of leaders at PDS and the breadth of experiences offered to the Fellows. “One of the greatest things about this program is the transferability of the skills we are learning,” he says. “Whether you have experience in education or not, this is an incubator for people who want to move forward in independent schools.”
Parker Duncan, 24, was living in Charlotte when she learned about the program. Duncan studied Studio Art at Converse College and was driving by PDS one day when she thought she’d stop by and ask if they had any positions available. Duncan says the program was the perfect opportunity for her to experience teaching and see what she thought about it as a career. She discovered she really enjoys being in the classroom and working with PDS’ art department.
“I was doing restaurant jobs and was ready to start a career, but then the pandemic slowed things down,” she says. “I think the program is a really good place to learn about yourself if you are unsure about things in your career.”
Hear the Fellows talk
Will McCorn guest-hosted the PDS podcast, From the Horse’s Mouth. In this episode, the five Teaching Fellows talk about how their year is going.