Alumni Column: Teaching to Learn



Kurt Pusch '02

Class of ’10, I’ve got some news for you: 30 is the new 20. So even though I’m a proud member of the class of 2002, you and I are basically the same age. So let me give you some ‘peer’ advice:

Right now, you can join a tremendous movement for social good in America where you can not only make immediate impact but also have opportunities for

professional advancement.

What’s the training ground for this field? A bank’s trading floor? No. A law firm?

No again.

It’s a classroom.

At Colgate, I considered finance and law, but ended up becoming an educator, and remain one today. I won’t say the journey has been easy, but it has been exhilarating and rewarding.

It all started in Colgate’s Outdoor Education program. Teaching never occurred to me as a career option until I began guiding fellow students trips in the high peaks of the Adirondacks. The responsibility of getting people to experience and appreciate a sense of place in the outdoors helped me to discover my own passion for teaching.

As a senior, I applied for Teach For America, the program that trains college graduates to teach in high-need rural and urban public schools. The first fall after leaving Hamilton, I found myself teaching fourth-graders in a low-income area in rural North Carolina.

In my first two years in North Carolina, I learned – as so many first-time teachers do – that teaching is a demanding profession. In order to meet the expectation that Teach For America set, to accelerate achievement for my students by more than two grade levels in a year’s time, would require me to work harder than I ever had before. I learned to process my mistakes rapidly (and there were many that first year), form new strategies and experiment until I found an approach that worked for my students.

I thought that being a smart, well-intentioned college graduate would be almost enough to help me succeed as a teacher, but I was wrong. It took my most challenging student—who regularly threw his book across the room when I tried to teach him to read—to help me see that before I could reach my students, I had to get to know their interests, their fears and their dreams.

Over time, I improved and matured as a teacher. In 2008, after four years in the classroom, I became the principal of KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, a public, college-prep charter middle school for students in inner-city Denver. As a school leader, I oversee the education of 370 students and manage a staff of 32 teachers.

Each day I am responsible for getting KIPP students, parents and teachers motivated around one goal: helping students “climb the mountain to college.” It is a huge, but profoundly meaningful, challenge. I am grateful that Colgate taught me to be a constant learner and a courageous leader, and this is why I am still in education today.

As you look towards graduation, try thinking about education—it’s the best way to make an impact on the most important civil rights issue of our time. For with teaching, the opportunity to lead is unprecedented.