This article originally appeared in the winter 2018 issue of Harker Magazine.
Words by Jennifer Maragoni
Just 13 years ago, Kathy Peng ’05 was a student in Anita Chetty’s Human Anatomy and Physiology class. Now they are colleagues. Peng, middle school science department chair, is one of more than a dozen Harker graduates who work at the school. In the past there have been a handful of fulltime and many more part-time alumni who have returned to campus to teach, coach or freelance.
“I still remember her class vividly,” said Peng of Chetty, upper school science department chair. “I am honored to be able to continue learning from her and now be her colleague.”
Now in her fifth year of teaching at Harker, Peng initially pursued a career in neuroscience – contributing to research on epilepsy, sleep, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression – before realizing her calling was in the classroom, not a research lab. She enrolled in the Stanford Teacher Education Program and said she is “grateful to have found such a rewarding profession.” Peng knew she wanted to work with middle schoolers, and her friends and family encouraged her to apply for an opening at Harker.
In addition to being the department chair, she currently teaches eighth grade biology and mentors students in the science research program. She says being a Harker graduate gives her a unique connection with students and families. “They know that I bring to my job an additional layer of understanding of what it means to be educated at Harker,” she explained.
Peng had a deep love of learning as a student and brings a refreshing approach to teaching, Chetty said. Working together is “a chance to come full circle,” she added. “What a compliment it is to our school that alumni would choose to build their careers in service to Harker,” Chetty continued. “Our faculty are known for caring deeply about their students and striving to give so much of themselves to our students. Our alumni well understand what good teaching and learning looks like because they saw it in their teachers. They already bring with them firsthand experience of being the recipient of dedication to one’s craft and a lifelong love of learning.”
Although Harker has grown since Peng was a student, she says the “culture of excellence” has remained consistent – and that is largely what drew her back. “Harker has such an amazing student body and faculty and staff,” Peng said. “I am surrounded by excellence, and that is inspiring.”
Other alumni-turned-employees echo that sentiment. “There are so many amazing things about working at Harker,” said upper school economics teacher Sam Lepler ’96, who joined the faculty in 2010. “The students are top of the list. They are funny, diligent, intelligent and just all-around fun people to be around. … My colleagues are brilliant, kind, professional and hard-working. I am honored to be part of a highly talented faculty team. “Of course, the lunches are amazing too,” Lepler added with a grin.
Lepler currently teaches AP Economics and Advanced Topics in Economics: Game Theory, and oversees Oeconomia, the extracurricular arm of Harker economics. In addition to being a Harker alumnus and teacher, he is also a Harker parent (Maya, kindergarten). “I am thrilled to complete the circuit and share my alum status with my own family,” he said.
The journey back
Different paths have led alumni back to Harker, but all agree there is something special about working at their alma mater. They fondly remember attending Harker as students and are grateful for the opportunity to return as employees.
“I love the sense of community that Harker embraces, and many of my favorite memories come from this wonderful place. … There is such a feeling of nostalgia,” beamed Grace Wallace ’95, who teaches first grade and is the department chair for grades 1 and 2.
She attended Harker from kindergarten through eighth grade. (Harker did not have an upper school at that time.) Wallace’s path back to Harker was fairly direct. While in high school, she was a summer camp counselor, and during college, she served as a summer aide and worked on the BEST staff. In August 2005, just a few months after graduating from college, she joined the Harker faculty, where she since has taught kindergarten through third grade. “I have not worked anywhere else,” she said. “I love this place!”
While it was the California sunshine that lured human resources manager Marissa Lucketti ’90 back to the area after college, it was her fond memories of Harker and the school’s stellar reputation that prompted her to apply for a job.
“If you were a San Jose native, you knew that Harker Academy (as I knew it) was synonymous with excellence,” said Lucketti, who joined the staff in 2000. “Who wouldn’t want to work somewhere that had (and still has) a reputation for excellence?”
Although Lucketti only attended Harker for first through third grade, she said she has always felt very connected to Harker and is grateful to work at the place that provided such wonderful childhood memories. Her brother, Matt Ortiz ’88, also works at Harker, as a shipping and receiving associate.
Keri Clifford ’13, who joined the faculty this year as a second grade teacher, can’t remember a time when Harker wasn’t a part of her life. Her parents met while working at Harker, and her grandmother (the sister of Diana Nichols) was head of the finance office and now serves on the board of trustees.
Since high school, Clifford has worked at Harker’s summer program, and during college she was the assistant coach for the girls water polo team. She is also the first official “lifer” on the faculty, having attended Harker from junior kindergarten through grade 12.
“Harker has always been a part of my family,” she said, adding that she is grateful to work alongside “amazing, passionate teachers who are always trying to innovate and improve their teaching. I am also constantly inspired by our Harker students, who arrive every day ready to learn.”
Lepler’s path back to Harker was more circuitous. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics and minored in Japanese and Spanish. He taught in English in rural Japan for two years before returning to the Bay Area to earn his teaching credential.
A chance meeting with former Harker economics teacher Pete Itokazu at a professional development conference led him back to Harker, he explained. “I was teaching at Santa Clara High School and really establishing myself there,” he said. “[Pete and I] bonded for a week and he convinced me to just come for an interview at Harker.” The rest is history.
Lepler calls it an honor and a privilege to give back to the school that gave him so much, explaining that he enrolled at Harker in middle school, after experiencing significant bullying at his previous school. “Harker’s welcoming environment full of kind students and caring teachers literally turned my life around,” he said. “I will be grateful to Harker for the rest of my life.”
Middle school history teacher Karan Lodha ’04 says the supportive Harker community was a huge factor in his decision to pursue teaching and join the Harker faculty. He is excited to help his students learn and grow, much like his teachers did for him. After graduating from college in 2008, Lodha held a variety of jobs in the technology industry, but he was looking for a way to contribute more to society. He had often thought about teaching and, while exploring this possibility, he reached out to several of his former Harker teachers, who arranged for him to shadow several teachers on campus. One thing led to another and Lodha landed a long-term sub position at the middle school during the 2016-17 school year. Last year, he was hired as a full-time teacher at the middle school, where he has taught both math and history.
“I’ve been fortunate to teach multiple subjects at the middle school. However, what I’ve learned through that experience is that much of what we do as teachers of this age group is model how to be kind, thoughtful and productive human beings – that is, demonstrate how to develop the skills and personality traits that will help our students become forces for good no matter what they go on to do,” he said. “The curriculum and the content can be rich and rewarding, but the true joy of the teaching profession comes from watching these young adults mature and become unique individuals as the year goes on.”
Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs, said it is that mindset that makes Harker alumni such effective teachers. “I have been a particular advocate of hiring alumni and working with the alumni office to better notify our alumni of teaching positions,” Gargano said, explaining that while all employees must have strong qualifications, alumni have “inherent benefits.”
“They come in with a strong work ethic, are well-rounded, and understand Harker’s high standards for teaching and engagement,” she said. “Moreover, they understand the school culture and the importance we place on teachers working closely with students to be their best selves, not only academically but also social-emotionally and with regards to character.”
Green lights ahead
A key part of Harker’s mission is to instill a love of learning in its students. So, it’s no wonder that alumni employees seize opportunities to continue to learn and grow – a mindset strongly supported by the administration. “If you can dream it, and the students want it, it can happen,” said Lepler, explaining that Harker readily gives its faculty the “green light” to explore their passions. “[This] makes pushing yourself professionally and intellectually incredibly rewarding.”
Wallace agrees, adding that as an alumna, “The best part is that I know the resources available to me and I want to provide the same quality of education to my students that I received when I attended.”
Since joining the faculty, Lodha said he has taken valuable professional development courses and workshops. However, he adds, “the greatest resource for me has been my colleagues at Harker. I couldn’t even begin to list the tens of individuals who have welcomed me into their classrooms, provided me with lesson plans, offered a suggestion on a particular technique, or just been kind and supportive when I needed it most,” he said. “For many, teaching can be a lonely profession, with hours and hours spent with your face buried in stacks of paper. However, at Harker, I truly feel like I’m part of a teaching community, which makes the experience incredibly fulfilling.”
One of the unique challenges alumni face when returning to their alma mater is getting used to working alongside their former teachers and addressing them by their first names.
“Do I call them by their first name or do I address them in the manner in which the students do?” wondered Wallace when she first began teaching at Harker.
Recent graduate Molly Wancewicz ’17, a sophomore at Rice University in Houston and Harker’s youngest alumni employee, said adjusting to this new dynamic was a bit challenging.
“It was an awkward transition from a position of student to that of an employee,” said Wancewicz, who was hired on as an assistant coach for Harker’s speech and debate team just after graduation. “Even simple things, like calling former teachers by their first names, felt odd.”
But Wancewicz didn’t let a little awkwardness deter her from pursuing a job at Harker. When her schedule allows, she flies to tournaments where she meets up with the team and provides on-site coaching. She also does research remotely, and when she returns home to San Jose in the summer, she does administrative work on campus and helps coach the middle school debate team.
Wancewicz now coaches students who were once her classmates, an “interesting dynamic” that she said allows her to be more effective as a coach.
“Debate can be stressful and emotionally taxing, so debate coaching often involves encouragement and being understanding of the unique anxieties that emerge at debate tournaments,” she explained. “Being close in age to students and having experienced many of the same things allows me to do this more successfully.”
Lodha says that while it took some time to get used to thinking of his former teachers as colleagues, it is “incredibly fulfilling” to work alongside them. He currently works with his former advisor, middle school division head Evan Barth, and former basketball coach, Jeremiah Brewer, among others.
“Working with these dedicated individuals to help make our students’ lives better – I couldn’t ask for a better experience!” he said.
Clifford agrees. “They are so welcoming and they continue to mentor me and share their years of wisdom,” she said. “Plus, the kids love learning that we shared some of the same teachers – like Cindy Proctor, who was actually my first grade teacher!”
The more things change …
While many of Harker’s attributes and traditions have remained constant over the years, some things about the school have changed dramatically – most notably, its size.
“It’s much bigger now in terms of student body and also the number of campuses,” marveled Peng, who was a member of the fourth class to graduate from the upper school.
Both Wallace and Lucketti also noted that the uniforms have changed. “The girls uniform are a lot cuter now,” Lucketti quipped. When Lucketti, Lepler and Wallace attended Harker in the 1980s and 90s, it was a K-8 school with only one campus. Since then, the upper school was added, the boarding program was closed, three additional campuses were acquired and numerous buildings and amenities have sprung up – including Davis Field, the Singh Aquatic Center and, most recently, the Rothschild Performing Arts Center and the new athletic center.
“Nichols Hall sits on the field that I used to play Ultimate Frisbee on,” Lepler reminisced. “The school is a whole lot bigger and more comprehensive, so in many ways it’s completely different. … But the caring, kind and intellectually stimulating culture has not changed a bit.”
Jennifer Maragoni is a freelance writer and editor based in Folsom
There are currently nine teachers, four full-time staff and one division head who attended Harker. The teachers: Keri Clifford ‘13, Mark Gelineau ‘90, Sam Lepler ‘96, Eric Leonard ‘94, Karan Lodha ‘04, Kristin Morgensen ‘93, Kathy Peng ‘05, Elise Robichaud ‘84 and Grace Wallace ‘95. T e staff: Danielle Holquin ‘95, Marissa Lucketti ‘90, Matt Ortiz ‘88 and Troy Townzen ‘08. And the division head: Kristin Giammona ‘81.