Every year, Pace welcomes new faculty to the Upper School. But this year is like no other, with eight new hires taking on the challenge of teaching high schoolers in the midst of a pandemic.
New to the math department are Judy Landers and Emily Spillane. Ms. Landers was born in Mobile, Alabama but has lived and taught all over the eastern half of the United States including Ohio, Virginia and Michigan. She received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and later earned a master’s of education with a focus on mathematics from Wayne State University.
Ms. Landers had lived in Atlanta once before, but she moved back to the city in 2009. Before coming to Pace, she worked at the math lab at Georgia State University, was a contract educator at the Dunwoody Nature Center and a volunteer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
After seeing how COVID-19 was affecting schools, Ms. Landers realized she really wanted to help out students but was unsure where. “I just pictured myself in a corner somewhere with a table and a chair like an extra help math lab,” she said. She considered many options before accepting a position at Pace teaching Algebra II, Pre-Calculus Honors and Calculus Honors. “What appealed to me was that it could be an opportunity to give back,” she said.
In terms of teaching amid a pandemic, “there is no dress rehearsal for this,” said Ms. Landers. “And that is a good thing. So as far as ‘what is it like,’ I have nothing to compare it to.” She recognizes that it is a very different dynamic than in past years. “I feel like I have 10 classes rather than five because [the Zoom students’] experience depends on if the technology is working.”
Outside of the classroom, Ms. Landers enjoys gardening, beekeeping and going on long walks. Last year, she participated in the Great Saunter, a 32-mile one-day walk around Manhattan.
AP Microeconomics, AP Macroeconomics and Pre-Calculus teacher Emily Spillane moved to Atlanta with her new husband at the end of June from St. Louis, Missouri where she had lived for eight years. While teaching at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, she was named Teacher of the Year in 2015 and won the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award in 2017. Mrs. Spillane has a degree in economics and public policy as well as master’s degrees in both secondary mathematics and education administration.
Even though Mrs. Spillane had not planned to be a teacher, she was a part of a volunteer group in college called Peer Health Exchange that taught health related classes to public high schools in the Chicago area. With the intention of going to law school to focus on education law and policy, she taught for Teach for America in order to get first-hand teaching experience. “I thought I was just going to teach for a couple of years and then go back to law school,” said Mrs. Spillane. “But I ended up really loving teaching so I stuck around with it.”
At the end of March, Mrs. Spillane began looking for a teaching position in Atlanta, so Zoom became an essential tool in interviewing. “It’s really hard to interview digitally,” said Mrs. Spillane. “It’s super awkward, it’s very clumsy, but it was really nice because with Pace, I did a bunch of one-on-one interviews versus one big group interview.”
Coming to a new school brings the challenge of learning many new names, but it is even harder considering Mrs. Spillane has never seen most of the Pace community without masks. “If we are maskless at the end of the year, I feel like I am going to have to relearn everyone’s faces and names,” she said. “And not just my students’ faces but also my colleagues. I have not seen most of their faces without masks, either.”
Having Zoom classes is also difficult because Mrs. Spillane does not want to neglect those who are learning virtually. “It is nice when I have students who are virtual and have no problem unmuting themselves and asking questions.”
As someone who is new to Atlanta, Mrs. Spillane is excited to explore what food the city has to offer. “I am super into trying out new restaurants and I have a really long list of Atlanta restaurants that I want to try,” she said. Even with the pandemic, she “can still kind of do it with carry out even if it is not as good.”
“I am super excited about getting to see different Pace traditions,” said Mrs. Spillane. “Hopefully they still exist, even if they look different from what you guys are used to. I’m not going to know any difference so I think it would be fun to compare this year versus hopefully, next year.”
Ancient World History Honors and AP World History teacher Mindy Lawrence recently moved to Atlanta from Maryland. She grew up in Rhode Island and went to Brown University in the state’s capital, Providence. Mrs. Lawrence graduated from Brown with an undergraduate degree in history and American civilization.
In January, Mrs. Lawrence and her husband made the decision to move to Atlanta with their five-year-old daughter after Mr. Lawrence got a job at Emory Law School. Then came COVID-19. “Trying to find a job during the pandemic was some kind of nightmare,” she said. Then add in the hours of house hunting and school searching for their daughter. “We came down one weekend, looked at a couple of schools for my daughter and we looked at, like, 22 houses or something and happened to find something we liked.”
The history teacher position at Pace opened up late July on a Wednesday. By Friday, Mrs. Lawrence had secured the job. “I had a great conversation with Mr. Assaf before I even applied for a position to just talk about what area independent schools were like,” she said. “I knew of Pace, I knew the reputation of Pace, so when the position opened up, it just seemed like serendipity to me.”
Despite the challenges of moving and starting work at a new school, Mrs. Lawrence is thankful to be back in the classroom. “The natural rhythm of a class really only works when we are all here together,” she said. “Those humorous moments that we share and that bring us together, for whatever reason, are tougher to recreate on Zoom.”
History is Mrs. Lawrence’s passion, in and outside of the classroom. “I love doing historical research,” she said. “Last year I got to go to Stanford to learn from one of my history idols (Richard White, a professor emeritus at Stanford who studies the Progressive Era and Gilded Age), and the summer before, I got to spend a month in Chicago researching the development of hot dogs.”
While the pandemic has put a pause on “normal” for now, Mrs. Lawrence still hopes to go to games and theatre performances. She also is excited to see celebrations of holidays and Pace traditions in general. Most importantly, she is looking forward to, hopefully, continuing to teach in person. “If we have to wear masks and wash our desks and spray our hands 2,000 times a day, I’m happy to do that in order to stay here.”
Also new to the history department is Ancient World Civilizations teacher Duke Sherrell. An Atlanta native, Mr. Sherrell graduated this past summer from Rhodes College in Memphis with a master’s in education. He knew he wanted to come back home, so when he was offered an interview with Pace, he was excited for the opportunity.
During his senior year of college, Mr. Sherrell took a course called the Foundations of Education. This influenced him to go back to school for his master’s degree. ”It gave me the true background that I needed in terms of the courses and the experience in the classroom.” He also knew he wanted to coach football, which he is now doing as the varsity football quality control coach for defense.
Stepping into a new job right after graduating can be challenging, but Mr. Sherrell also has to face the obstacles that the pandemic poses. “I don’t really know what you look like, I just see your eyeballs,” said Mr. Sherrell. “And that is the toughest part because as a teacher, you depend on a lot of nonverbal cues to manage the classroom. You use those nonverbal cues and facial expressions to help you gauge where the class is, and that does not exist anymore.”
When Mr. Sherrell is not teaching or coaching, he enjoys working out, playing chess and watching movies. He is excited to begin his Pace career and see what the school is all about. “I just want to get into the community, do as many things as I can this first year and see where I fit in the whole puzzle of Pace.”
New Analytical Chemistry Honors teacher Shresttha Dubey is also from Georgia. He was raised in Suwanee, went to Lambert High School and attended Georgia Tech for college.
A few years ago, Mr. Dubey taught at Keeping Pace. “That was a nice way to be introduced to the school,” he said. However, when seeking a job for this year, Pace appealed to Mr. Dubey because of the school’s response to the events of the summer related to racial injustice. “I like that Pace Academy, as one of the top institutions in the state, is still making efforts to keep everybody in the community educated and motivated,” he said. “I like trying to make my students feel like they belong here and make them feel accepted, regardless of whatever their identity may be.”
For Mr. Dubey, “the most fulfilling jobs are the ones where you wake up and are excited for every single day.” He loves getting to interact with students to help foster their intellectual curiosity. “There are smart kids everywhere, and I strongly believe in tapping into that potential,” he said. “If you can really get a kid excited about something or thinking about something in a different way, it can unlock something that is really beautiful in their minds.”
“I understood that there was some risk to coming back to school and doing it in person, but the more that I have been here, the more confident I am in the safety measures that we have at the school,” said Mr. Dubey. “Keeping people safe, contact tracing, testing athletes, social distancing and those thermal cameras; I feel like if we were to go back to school, Pace has figured out the best way to do it.”
Mr. Dubey is an avid Atlanta Hawks fan, and has also embraced a newfound hobby: cooking. “I’m trying to make really good tasting food that doesn’t make you feel awful afterwards,” he said. Mr. Dubey wants his students to know he always has their best interest at heart. “I think everybody is having a tough time in some way or the other, and what I try to do is to acknowledge that in the classroom. If everybody does well in my class, that is my dream. And I’m going to do whatever I can to help them get to that point.”
A native Australian, English teacher Aviva Hyams moved to Atlanta about a year ago with her husband and two children. Previously, they had lived in Australia where her husband, who is from Georgia, played professional basketball. She graduated from Australian Catholic University with a degree in English language and literature.
It was not until after having children that Ms. Hyams decided she wanted to teach. “I decided when my son was in kindergarten, so I went back to university after having kids,” she said. She earned a double degree in education and literature. “It turned out that a lot of my family members that I didn’t really know as a child were also educators. I think this was my calling.”
Pace appealed to Ms. Hyams because of the many options that it has to offer. “There are so many opportunities here to grow,” she said. “The more I’m spending time here, I have been seeing the diversity of every aspect of Pace.”
“[Students’] expressions are hidden because of masks, and I really have to remember just their eyes,” said Ms. Hyams about the difficulties of teaching amid a pandemic. “It’s really easy to mistake one person for another if they have similar hair or similar eyes.” However, Ms. Hyams believes that coming to school during this time “shows that you have an inner strength, and no matter how strange and challenging things seem, you can overcome it.”
Ms. Hyams loves to travel to watch basketball, whether that be to see her children, her husband or her brother, who also played professionally in Australia. She looks forward to helping all her students thrive. “We will get through this together as a team,” she said. “That is one of my focuses, to help kids get through this moment, to learn during this time and make sure no one falls through the cracks.”
Eric Forslund, new Director of Speech and Debate, arrived in Atlanta on Aug. 1 from Dallas, Texas where he had served as director of policy and debate for Greenhill School. He went to college at Arizona State University and was a Collegiate All-American debater. He coached the 2008 Collegiate National Debate Champions as well as the 2012 High School National Champions.
Greenhill School is also where Director of Athletics Chad Wabrek worked, so Mr. Forslund had a connection to Pace before joining the faculty. “I have been on campus several times for debate tournaments over the years, and I also worked with the [former] athletic director at Greenhill, Mr. Wabrek.”
Before teaching debate, Mr. Forslund aspired to be an umpire. “I actually went to professional umpire school because I wanted to be a Major League umpire,” he said. “That was my career goal.” Instead, he accepted an offer to coach debate in his home state of Wyoming at the University of Wyoming.
Just like the other teachers at Pace, Mr. Forslund has found that wearing masks makes it difficult to read nonverbal expressions. “Students are the most important part of teaching, but connecting has been a little bit difficult,” he said. He has also found that trying to get all the technology to work at the same time is a challenge.
Aside from debate, Mr. Forslund loves playing golf, watching professional baseball and going to the movies with friends. He is looking forward to “growing [the debate] program and getting more people into it.” He is already working on setting up virtual debate tournaments for his current debaters.
Assistant Band Director Savannah Kelly was born and raised in Georgia, and she graduated from Kennesaw State University in December 2019. This April, she had an intimate quarantine wedding in her parents’ backyard with her immediate family. She began working at Pace in January; however, her first semester was cut short when COVID-19 struck and ended in-person learning for the year.
At the beginning of her college career, Mrs. Kelly began studying both nursing and music performance. However, in her junior year, she decided to drop nursing and pick up education. “I taught private lessons for a while, and then [when] they put us in a classroom, it was just more students you get to reach,” she said.
“The band community is really small,” said Mrs. Kelly, so when the position at Pace opened up, word spread quickly. Having taught at public school for her courses in college, the smaller class sizes at Pace really appealed to Mrs. Kelly. “It was challenging [at public school] because having 60-70 kids in band to teach all at once, you can’t cater towards the individual.”
“My primary [instrument] is the oboe, which is unfortunate because we don’t have any oboe players here,” she said. “But I also do percussion, and we have a percussion ensemble here, which is a lot of fun.”
Teaching band gets a little tricky when it comes to the virtual learners. “We meet with them totally separately because it’s very difficult to go at the same time,” said Mrs. Kelly. “We give them stuff online through Google Classroom to do, and for upper school, we try to meet with them once a week on Zoom to see their faces and reassure them that they are not behind.”
Outside of playing instruments, Mrs. Kelly loves board games. “My siblings and my husband’s siblings, we all get together, like, every other week to play board games where we get really competitive,” she said.
Mrs. Kelly sees the pandemic impacting returning and new teachers in similar ways. “I was talking to a middle school teacher who said that they felt like a first year teacher again,” she said. “So in a way, the pandemic has been a blessing to me. I don’t feel left out because everyone is learning something new.”
Top photo: (Clockwise from top left) Judy Landers, Emily Spillane, Mindy Lawrence, Duke Sherrell, Savannah Kelly, Eric Forslund, Aviva Hyams and Shresttha Dubey begin their first year at Pace. Photos: Pace Communications