When Nolis Arkoulakis ’88 was in a car accident during his semester student-teaching, his first thought was, “What time is it? I can still get there, I can still teach!”
Fellow graduates of the University’s Program in Teacher Preparation show the same amount of dedication to their careers. Graduates go into international educational development and higher education, and have gone on to found schools, become superintendents, and become recipients of the National Teacher of the Year award. Students can enter the program as undergraduates, graduates, or alumni.
Now, the program is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Over the past 50 years, 1,042 students have graduated from the program, which earns them a Princeton certificate and leads to New Jersey teaching certification.
Students in the Teacher Prep Program take eight courses in the content area of their certification, an educational psychology course, two seminars, and an introductory methods course. They also spend a semester student-teaching. 90 percent of students student-teach during a ninth semester.
Dr. Todd Kent ’83, director of the Teacher Prep Program, said that each year there are 10-12 students who complete the program. The purest aspect of the program is pedagogy, according to Kent.
“We have to remember the purpose of the program is classroom teaching.”
Computer science major Karen Zhang ’19 is obtaining the teaching certification as an undergraduate and plans to teach math after graduating this spring.
Zhang said the Teacher Prep Program is meeting her expectations.
“Being in this class is solidifying a lot of the reasons I wanted to go into teaching,” Zhang said about the introductory methods class taught by Kent.
She explained that one of the biggest reasons she wants to be a teacher is “to be a part of someone else's process of growing up and maturing.”
Similarly, anthropology major Angela Kim ’19 knew she wanted to work with children, and said the program helped her understand how to unite her love for working with kids and her passion for a career in education.
“I want [students] to find the joy and rigor that I think people find here at Princeton,” Kim said. “People are inspired by their teachers and become great teachers themselves.”
Mariel VanLandingham ’16 also obtained her teaching certification as an undergraduate. She called her student teaching a “full-time job,” but said she found great success through student-teaching, which positively impacted the start of her career.
“I was able to find success as a student-teacher, and that leads to confidence,” VanLandingham said, adding that “confidence carried me through my first year of actual teaching.”
VanLandingham now teaches English at Millburn High School in New Jersey. She said she aspires to be like the teachers she had as a child who pushed her beyond what she thought that she could do.
“The teachers who really influenced me were tough and fair,” VanLandingham said. “The teachers that were nice … those were the not the teachers I remember.”
Other graduates of the Teacher Prep Program realized they wanted to teach after having already started a different career.
Barbara Fortunato ’98 concentrated in electrical engineering and later worked in the World Trade Center. After Sept. 11, 2001, she realized she wanted a more rewarding career.
“It was a tribute to the friends of mine that I lost, that I decided to do something that I enjoyed every single day,” she said.
Now a physics teacher at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Fortunato said the Teacher Prep Program was monumental in helping her achieve her goals as an educator.
“In a lot of ways, I feel most connected to Princeton through Teacher Prep,” she said.
Some parents ask Fortunato, “You went to Princeton — why are you teaching?” Fortunato thinks, “Why wouldn’t you want a Princeton graduate to be teaching your child?”
For Fortunato, teaching physics is the easy part.
“It's all the other stuff that comes along with being a teacher that keeps me going and keeps me ... proud to be a teacher,” she said.
“I'm also teaching my students to be good citizens of the world,” she said.
Arkoulakis worked in medicine for 20 years. He found out about the Teacher Prep program at his 25th reunion.
Arkoulakis asked himself, “Why don’t you do something that really makes you happy?”
He now teaches Latin at Princeton High School.
“It’s still just a privilege that people let you into their lives and you get to help them,” said Arkoulakis about both teaching and medicine.
Katie Zaeh ’10 worked as an architect before returning to the Teacher Prep Program. “You spend a lot of time behind a computer and not impacting people,” she said. “Especially after the 2016 election, I felt like I needed to do more.”
As a student teacher, Zaeh taught art. She said, “There was a lot of convincing these students that art was not study hall. Getting them to believe that, and to see that art impacted them, was both challenging and rewarding.” Zaeh is now forming an architecture class in the Trenton school district.
When asked about the importance of teachers, Zaeh said, “I believe very strongly that education is the vehicle to advance yourself.”
“We need more people willing to work with young people, willing to show them things they might not have been exposed to or had the opportunity to learn otherwise,” remarked Zaeh.
The Teacher Prep program is hosting its main anniversary event at a conference April 12-13, 2019. There will be several panels and a keynote speaker. According to Kent, the April anniversary events will be a celebration of all the people who have been involved with the program.