Sylvia Gappa, math and psychology teacher, 2013 recipient of the Seaver Buck Faculty Award
Click here for Mr. Mulder’s introduction of Mrs. Gappa.
We caught up with Mrs. Gappa recently and talked a little bit about teaching, life under the mountain, and what it means to do a good job. Her commitment to that end is evident in her desire to adapt and change, even as she maintains the highest of expectations – in her classroom, in her coaching, and in her interactions with others.
Here’s some of what Mrs. Gappa had to say:
About choosing to teach:
I originally went to college as a biology major; I wanted to do athletic training. But after a psychology course and an education class, I realized that I wanted to overlap teaching and coaching. I watched my coach at Middlebury and saw that it could be done well. That became my goal. My brother went to Holderness and gave me the idea of teaching at boarding school.
This was my 13th year at Berkshire; I was originally hired to work with the girls hockey program, community service and student activities. Then in my second year, I taught two math classes. I’ve been teaching full-time ever since. Algebra I, II, and Intro to Psychology, which is a full year course.
I love to teach math, especially at this level, where I’m preparing students for more advanced levels. It’s fun to see them when they get farther up. We get to focus on group work and problem solving, but it can be difficult for them to relate it to the real world.
Because of that, Psych is a nice break; there’s more back and forth, and the kids can bring in their own examples so they can see how what we’re studying relates to their lives. We use a lot of examples from mass media to try to understand why people act the way they do; it gets the students thinking, “am I doing this, and if I am, do I mean to be doing it?” The discussions are really fun.
About living under the mountain with husband, Jason and children, Katy (6) and John (2):
At first, the Charpentiers were like my family. I learned so much about coaching and patience with kids from them. I also met my husband and had my children here. Everyone has been so supportive of us – teaching and coaching-wise. And it goes beyond that. People take care of each other. The community food drop-off, and the extended help with kids when things get busy make it a great community to raise our children in. We can take them for hikes, go to the stream, go to the turf, and obviously all of the students are like big sisters and big brothers to them.
It’s so great to see advisees and students come back to campus and hear what they’re doing and see how they’re impacting the world after leaving Berkshire. Now, it's also fun to see our own children interacting with those alumni, hearing stories about when they were small, almost like extended family.
About doing a good job:
I want to give the students the feeling that they have grown as learners by the end of my class. I’d like for them to become more vocal, have pride in their projects, have conquered a portfolio problem that at the start gave them a lot of trouble. I want them to have the opportunity to see the ways that they’ve grown, beyond the ability to spit back information – in tangible ways. In my experience teaching math, getting a kid who struggles and works extremely hard, then watching them discover that they can do the math, or go from being afraid of math to being someone who likes it - those are the moments that I work toward.
I always want to make my classes more interactive when I can. I feel like it’s really important to go beyond the equations and bring in more conversation, more engagement, and I’m always looking to do that in my classes.
This year, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to put a document cam to use so that students can present original material more often. I’d like to give students the opportunity to solve more real life examples and problems. They have to communicate with me and work with their peers. In psychology, I’d like to add more time for reading and interpreting articles within the contexts of their own lives. I’m hoping to open up the floor for more discussion regarding conflicting theories supporting their ideas with facts, using critical reasoning, research, and examples.
I think that what I’ve been able to get from this experience, teaching, coaching, and mentoring at Berkshire is that connection between teaching and coaching that I’d envisioned. I find myself breaking down the game and teaching the girls to think about hockey the way that I teach in the classroom. Then, in class, I’ll find myself creating group work or breaking down the steps of a problem, borrowing directly from my coaching strategies.
Some days, it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.