DUXBURY — There’s no question teachers have the ability to affect students for a lifetime. Katherine Cadwell has worked with thousands of students over her 38-year career at Harwood Union High School.
How does she think that she has impacted her students’ lives? “I would hope that when they leave my classroom they continue to question. If I want to leave them with anything I want them to question authority, to don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
She added, “Having them become free and independent thinkers. ... The one that does the work does the learning.”
Originally from Ohio, Cadwell teaches ancient history, philosophy, economics and U.S. history. She also teaches other teachers through courses at Southern New Hampshire University.
Cadwell, who was once a competitive figure skater, went to Middlebury College and the University of Denver. At Middlebury, she studied anthropology and sociology “because I am deeply interested in people’s cultural perspectives and… people’s cultural make-up.”
Upon graduation, with no specific plans in mind for her future, Cadwell made one prediction: “I’ll never ever be a teacher; that’s one thing I’ll never do.”
She moved on to the University of Denver to get a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in international studies. (Currently, she is enrolled in a master’s program in classical studies through St. John’s College in Santé Fe, New Mexico.)
“After I graduated from college ... I worked for the American Friends Service Committee and worked for Oxfam America and I enjoyed that work; it’s important work, but I felt that I was talking all the time with adults who were close-minded, who had a fixed mindset, who weren’t interested in new ideas,” she said.
In turn, the answer lay in a contradiction: She would became a teacher to work with younger, more malleable minds.
With the exception a stint when she worked and lived overseas in the country of Georgia to teach English, Cadwell has been a fixture at Harwood.
As a young teacher just spreading her wings, “there were very few supports for new teachers. … I would walk out of my room the last block of the day and I would walk out the back door and sob.”
Cadwell recalled one class that started out being quite frustrating. She refused to teach them until they calmed down. “I said, ‘I’m going to come in and teach you when you demonstrate to me that you are ready. … Like 20 minutes later … someone ran out of the class, and said ‘Mrs. Cadwell we are ready for you and I walked in and they had stacked the desks to the ceiling.”
She did not let her struggles keep her from succeeding, she quickly got her pacing down, and started making a difference — on a global scale.
In 1985, she worked with David Kelley and Charlie Hosford to start a nonprofit, PH International, a cultural exchange organization. “We started bringing Russian students from what was then the Soviet Union to Vermont and then we took Vermont kids to the Soviet Union. … We had seven offices all over the former Soviet Union.” They named the exchange program Project Harmony.
“I’d like to think we helped create a whole new world,” she says in a short video that also includes fellow co-founders Kelley and Hosford that appears on the PH International website. “Project Harmony is the greatest adventure that I have ever been on.”
But she has done so much more during her tenure at Harwood.
Cadwell said she got tired of teaching the same way year after year, so she introduced a longstanding method called Harkness Pedagogy, that allows for “authentic student inquiry, equity, inclusion and the importance of diverse perspectives.”
It involves posed questions and thoughtful dialogues between students and teacher at the “Harkness Table,” which table allows for more student-on-student engagement.
In addition, Cadwell started Socrates Cafes at the school. During these cafes, students meet with people from outside of school and have conversations about the community at large.
That idea earned Cadwell kudos and a grant. In the school year of 2016-2017, Cadwell received the Rowland Fellowship, which provides grants to “to implement a vision to transform an aspect of the school which will positively impact its culture and climate,” according to its web page.
Even though Cadwell has had many triumphs, she said there have been challenges, of course.
Among them: There has been the introduction of Proficiency Based Education Assessment System, which defines the skills students need to master over their time in school in order to graduate. That has meant finding a balance, Cadwell said. “How do we design a system assessment that’s standardized and that’s doable to make the workload manageable? What are we assessing, how are we assessing and how often are we assessing?”
That has led to a recent change in grading systems. “There are no more grades; grades will go away,” she said, “So instead of having ABC or D in courses kids are assessed on different learning expectations and different skills.”
There also has been the obvious shift in social media and the all-encompassing role it plays in the life of teenagers. “It has made it more challenging for kids to pay attention,” she said. Conversely, she noted, the internet has been a good thing: “You can have the world in your classroom.”
Even though there are issues that arise from the digital world, there are some that exist right at home, there are the implications around lock-down drills and growing concerns over school safety, “when we do lock down drills now, let me tell you, people take them seriously.”
Cadwell shows no signs of slowing down. Probably because she sees her job as a student, too.
After 38 years, teaching is still just as much about learning from the kids.
She tells her students, “I can learn things from you as you can learn from me. I want my students to see that in each other that we can all be teachers. No matter how much you study how to be a teacher, let me tell you: The people that teach you are the kids.”
So, what has been the hardest part?
“For me the hardest part about teaching is getting up so early,” she said.