Carbondale teachers celebrate 40 years at boarding school
At 8:15 on a Tuesday just before the holiday break, Mark Clark tries to get Colorado Rocky Mountain School students to talk about the inevitability of death, specifically as it is portrayed in Sartre’s short story “The Wall” about prisoners facing a death sentence.
Clark, who now teaches philosophy of history to seniors, and chemistry teacher Jim Gaw are in their 40th year as teachers at CRMS. They are beloved for their attention to the students at CRMS, and their contributions to the school and the community.
One of Clark’s students comments before class begins that she only got four hours of sleep. Usually, the school turns off its Wi-Fi at 11 p.m. so the 92 resident students don’t get distracted. But, the night before, the internet stayed up and so did this student. Most of the students live on campus, but the school also has 80 day students .
A few students trickle in five or 10 minutes late. Clark cajoles them with a quip and a smile for sleeping in, or for failing to wake up their roommates — not very collegial, he says. But when a student walks in 20 minutes after the class begins, he looks at her earnestly: “It’s never too late to come to class. Really, I’m glad you’re here,” Clark says.
Across the boarding school’s park-like quad from Clark’s classroom, on the first floor of the main academic building, Jim Gaw has removed all the chairs from his classroom and has the students stand. It keeps them awake, Gaw says. Plus, he can move more easily around the tall tables and see students’ work without stooping.
A few years ago, Gaw learned of a new method for teaching chemistry. He presented it to the school administrators, who agreed to send him to seminars.
Shortly thereafter he implemented a method known as modeling in his classes, which involves having the students illustrate observations of their experiments with mathematical, graphical, verbal, and the more stereotypical particulate models of compounds and chemical reactions.
“Jim, who’s been here for 40 years, never stops learning about his subject matter, or about teaching in general,” CRMS Academic Dean Nancy Draina said. “Every year he comes to me with a request for more professional development.”
Coming to Carbondale
Clark and Gaw started teaching in Carbondale in 1979. There were no traffic lights, and Main Street had been paved a year before Clark arrived. Gaw attended CRMS, and while some aspects of the school have changed, the character and mission live on.
Amanda Leahy, chair of the history department, joined CRMS with her husband, Jeff, who serves as head of school, in 2000.
“Since the moment you arrive, Mark and Jim are sort of your automatic mentors; the elder, wise, sometimes profane voices of the school,” Amanda said.
There are a number of students in the school who are children of Jim and Mark’s former students.
“It’s hugely rewarding, especially in that parents would have that much confidence in the school,” Clark said.
Both Clark and Gaw experienced moments when they considered leaving CRMS, especially in the first decade of their tenure. But the structure of the school and the richness of the education made them stay.
Clark likes to describe the school as tactile. “This school, and its program, and its history, hits a person and makes an impact,” Clark said.
It’s easy for Clark to become emotional talking about the effect CRMS had on his early career. His early years teaching in the classroom with another professor, former academic dean Dutton Foster, had a formative impact on his own teaching philosophy.
“I didn’t go to school here, but I was raised here,” Clark said.
“This is an incredibly rich place because of all that we do in our program,” Gaw said.
The daily chores, household jobs, sports and outdoor activities, plus the academic rigor and interaction with the faculty, all contribute to the school culture, he said.
DRAWING KIDS OUT
Even among private boarding schools, CRMS is set apart in a number of ways.
“A lot of schools might have a great outdoor program, but it’s not the teachers who are running it,” Draina said. “Jim and Mark have made sure we stay engaged in that three-hat program — the academic, the residential, and the active.”
Draina has been at CRMS since 2006, and said the two veteran teachers showed her how to thrive at the unique school.
“In the most forceful way — by their example — they were able to show me what it meant to be here, but with great humility. They were just going about their business in an authentic and inspired way,” Draina said.
“Kids can be so guarded, but this school asks them to drop that,” Clark says. His class operates as something of a capstone, to send the kids off into the world.
Most days, teachers eat lunch with the students and there are regular formal dinners.
“Students here know more about the faculty as people than they do many other adults in their lives,” Clark said.
Added Gaw, “They also know that we care.”