A popular 1970s sitcom featured a hapless teacher returning to his former high school to lead a remedial class dubbed the “Sweathogs.” “Welcome Back, Kotter” gave John Travolta his breakout role – before “Saturday Night Fever” – and it highlighted the difference a committed, caring teacher can make in students’ lives.
On the surface, Lawrenceville has very little in common with this portrayal of a Brooklyn, N.Y., public high school, but it does have a growing cast of alumni seeking to pay back the benefits of their Lawrenceville education – and pay the experience forward for future generations.
It’s a good sign when your former students want to return to teach. It speaks to the quality of their school experience and their desire to give back to a community that had a meaningful, positive impact on their lives. This fall Lawrenceville welcomed back four alumni in full-time instructional roles, ranging from the class of 1993 to the class of 2018 and spanning four distinct disciplines: Isaiah Chery ’18, athletics fellow; Matt Schorr ’09, math; Ash Shah ’93, English/history; and Bri Thompson ’18, science fellow.
Each one brings a unique skill set.
Chery is a 2022 graduate of Franklin and Marshall College (F&M) with a bachelor of arts in economics and government. During college, he interned with J.P. Morgan Chase and IMPACCT Brooklyn, an organization dedicated to preserving and creating affordable housing. He is currently coaching varsity and junior varsity football and will move on to winter and spring track, sports he played at Lawrenceville and F&M, and is sitting in on math and economics classes. He is embracing the traditional model of teaching and coaching.
Schorr began his teaching career with Teach for America in Detroit following graduation from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He went on to teach in a public charter high school in Washington, D.C., before returning to Detroit to teach at University Preparatory Academy. He was working as a consultant, specializing in IT applications and business analytics in the education space, when he heard about a math opening at Lawrenceville. Now Schorr is teaching Math 2 and Pre-Calculus, serving as assistant head in Kennedy House and coaching House football, and looking forward to coaching junior varsity baseball in the spring.
If the name “Schorr” sounds familiar, it should. Matt’s grandfather, Col. David Schorr, preceded him in the math department and was director of the School Camp for many years. [Matt] Schorr’s father, uncles, siblings, and a cousin are all Lawrentians, and retired math teacher Hal Wilder is his uncle. A great-grandfather, Arthur Peck, taught French at Lawrenceville from 1932-1970.
Shah offers the most diverse career background, with a mix of both early and recent teaching experience and a 16-year gap during which he served as managing partner of a company that provided financing and production services to the motion picture industry, managed a family real estate trust, and represented screenwriters as an artist’s agent. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English, European history, and government from Connecticut College, a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is pursuing a second master’s through the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.
Shah is teaching humanities/English and two sections of a Fifth Form elective called Case Studies in International Policy, a course he developed in coordination with the University of Virginia and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which requires student teams to respond to a real-world security problem and present their solutions to DoD officials. Ash returned to Lawrenceville looking for the full faculty experience: In addition to his teaching assignments, he is Assistant Head in Cleve and coaches House football.
Many will remember Thompson as Student Council president during her Fifth Form year. Sustainability initiatives were building momentum then, and she pursued her interest in sustainable communities as a Morehead-Cain Scholar at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she double-majored in public policy and environmental studies. Thompson leveraged her experience as a Ropes Course Instructor with Carolina Adventures during her college years, adding internships in water conservation and sustainability consulting, an apprenticeship in organic farming, and most recently, work as a field organizer on behalf of wildlife preservation and offshore protections. Thompson is currently a Penn Fellow, pursuing a master’s degree in education while teaching science and coaching girls’ junior varsity soccer under the guidance of a Lawrenceville mentor. And she’s back on the Ropes Course as an advisor.
So how did these four very different alumni find their way back to Lawrenceville? The answer was universal. All were inspired by their own Lawrenceville experience, even if they did not anticipate returning to the School or even aspire to a teaching career.
Despite his family legacy, Schorr never planned to be a teacher, but he says his volunteer work with School Camp and the community service program did inspire him to apply for Teach for America, which eventually led him back to Lawrenceville. “I was always trying to bring the Lawrenceville experience to my students, but I was at schools that didn’t have the resources to support those endeavors,” he said. “As soon as I stepped back on campus, I realized what a magical place this is.”
Shah recounts being inspired by legendary history master Chuck Weeden, his Housemaster in Griswold. “When I decided to go back to teaching, I set my sights on coming back to Lawrenceville,” said Shah. “I was very committed to the model here – teaching, coaching, living in a House. I have a great affinity for the school and want to see my students get what I got from it.”
For Chery, it was an alumni event at Brooklyn Brewery that sparked his interest in returning, and the simple question, “Have you ever thought about working at Lawrenceville?” And for Thompson, it was the Penn Fellows Program, which she says was always on her list of post-college possibilities, and a conversation with Assistant Head of School/Dean of Faculty Emilie Kosoff sealed the decision.
Both Thompson and Chery noted that Lawrenceville students have changed very little in the last five years, even with a pandemic in the mix. “The students are just as curious, just as excited, just as nervous about the same things,” said Thompson. “The same little victories and joys make them happy and proud.”
Similarly, both Shah and Schorr cite the intellectual curiosity that transcends the generations. “This is an extraordinary group of students,” said Ash, “eager, engaged, forthright. They are willing to both ask questions and push back on interpretations. They are committed to understanding, or at least trying to.”
Schorr added, “They want to put in the work and drive their education. They want to know how they can leave their own Lawrenceville legacy.”
All four new faculty members agree on the value of their Harkness experience in preparing them for life and their new role.
“(The most valuable skill) would probably be the way I learned to figure out my argument and how to defend it,” said Chery. “I got really good at public speaking and filtering through different perspectives, balancing different ideas, and reforming my opinions based on new information. I found my voice.”
Thompson is finding her ability to invite other people into the conversation particularly useful. “If I wasn’t familiar with Harkness, it would be easy for me as a teacher to simply go with the students who talk,” she said. “My time at Lawrenceville taught me to reach out to the quiet students, and it’s made a difference in my classroom. Everyone needs to feel empowered to speak.”
“When I started teaching,” said Schorr, “the ability to think quickly on my feet and adapt to situations was a great help. You can’t hide at the Harkness table.”
Shah approached the question from a broader perspective. “I think it’s the idea of not being intimidated by questions that do not have answers,” he said. He also sees lasting value in the collegial format of Harkness and the ability to offer and absorb input from others, stating, “I find a great deal of joy in bringing the skill sets I developed outside of teaching into the classroom and getting students to recognize how what they are learning now really does relate to the world beyond our gates.”
The hardest thing about the transition from student to faculty member? Schorr may have said it best: “Not calling my former teachers Mr. or Ms.”
For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.