Principia College Educational Studies: An Incubator for Future Leaders
STORY BY ERIC MORSE (US’90)
Something is afoot in Principia’s Educational Studies department. While it offers just one of the College’s majors, it has accounted for one of every six graduates since 2017—four times the national average. And beyond being merely popular, the program is proving to be an incubator for future leaders.
From School Corridors to Halls of Government
One such leader is Marshall McCurties (US’11, C’15), Head of Upper School at the Overlake School in Redmond, Washington. McCurties began his career under the mentorship of another Principia College graduate, Scott Small (US’93, C’97), the current Head of Upper School at Mary Institute-Country Day School (MICDS) in St. Louis. There, McCurties co-created the popular History of St. Louis class, which was recently awarded the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Family Teaching Prize.
Small and McCurties are anything but outliers. The list of impactful pre-K-to-grade-12 educators produced by Principia’s program is long, and includes McCurties’s classmate Kendall Shoemake (C’15), Assistant Head of School at Berkeley Hall School; Amy Holt Cline (US’93, C’97), who leads the Innovation Lab at Annapolis, Maryland’s Key School; Tamara (Sheesley) Balis (US’89, C’93) (profiled in “Inspired With A Desire To Serve”, p. 27), co-founder and director of Greenspring Montessori in Maryland; and Dr. Amy Patzlaff (C’93) and Janet Taylor (C’83), the Head of School and Assistant Head of School at Clairbourn School in Los Angeles.
Today, Ed. Studies graduates in such diverse fields as Alice Stanley (C’10), a writer for movies, television, and podcasts; and Caroline Morales (C’17), an administrator at the Smithsonian Institute; trace their beginnings back to their Principia College Education degrees. “The Education department pushed me further than I thought I could go,” chimes in labor leader Sara Nelson (C’95).
Expanding the Notion
If the program has borne fruit, Principia’s motto, “As the sowing the reaping,” may be a key to its success. It takes outstanding educators to produce stand-out graduates, and the faculty brings a diverse range of backgrounds to sow the seeds of success in their students.
Designed by restless innovators and multifaceted educators, the program provides transferable skills and real world training.
It wasn’t always so, however. The curriculum underwent a substantial shift just over a decade ago, transitioning from a focus on teacher training and credentialing to a broad-based pedagogical approach. Today, the program is based on a two-track model—pedagogy and practice—that sits atop a Gen. Ed. core. Partnering with multiple other departments, the Ed. Studies program emphasizes experiential learning and interdisciplinary study, imparting important transferable skills—such as collaboration, communication, facilitation, and leadership—to students in other majors throughout the College.
As summarized by McCurties, “They are expanding the notion of what it means to be an educator.”
Experiential Education: “A Special Way of Learning”
It fell to two ambitious and unorthodox faculty members to redesign the curriculum from the ground up. They espoused outside-the-box ideas and outside-the-classroom methods.
Dr. Nikki (Nicolet) Gamrath (US’93, C’97) and Dr. Lauren Stewart (US’94, C’98) both came to teaching via unusual routes. The pair of educators exude a down-to-earth manner that eschews ivory-tower intellectualism, and their commitment to experiential education produces uniquely prepared graduates.
In conversation, Gamrath has the laid-back lilt of a person who spent three years sailing the Western Hemisphere. Get her going on the topic of education, however, and her tone shifts, her focus tightens, and out comes the passionate change agent who hasn’t wasted a moment of her time spent on dry land.
She has been a teacher on a Native American reservation, Vice President of Education for Teton Science Schools, Head of School at Berkeley Hall in California, and somehow found time to earn her doctorate in education. But for the Suquamish, Washington native, returning to Principia feels like a homecoming.
“I can honestly say that, given all the experiences I’ve had, I’m back at Principia because that’s where I’ve had the most impact,” Gamrath says.
Stewart shares Gamrath’s experiential ethos. A biology major at Principia College, she points to beloved Upper School biology teacher Ted Munnecke (C’57) as “the most influential person in [her] educational trajectory.” After struggling in conventional classroom settings, an Upper School marine biology trip sparked Stewart’s lifelong love of learning—and laid the groundwork for her highly effective brand of teaching.
“On that trip, my sense of myself as a learner completely changed,” Stewart recalls. “It had to do with the experiential nature of that trip—it flipped from ‘I’m struggling with learning’ to ‘I have a special way of learning.’”
That special way of learning has become a passionate career. With four advanced degrees spanning biology and education, Dr. Stewart is a fierce advocate for experiential learning and producing experiential educators: “What I cherish in both fields is the experiential nature of education—meeting the needs of multiple different types of learners.”
When Dr. Gamrath and Dr. Stewart undertook the challenge of reimagining Principia’s Educational Studies program, “emphasizing the experiential aspect was key.” Stewart elaborates, “Whoever is doing the most work is doing the most learning. For me that means giving students the opportunity to investigate a topic, work collaboratively, and explore things they find authentic and meaningful.”
“I arrived on campus and I could just feel the love. I said, ‘Wow, this is a special place.’”
—Dr. Galen Benson
Outside Perspectives—from Inside the Big House
While Gamrath and Stewart were taking the classroom outside, Dr. Galen Benson (C’89) was teaching on the Inside.
Nine years teaching in the confinement of one of Colorado’s most dangerous prisons is not the kind of captive audience most educators hope for, but Benson describes it as rewarding and resoundingly successful. The State prison GED program became the second highest-producing program in Colorado, with a graduation rate just behind the state’s community colleges.
Benson’s work as an educator and communicator got noticed. He was recruited into an FBI crisis and hostage negotiation training program, alongside SWAT, DEA, and FBI agents. “I was incredibly honored,” Benson says. “It was the most fun training I’ve ever had.”
After teaching in prisons, Principia came as a revelation: “I arrived on campus and I could just feel the love. I said ‘Wow, this is a special place.’”
Benson reflects on his unique preparation: “What I learned from teaching in the prisons and on the crisis negotiation team set me up to be able to teach this program at Principia,” he says. “I’m bringing in outside perspectives; I’ve learned how to build rapport, trust, teamwork, collaboration, and ease tension, and I’m able to teach those ideas to the students—skills that are needed after college in their careers.”
“Liberating Education” with Global Perspectives
If Principia’s program produces graduates with wide, global perspectives, department Chair Stephanie (Rader) Lovseth (C’05) and Dr. Carol Burbee deserve much of the credit.
Wearing multiple hats, Lovseth epitomizes the “T-shaped” professionals—broadly knowledgeable and deeply capable—that the department is known for: In addition to being the Chair of the Educational Studies Department, she is also Director of Principia’s Study Abroad program, approaching both assignments with an energy that is as focused as it is infectious.
A former director of the 100 Elk Outdoor Education program with a masters in comparative and international education, and currently pursuing a PhD in sustainability education, Lovseth embodies the interdisciplinary liberal arts ideal that her department espouses.
“The program is based on the liberal arts model,” she explains. “It’s interdisciplinary—more than half of our Ed. Studies majors have an additional major or minor. That helps them be effortless in graduate school.”
Alongside world traveler Nikki Gamrath and international educator Stephanie Lovseth, Dr. Carol Burbee is a bit of both.
“I worked in education for a long time, but never fit well. I tended to focus on the whole child and struggled with the restraining aspects of traditional school culture,” Burbee explains. Enter Principia College. After years teaching at the British Columbia preschool which she founded and ran, Burbee had a “mid-career shift in thought” that altered her path and led her to Principia.
That path was anything but straight, however. After returning to graduate school to earn her advanced degrees, Burbee left to travel the world with her husband. They’d made it as far as Spain when the phone rang. “I was in an apartment in southern Spain when I did my job interview. I got the offer in Mallorca,” Burbee recalls. “I said to my husband, ‘I guess we’re not returning to Canada like we expected!’”
The educator who chafed within rigid school structures found a home at Principia College. “Principia has been exciting. It’s a total paradigm shift. The students are so bright—really good thinkers.”
Burbee is a passionate practitioner of “liberating education.” “If the ‘whole man’ is in front of me, I can expect excellent work. If you’re valuing the learning and the understanding and letting go of the developmental markers that say you’re behind or ahead, we can all just enjoy learning. That to me is the right source of education.”
“I have the utmost respect and praise for the Educational Studies department at Principia. it has prepared me for my career and benefited me so much.”
The “Multiplier Effect”
Interdisciplinary, globally-minded, future-ready—the program is many things, but one thing it’s not: a cakewalk. Alumni like Kendall Shoemake, also pursuing a doctorate, concur: “I was so well prepared for graduate school, it barely seemed challenging. I was so far ahead!”
Leading a prestigious school while pursuing a doctorate may sound like a lot to handle, but for the multitalented, preeminently prepared products of Principia’s Ed. Studies program, it’s par for the course.
“Principia gave me the skills to navigate my own narrative. Leadership strategies, gathering feedback, intentional reflection of how you show up as a team member and leader—being able to leverage those has been hugely helpful in my career. I have the utmost respect and praise for the Educational Studies department at Principia. It has prepared me for my career and benefited me so much.”
Summarizing the faculty’s approach to educating educators, Nikki Gamrath says, “I call it the multiplier effect—when I feel I’ve impacted an educator to go out and be a healer and transform the world, they are touching more lives in impactful ways.”