At any school district a new school year ushers in some new personnel and new classroom assignments. In Scarsdale, teachers Sheilah Chason and James McLoughlin are swapping places in a way, with Chason joining Scarsdale High School’s STEAM team and McLoughlin moving to teach math at the SHS Alternative School.
For the last nine years, Sheilah Chason served as the math teacher at the A-School. This year, she’s teaching three math classes and two STEAM classes in the high school.
When she first heard about the position at the A-School, Chason, 55, said she hesitated, but a friend who had told her about the job said it was a different type of alternative school — a democratically run school focused on moral development and the kids are self-selecting through an application process and lottery, with more than 100 students applying for a chance to fill one of 26 spots as 10th graders in the popular program each year.
“You get to know your students far better than a typical math teacher would be afforded to in a typical high school setting,” Chason said. “I loved the ability to foster those relationships with kids because of the structure we had in the A-School.”
Chason said there’s a good cross section of the school district’s population, with students from all backgrounds and interests.
“You have kids who are theater kids, you have kids who are athletes, kids who are debaters, kids who aren’t involved at all at school, kids who are socially sophisticated and kids who are out on the wings,” Chason said. “But it doesn’t matter because they all come together in this little community and become friends.”
As Chason prepares to look toward her future in her new setting, she said she’ll miss some things from the A-School but is confident her schedule will still allow her to foster relationships with students.
“I think in STEAM, there’s much more interaction with the kids,” she said. “They come in during their [free] periods to do work. They’re choosing to be there.”
She said the STEAM program is set up in a similar manner to the way Chason taught the last nine years, with peer coaching and co-teaching. And, some student leaders emerge in the classroom, she said, fostering skills they might not get in a typical classroom.
This will be Chason’s first time teaching a course more than one time because she typically taught individual courses. She will have three sections of one course, and Chason is looking forward to presenting material more than once. In the STEAM curriculum, Chason will be teaching an introductory class, Design and Fabrication, where the kids will be learning how to design something to meet someone else’s needs. That will involve taking risks, throwing out ideas, presenting them and making any necessary changes while learning how to accept feedback.
Students will be working with an online program to produce 3D designs and do some 3D printing.
The other STEAM course Chason will be teaching is Design and Build, learning how to design for others, while incorporating woodworking. Chason said part of the curriculum is to create a kitchen utensil and learn how to use woodworking tools.
Over the years, the STEAM program attracted many interested students.
“I think it’s one of those things where you build it and they will come,” she said. “It’s hard to know what you need until you see it.”
Now that the school year has officially begun, Chason had some words of encouragement for both the mainstream high school students and the A-School students.
“Be open, build communities, take a chance, embrace the opportunities in front of you and get to know your teachers,” she said.
James McLoughlin, 27, joined the Scarsdale School District last year as a math teacher. Now, he’s moving into Scarsdale’s A-School, replacing Sheila Chason who’s leaving to teach STEAM and math at the high school.
Before getting a job in Scarsdale, McLoughlin worked as a teacher in Madrid, Spain for nearly two years, teaching math and physics.
After graduating with a degree in math and economics, McLoughlin had several conversations with a friend, which led him to realize he wanted to pursue a career in teaching.
He applied for a program at Plattsburgh University to earn a master’s degree in teaching, which he completed in 2014.
“I did that, learned how to speak Spanish and had a great experience there [Madrid],” he said. “Then, I came back stateside.”
McLoughlin wanted to have the experience of working at a school abroad before settling into a school district in the U.S.
While in Spain, McLoughlin said he got to teach incredibly bright and talented students. He taught the highest level math, so he got to experience teaching difficult math and explaining it to students.
When McLoughlin moved back to the United States, he started working in Harrison High School and moved on to John Jay High School.
“I think that’s where I got quite a bit of experience with teaching different types of students,” he said.
He said his passion for teaching stemmed from his older brother, who helped him with math.
“He had a way of explaining things that made complex ideas seem very simple,” McLoughlin explained. “I think I kind of picked that up from him. I began to enjoy explaining difficult things to other people… I’ve always loved the challenge of explaining and breaking down complex ideas and explaining it to people. I think I’m inclined to teach.”
Math, in particular, was a specific passion for McLoughlin. “I love the feeling of being able to go into a class and do something different,” he said. “Whether it’s the way I teach or structure the lesson differently, or just bringing in natural enthusiasm, I love going in and getting students energized.”
McLoughlin said he wakes up and thinks about the positivity he can get going in the classroom and hopes his positive energy can inspire students.
“The moment a student gets a concept that’s difficult or you see they’re really interested and excited — that’s a huge reward,” McLoughlin said.
As he moves into the school year, he said he wants to make his classes more inquiry-based and allow for lower stakes and “joyful exploration” of math.
“Students who like doing math are much more likely to be successful, so one of my goals is to craft experiences in the classroom that allow students to see how math can be engaging,” he said.
He continued and said he wants to provide students opportunities to discuss math to deepen their understanding and practice mathematical reasoning in real time.
Though he has a background in a few different school districts — and another country — McLoughlin said what makes Scarsdale stand out from other school districts is that everyone seems to be striving for excellence, both teachers and students alike.
“There’s a collective feeling that people want to do great things and special things for the world, whatever it is, after they graduate,” he said. “Everyone here is trying to do the best they can do.”