From Some Job Stability to a Modus Vivendi

Marsha Pincus will state without hesitation that she sought a job as a teacher 30 years ago because it ensured job stability and had a top-notch pension plan. But a career that arose from some cautious advice her single mother once offered her – find a dependable job – has since turned into a vocation and what Pincus calls a "way of life."

The English and drama teacher at Masterman High School was honored in May with the Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre Teacher of the Year Award, presented annually to a Philadelphia public-school educator for commendable work in the district.

"It was daunting for me to win an award that [bears] her name," said Pincus, referring to the longtime Philadelphia educator and first black district superintendent in the city. "That was a big part of what the award meant to me – besides being nominated by my principal and home and school association, and selected by a committee of other Philadelphia educators."

A graduate of Philly public schools herself, the 52-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident went to Pennsylvania State University as an undergraduate; earned a master's degree from Temple University; and is still working toward a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.

And it was there that she first read the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and philosopher. "[He said that] education is more like mining than banking. Students are not a vault where you put valuable knowledge, but more like a mine, where the value is in the student.

"I was intrigued by the idea that the teacher's job is to mine the knowledge. But at the time, I didn't know how to do that."

It was only after a serendipitous encounter with the Philadelphia Young Playwrights – a group that pairs professional writers with classroom teachers to help students write, direct and perform their own plays – that she found a way to put Freire's theory into action.

For 23 years, Pincus taught at Simon Gratz High School, where she helped found a rigorous academic interdisciplinary program for 300 high school students. And now, she's spent seven years at Masterman, recently ranked the No. 1 public high school in the area by Philadelphia magazine.

Still, it took time to realize that by having her students write plays, she could extract talent these young people never knew existed.

Over the years, these plays have been submitted to national and local competitions, and three of her students have had their works produced off-Broadway.

In fact, Pincus – married and the mother of two grown children – is so dedicated to the classroom that even after spending 10 years working toward her doctorate, the final step – a year off to write her dissertation – may never occur.

"Continuing to do work in the classroom is more engaging and stimulating than writing a dissertation. Having a title would enable me to be a professor, but the place where my heart is, is in the high school classroom."

And while the work of Freire gave her a deeper understanding of that classroom, Pincus noted that the work of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber has influenced her to approach each class and each person with loving-kindness, and to create an ethical, compassionate environment that will inspire the students to create such a community in their own lives.

A member of Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pincus also said the idea of tikkun olam gives her work additional purpose.

"My underlying philosophy and driving force is that issues of social injustice and inequities need to be addressed. I don't teach to get a kid into college; I teach to make the world a better place."



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