This jobtalk is with my former co-worker, Suzanne Cunningham. Suzanne’s an example of someone who is intelligent and hardworking and had no idea what she wanted to do after she graduated from college. Sound like you?
Allowing herself to experiment with different jobs and classes after college, Suzanne turned her love of gardening into a career teaching gardening at the Waldorf School.
I love this interview because it’s an affirmation to the notion that it’s okay to take time to find yourself – your career. It’s also an affirmation to the maxim, “Do what you love.”
Title: Gardening Teacher
Education: B.A. International Government, Smith College, 2007
I know that at one point in your life you thought you would follow in your father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. How is that you wound up becoming a gardening teacher?
People ask me that all of the time. I was interested in government and became interested in religion at similar times. For me, it feels like government and religion are inseparable even though we separate them.
In college, I got really burned out. I was ready to be done. I took a couple of years off here and there during college. It was a real struggle to finish. By the time I got out, I didn’t want anything to do with school again.
I just wanted to build a community. I had moved 28 times in 27 years. I finally came back to Princeton and felt like I had a community for the first time. A lot of my friends were farmers, and our community time was spent cooking, cleaning, and eating together.
I realized what I liked were systems that brought people together. That’s what I liked about government and religion because it brings people together. But what I didn’t like was all the all the fighting that happens in religions.
Everyone has to eat. Not everyone eats, but everyone has to eat. And cooking can bring people together from many different backgrounds.
So how did your discovery about things you like such as cooking and farming lead you to a career?
Well, I haven’t really thought about my career.
But you have a career. You’re a teacher. What were the steps it took to get you where you are now? Not just anyone can show up to the Waldorf School and say, “Hi, I really like gardening and I want to teach it, will you hire me?”
After I graduated from Smith, I slept for three months. Then I found my way to working in the kitchen at Small World, which I loved because of the fast-paced environment. But at the same time, I was pretty down on myself for not being further along with a career.
In that time of not feeling adequate, I decided that I needed to be taking classes so I could feel better about myself. I’m a lot like my older brother, who always is taking a class in one thing or another. I wanted to get more involved in farming and gardening because I had had a gardening plot for three years in a row near where I lived.
I saw a master gardening course in Mercer County with Barbara Bromley, who is amazing. So, I took the course, and I loved it. It was for everyone from a home gardener to golf course turf manager. It wasn’t just about creating gardens, it was also land management. And it blew my mind, so I started looking for things to do in that field. I did some landscaping work with a company and other odd gardening jobs.
I moved to Philadelphia on a whim, and got a restaurant job that I hated. Then I quit my job, sublet my apartment and started wwoolfing on a farm. Around that time the Waldorf School was hiring for a gardening teacher, and I applied for the job.
Did the Waldorf School hire you after one interview?
No, the interview process had a few different rounds which included being interviewed by teachers. I actually didn’t get the position that I wanted. I got the assistant position. I was really bummed that I didn’t get the position that I wanted right away, but I realized that I did get the position that was right for me at the time. It is hard when you get that dose of humility.
I worked as the assistant for the retiring gardening teacher and worked as the assistant for the oncoming gardening teacher. The new teacher eventually quit, and I became his replacement.
What are your responsibilities as the gardening teacher?
I teach grades three, five, six, seven, and eight, and have to design curriculum for those grades. In the spring I also teach kindergarteners.
That sounds tough leading kindergarteners in the garden.
It is. But I’m so grateful for my time as an assistant because I learned how to handle little kids during that time. You just have to make it as structured as possible.
I also have to make the gardening class tie in with the students’ main curriculum as much as possible. So, if they are studying ancient civilizations, like they do in the fifth grade, I find a way to parallel the gardening curriculum with ancient civilizations.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done so far?
The sixth grade studies laws in ancient Rome. Last year they were really tough for me because sixth graders can be pretty argumentative – in my experience. I made gardening about laws to tie in with what they were learning in ancient Rome. I had them map the garden for crop rotation in the fall.
They make all these maps, and they make all a lot of rules. Then in the spring, they decide where everything goes.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a teacher?
Classroom management. The curriculum is fun and easy. The physical work during the summer is hard, but it’s not mentally challenging. But the classroom management is hard because you have 15 to 20 kids in an acre garden working with very sharp objects. I have lots of conversations that start off like, “Why do you think it’s a bad idea to raise a pitchfork in the air?”
What’s been your biggest mistake as a teacher?
I dropped the f-word in front of my students. I curse a lot because that’s the way people talk in kitchens, and I’m so used to that.
There was an eighth grader who jumped out of the bushes to scare me. And I said, “What the f*@#!”
How did she react?
She was just startled. But I turned around and there was an entire kindergarten class right behind me. So I had to gather up all the eighth graders and tell them what I said and apologize. Then I had to go to the teachers of the kindergarten class and apologize. Though the teachers told me they didn’t even know that it happened. It was really embarrassing.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Saheaag Paneer, an Indian dish with spinach and cheese.
It sounds like you are really enjoying your work? What are your thoughts for the future?
I don’t have any interest in going back to school right now. That might change; I’m not closed to it. I want to be at this garden for a while. I kind of have a five-year vision. But honestly, not planning has worked out pretty well for me.