Throughout her decades-long career at Teacher’s College as the Director of the Klingenstein Center, Pearl Rock Kane worked steadily and creatively to train independent school teachers for leadership. In doing so, she created a community of connected and committed educators hard at work in schools across the country and around the globe today. That far-reaching and impressive community of educators, along with many others, are now in mourning.
As an alum of the Pearl-led Leadership Academy program spanning two summers at Columbia in 2013 and 2014, I felt, like so many others, that Pearl was my teacher. I felt her imprint at the deepest level. Pearl was not one to overshare or gush effusively (or at all). In her clear and concise written feedback, however, Pearl elicited excitement, deep introspection, and a renewed thirst for learning. She could be funny, using humor and telling punchy stories to lighten the mood in an otherwise pretty serious environment. Whether using humor, giving feedback, or explaining the arc of a summer course, though, Pearl was always incredibly directed and focused. She was one of the sharpest and most effective people I’ve ever encountered.
Pearl invited us into her home for dinner one time, which was exciting. We felt like our own students do when they see us in the grocery store – Did you know that Ms. Flaxman eats pretzels with – her – ice cream?? – full of foolish wonder at the humanness of our teacher. As she often did, Pearl stood calmly in a central location of her apartment while the rest of us flitted about. Before we knew it, the night was over and we were heading out the door into the Upper East Side, the deeper, longer conversation we sought with Pearl as elusive as ever. Pearl was in no way secretive – she told us plenty of stories about her husband, children and grandchildren. But those stories always had an element of universality to them and upon reflection, we would have to accept that we would never know as much as we wanted to about the sui generis PRK.
Spending two intense summers in classrooms and conversations with Pearl, I found myself studying her as much as the material assigned. Pearl wore tennis sneakers to work because, well, she was thoroughly New York and New Yorkers are walkers. More importantly, what I witnessed and experienced was a master teacher: someone always presenting her students with the right amount of new information, listening and responding to us in the appropriate cadence, always and ultimately challenging us to dig a little deeper in ourselves and with each other to learn something more.
At the time, I thought we were learning about leadership. But now I know that we were learning about ourselves so that we could lead. Pearl’s greatest gift to us was not knowledge of her world and life, but of our own. A great teacher gives each of her students the gift of self-understanding.
For those who did or will not have the good fortune of her teaching, these PRK tenets are an inadequate primer.
- Come to class ready to lead, moderate, and listen.
- Revise your curriculum regularly to reflect new ideas and research.
- Give people challenging, interesting work to do.
- Dress for comfort as well as style.
- Socialize with students appropriately; maintain good boundaries.
- Give meaningful, timely and individualized feedback.
- Tell great stories, but protect people’s reputations.
- Say what you mean.
- Say less.
- Do more.
The loss of a great and beloved teacher is a sincere and heartfelt loss.