A Lawyer Who Teaches Fifth Grade

Kristen Spooner took an unorthodox road to Haldane

By Alison Rooney

Most teachers start on the track early, earning degrees in education. But a few come to the profession from another. At Haldane High, chemistry teacher Michele Valenti came from IBM, where she was a chemist, and math teacher Christian Hoolan worked as an engineer.

They’re joined this year in the district by Kristen Spooner, who teachers fifth grade but began her career as an attorney before being hired as a high school math teacher in the South Bronx. She ended up in Cold Spring in part because she married a Haldane grad; she says she and her husband, Ben Spooner (Class of 1998), who have two preschool sons, are happy to be here.

After graduating from Iona College at 20, Spooner says she wanted to become a police officer but was too young to take the test. So she went to law school at night. “I graduated, passed the bar exam and started working as a lawyer, but I found it grueling and not fulfilling,” she says. Spooner began working as a substitute teacher at Peekskill High School and also found that work challenging but loved the interaction with the students.

This occasional series will follow Kristen Spooner during her first year teaching at Haldane Elementary.

That experience inspired her to apply to the New York Teaching Fellows program, which is designed for professionals who have no prior teaching experience. Those selected receive training and pursue a partially subsidized master’s degree while teaching at a New York City public school.

Spooner says she loved the program but didn’t feel she received enough training before being placed in a ninth-grade classroom in the South Bronx. “It was very much learning as you go,” she says. She persevered and wound up staying at the school for eight years, teaching seventh, ninth and tenth grades and coaching the girls’ basketball team. She also returned to school for certification to work with students with disabilities.

Kristen Spooner (Photo by A. Rooney)

Kristen Spooner (Photo by A. Rooney)

After moving to the Hudson Valley in 2011, the commute to the South Bronx, combined with new parenthood, began to wear her down. “Without these pressures, I probably would have stayed,” she says. While home on maternity leave for her second son, Thomas, now 1 (his older brother Ryan is 4), she spotted a job listing for an opening at Haldane.

She’s happy now to have made the move to Cold Spring, which she visited for the first time while on a date with her husband, who was a senior at Haldane. (He took her to Henry’s, now Whistling Willie’s.) “I’m absolutely thrilled to be in this amazing little community,” she says, adding she “never pictured back then that we’d wind up living here.”

In her first few weeks on the job at Haldane Elementary, Spooner experienced both the benefits (“They are so excited to learn; the level of engagement is high; they want to be a part of everything”) and the hurdles (“It takes a them a little longer to complete a task, because they’re 10”) of teaching at the elementary level. She’s adjusting, too. “I’m learning to be a better hand-holder, especially emotionally, because they get upset more easily,” she says. “With high school kids, if they don’t want to do something, you can’t talk them into it. This group is very willing.”

Her classroom is outfitted with both a Smartboard and laptop computers, which Spooner said was similar to the setup at her South Bronx school. The desks are bunched together to encourage collaborative learning. “I had a lot of success setting things up this way at my previous school,” she says. “There were a lot of kids with different skills. I learned if I got them to work together there could be five ‘teachers’ in the room.”

Although she’s a fan of using technology in the classroom, especially for math, a visit to her class found her students engaged with pencils, solving problems on paper most of the time.

At Haldane, Spooner has found deeper parental involvement. “I’m used to the other way: lack of it,” she says, although parents of elementary-school students are more involved in general. Spooner says she was surprised and touched when asked to make a wish list for a school book sale so that parents could make purchases for her. “It blew me away,” she says. “Getting books from parents made me feel so welcome, part of a community.”

In her first days at Haldane, Spooner admits she felt “a little bit like a first-year teacher. It was a lot of little, silly, things, being new to the building, not knowing where to line up the kids in the hallways, not knowing I had to pick them up from the gym, putting them in the wrong spot for a fire drill. It was a little overwhelming. But I’m learning.”

Kristen Spooner with her fifth-grade class at Haldane (Photo by A. Rooney)

Kristen Spooner with her fifth-grade class at Haldane (Photo by A. Rooney)

Spooner says that by the middle of the year she hopes and expects her students will be more autonomous, allowing them to work more at their own pace. Spooner also hopes to expose them to more diversity than they typically experience at Haldane. “When I mentioned that I had taught in the South Bronx, it felt like the other end of the earth,” she says. “At the very least I’d like to start a pen-pal program with the sixth-graders at my former school. It’s important for both sets of kids, but maybe those at Haldane in particular.”

Working under the dictates of the Common Core is now part and parcel of teaching. “We have to follow it, but the way we present it is up to us,” Spooner says. “Using some of the scripted lessons would be difficult. Students this age need to move around. Today we did [rotational] stations; other days are more traditional, but each is targeting a standard in the Common Core.”

Spooner says she finds it helpful to have taught older grades, in terms of knowing what to focus on. “You know what’s coming, which is handy. I’ve seen the weaknesses in high school of the things they should have learned in earlier grades. There are particular things students have always struggled with, and now I’m able to focus on these.”

All in all, Spooner says she is satisfied with her professional choices. “Some people look at me funny,” she says. “I left being a lawyer to be a teacher in the South Bronx. But, outside of student loans, this was the right thing to do. I love being a teacher. I love all the things that come with being in a school: the sports, the plays, all that stuff. I’m very happy to be here, doing what I’m doing.”

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