Gwynneth Coogan

Year of Graduation: 
Photo of Gwyn Coogan and student

"Teaching at a college seemed hollow compared to what I saw at Exeter."

Some faculty members spend their summers catching up on those projects that inevitably get pushed aside during the hectic 24/7 school year. Gwynneth Coogan, along with several of her colleagues, dedicates much of her summer to helping other math teachers hone their craft.

As director of the Exeter Math Institute, Coogan oversees a program begun nearly 25 years ago by her peer, Math Instructor Eric Bergofsky, to help improve math education in inner-city public schools. “That is still the basic mission,” Coogan says. ““There are a lot of ways you might [do this.] Our avenue is giving them what we consider to be really engaging and worthwhile professional development for them as math teachers and mathematicians.”

It’s a cooperative effort, she adds: “They learn from each other and help each other learn. This to me presents a model of collaboration that makes our lives at Exeter so fulfilling and rich, and that we hope to model and encourage other groups of math teachers to do.”

The Math Institute in some ways really might be better called the Math Institutes. Each four-day learning experience takes place on-site at schools around the country. Last summer, for instance, about a dozen of Exeter’s math faculty traveled to public school systems in Chicago, Illinois; Kansas City, Missouri; Jackson, Mississippi; and Cincinnati, Ohio. Coogan visits many of the cities to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Administrators in each of the school systems are responsible for building teams of interested math teachers in their local districts. Funding for the program, Coogan says, is largely from local Exeter alumni. “We find people interested in … helping the school district in their area and sharing what we have at Exeter with other people,” she says.

While traveling for about six weeks each summer for the institute might sound exhausting, Coogan says she finds the work inspiring and invigorating. “I get so much out of it. I learn so much about my own craft by working with teachers,” she says. “We have so much opportunity for professional development ourselves at Exeter. I want to share that with other teachers. I believe if we can help make their lives better, they will be better teachers for a longer period of time. I feel compelled to share the blessings I have here with other teachers.”

Coogan just finished her 14th year teaching at Exeter, but it’s not her first stint at the Academy. She graduated in 1983 after spending two years as a boarding student. She later returned after finishing her doctorate. “I hadn’t ever considered coming back,” she says, “but when I visited and saw what a vibrant Math Department it was and what great community it seemed to be, I couldn’t match that with any other school. Teaching at a college seemed hollow compared to what I saw at Exeter.

“High school kids are at a unique place in their lives,” she adds of choosing to teach at a secondary school. “They take a range of subjects, learn all different things. They’re interested from an intellectual point of view. They’re not locked in, not thinking economically about what they’re learning, what economic goals it may satisfy for them. That’s an amazing place to be.”

—Janet Reynolds