Virtual Walk in the Arbo: Mr. Holbrook and Ms. Phelan

Ali Dorrego

The Frelinghuysen Arboretum that lies adjacent to the MBS campus is much more than a scenic addition to the School’s campus.  Many MBS faculty take walks in the arboretum during lunch and free periods, taking in its natural beauty and relaxing atmosphere before returning to their regular duties.  Crimson Sun correspondents will be continuing their “Walks in the Arbo” series with virtual “walks” during this period of distance learning to explore lesser-known aspects of some MBS faculty members.

For this virtual walk, I had the chance to interview Ms. Phelan and Mr. Holbrook. Ms. Phelen, a seventh and eighth grade English teacher, has been teaching at Morristown-Beard for two years. Mr. Holbrook has been part of the staff for the past three years and teaches ninth grade Humanities English along with this year’s Debate and Civil War elective classes. As you read our discussion, you will begin to answer the question: Who are Mr. Holbrook and Ms. Phelan?

On the most valuable part of teaching teenage students… 

Phelan: “I think giving students the opportunity to learn about life and different people’s perspectives through literature. And, giving them the opportunity to talk through their own perspectives is really what I love about teaching literature.”

Holbrook: “This may be a different way of saying the same thing, but one of the things that I love is that it’s different everyday and every year. I can read the same story with each class period. What I love is that people bring new ideas to the same story. So it’s never the same twice. I could do the same exact curriculum two years in a row. I don’t.  But it would be totally different because there are different people in the room with different things to say.”  

On their previous endeavors…

Phelan: “I was in China before Mr. Holbrook, so my contract ended before his did. So, for that year in between I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was volunteering for the year, living with college-aged women helping them learn English, and develop professional skills. When we came back, I worked for one year at The Winston School, another private school in the area. The next year there was an opening in the Middle School, so that’s when I came here.” 

Holbrook: “It’s an interesting story because the two of us met in China. We were both teaching  at the same school in Beijing. The year that we met we worked together, and the following year I stayed at that school and Ms. Phelan went on to a different opportunity. Believe it or not, I went directly from China to MBS. So, when I interviewed for the job I actually flew from Beijing from New York one weekend, and then I flew back the next weekend.”

On their favorite hobbies and outdoor activities… 

Phelan: “We both run. I would say that this period of time, while we’re doing distance learning, one of the nicest parts of it is that we’ve been able to run more. So, we’re able to go out for runs every other day. I also love to garden. So, right now, on our balcony I’ve planted a lot of different greens, and herbs.”

Holbrook: “For me, I would say that I love listening to music, and I love cooking and baking. So, that’s been another way I have been taking advantage of being home because there is plenty of time for the bread to rise. I also really love hiking. We’ve been on some hikes together, and I just love being outside.”

On the differences between teaching middle school students and freshmen… 

Phelan: “I think it’s so fun to teach middle school. I think that they are growing and changing so rapidly. I’m not necessarily sure that it’s different for freshmen, but they’re just younger, so they are coming into sixth or seventh grade, and they’re really still learning how to think. Their brains are developing and they are really unguarded. They are willing to ask all kinds of questions and are not self-conscious about the kinds of questions they ask. As students progress through middle school, that begins to change a little bit. Middle schoolers are very genuine in the things that they like and don’t like. They are a lot of fun to teach, but so are freshmen. I have taught freshmen and I really love ninth graders too.”

Holbrook: “I agree, and I think that that is a big part with ninth grade too. Like, how do we work together with everybody in the room, so that everybody can bring the best out of each other. That doesn’t necessarily always happen, but you can keep trying. I do like that in ninth grade I still feel like everybody is willing to give everything a chance. I think that is really important because you really never know. Because things are changing so fast, and everybody is developing so quickly, I think it is really nice when everybody gives everything a chance. You just never know what you’re going to find, or what is going to work for you. Sometimes older students get set in their ways. They feel like they know what works for them, and that may be true somewhat, but things are pretty open ended.”        

On their favorite teaching moments…

Phelan: “I would say, in general, my favorite teaching moment is when I’m very quiet and students have taken over. Not in a disruptive or disorganized way, but where my presence is really just as one person among them. One student alongside them, where the energy in the room and the discussion taking place is really driven by them.”

Holbrook: “I think we’re really in sync on that. I really like being able to step back, sit on the side, and listen. I also really like moments where we feel like we’re working together and having fun with each other. Way back, one of the first years I ever taught, I was teaching at an all-boys school. They were testing me out because I was really young. They had filled their pockets with these big nuts, and everytime I turned my back to write on the whiteboard, they would throw the nuts. Not at me, but whenever I would turn back around, the floor was covered in nuts. I thought that was so cool because they were having so much fun, and they gave me an opportunity to have fun with them. I could play with them in return, and play tricks on them. That to me is like the best.”

On something the MBS community doesn’t know about them… 

Phelan: “That’s hard. This is something that no one at MBS, besides Mr. Holbrook knows about me. I am obsessed with old pickup trucks and I am always on the lookout for the one: an old Ford with just a front bench seat, no backseat.”

Holbrook: “I’m totally stumped. One thing that’s really unusual about me is probably that I’ve never driven a car in my entire life. It started for me back when I was in high school as an independence thing, not doing what everybody else was doing, then it kind of got the environmental thing going behind it, with walking instead of driving.”

On how they incorporate their personalities into their teaching styles… 

Phelan: “When I first started teaching, this was a long time ago, I thought about myself as two distinct people. Like, Ms. Phelan and Sharon, and as I have gotten to be a better, more natural teacher, those two things have come together. I think who I am as a teacher is me, and I think that my personality is all of who I am as a teacher. I would say that is what allows me to build trusting relationships with students because they sense that there is a genuineness in my teaching.”

Holbrook: “For me I would say two quick things. On one hand, I really like asking fun, silly questions at the beginning of class, like what brand of toothpaste do you use, because I think it is really important that we are all having fun together. I really enjoy that little bit of chaos and craziness. The other part of my personality is I also really like quiet time. So when we do our observations, we sit in silence and everybody is in their own mind. My personality is I need a little bit of each, so I bring both of those and hopefully they fit together in some way.”