Skip To Main Content
teacher in yellow sweater in front of greenery

Kathleen McNamara began her journey teaching English at Emma Willard School nearly four decades ago. While technology and teaching techniques may have changed, her desire to inspire a love of the written word in students remains steadfast.

For years, Kathleen McNamara considered her role in the classroom to be presenting students with the material, challenging them to examine it critically, and serving as the “material expert” when questions arose. Students would look to her as the central resource to grow their knowledge and deepen their understanding of the great written works in history.

“The students’ own discovery and exploration has always been at the center of my teaching style,” explains Kathleen. “But then there was this moment when it really hit home for me: we were studying Homer’s Odyssey, and I asked the class if they had any questions. A student raised her hand and explained that, no, she did not have any questions because she had already Googled all the answers ahead of time.

“And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s brilliant… but things have just changed!’ They didn’t need me to be the in-classroom resource on the material; they needed something more.”

Kathleen describes how this experience intensified her focus on student-centric teaching: she doubled her efforts in creating new context and comparisons for students, encouraging them to critically examine an author’s intent or motivations of a protagonist beyond the words on the page. 

“Let’s go back to the Odyssey, for example,” begins Kathleen. “We start by reading the 2017 version by Dr. Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate this pillar of Western literature. Her Odyssey is more stripped down but also closer to the original Greek and gives new context to much of the tale. We read that text simultaneously with the more common but also much longer and flowery English translation most students would be familiar with today. Suddenly, but not surprisingly, our students are asking new questions and arriving at new conclusions based on this comparison!”

Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey may be among the most ubiquitous narrative works studied in the Western world. Generations of English students have critically examined its composition. Its themes of returning home despite trials and tribulation have given a secondary, appellative meaning to the word “odyssey.” What more could one English class truly discover about this epic?

“Then we add another piece to the puzzle by reading Madeline Miller’s novel Circe. The book is written with Circe as the main character and no longer simply a ‘woman along the way.’ Introducing this new point of view completely changes how the students see Odysseus and fosters a vital discussion about how women are portrayed and how power is wielded.”

Kathleen goes on to explain that, while many students say they prefer reading the epic as a poem, the introduction of additional versions causes them to question Odysseus’ character and conduct more critically: Is he truly a hero as assumed?

“Rather than seeing Odysseus as having pathos, the class ends up in a discussion about whether he is responsible for the hardships he experiences along the way,” explains Kathleen. “It’s not my job to tell our students how to think; rather, I want to ensure each class has a new idea to wrestle with or a challenge to their assumptions…and I feel like a better teacher for it.”

Beyond the classroom, Kathleen has helped scores of students explore new outlets for their love of writing as the advisor to The Clock. With a journalistic history that eclipses some of today’s most established media outlets, Emma Willard’s student-run newspaper holds a special place in the hearts of its editors and readers, past and present. However, as with contemporary journalism, Kathleen imagines The Clock will have to be carefully managed to remain relevant in this digital age, all without losing its value to the campus community.

“I talk with the students often about the mission of the paper and what we’ve committed to provide for the community. We assess topics for publishing based on their alignment with our values and readers’ interests, which seems like a lost art, frankly,” asserts Kathleen. “Journalism is in crisis everywhere, readership has tanked, and increasingly people cite social media as their primary—or only—news source. We have a real opportunity at Emma to show students that a newspaper isn’t an artifact, but an antecedent to reading news on Facebook or LinkedIn.”

Kathleen will step down from her role as The Clock advisor after this year, handing off the baton to two other advisors—fellow English instructors Erin Bennett and Shawna Norton—to put their imprint on an important part of the school’s history and tradition. She notes that this collaboration between faculty is a consistent and crucial element that makes up the Emma Willard experience.

Unlike in some educational environments, Emma’s faculty collaborate across all subjects and levels every year. Kathleen credits this pedagogical approach with providing a more compelling curricular experience for students and preventing the inherent stagnation that can come with hyper-specialization. It’s a true win-win, in her opinion.

“Our model helps instructors avoid the pitfall of practicing only their personal expertise because you really can’t be an individual contributor if the learning process is shared. In my opinion, that’s the beauty of Emma Willard: providing a more engaging and holistic experience for students also creates a more collaborative and enriching space for teachers.”

This piece was written for the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Signature Magazine. Photography by Kaitlin Resler.


Find more interesting stories about Emma Willard School on our Newsroom page.