Mission-Driven: Andrew Paulsen ’12 Wants Every Child to Have a Transformative Education
February 15, 2019—Andrew Paulsen ’12 has seen firsthand the transformative power of education, and he is on a mission to ensure that every child in the United States has access to high-quality instruction. He comes from a position of expertise, with master’s degrees from Columbia and Seton Hall, a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant, and six years’ experience teaching in the Newark, New Jersey public schools. Paulsen is currently a senior advisor at Agile Mind, Inc., a firm that has pioneered the application of emerging technologies to transform the teaching and learning of mathematics and science in middle and high schools throughout the country. And he recently began his doctorate studies at Vanderbilt University. Paulsen’s goal is unabashedly lofty: to effect educational change on a grand scale.
Becoming a Student Leader
Marist is where Paulsen first honed his leadership skills. Having fallen in love with the campus on his first visit, he thought the College would be an ideal fit because of his interest in broadcast journalism and sports communication. It was only later that he added a mathematics major, psychology minor, and adolescent education certificate to his academic portfolio. Says Paulsen, “Marist equipped me with the leadership skills I needed through practical experience. The experiences I gained as a Resident Assistant and as a club leader helped me develop skills that I have used my entire professional life, including the importance of standing up for the most vulnerable in our community, peer responsibility, resolving conflicts, building personal relationships, and ambiguity tolerance.”
At the end of Paulsen’s junior year, he was elected Student Body President, where his leadership training intensified. As the student representative to the Board of Trustees, he had the chance to observe institutional governance and work alongside President Emeritus Dennis Murray. He also met Trustee Brother Seán Sammon ’70, former worldwide head of the Marist Brothers, at a Board meeting, and he quickly became a mentor. “I am extremely thankful for all of the support and advice Brother Séan has given me over the years, and I am grateful to call him a close friend.” In the fall of 2012, Paulsen got to observe Dr. Murray’s leadership firsthand when Marist was hit by Hurricane Sandy, a storm that impacted the Northeast particularly hard. “I remember that Dr. Murray immediately called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet, and I found it remarkable how he was able to listen to everyone’s concerns and delegate so effectively. My job was to go with him around campus to talk with students and answer their questions. Dr. Murray showed me what crisis communication is, as well as the power of servant leadership.”
A number of events over the course of Paulsen’s junior year at Marist catalyzed his passion for education. During the fall semester, one of his education classes included books and documentaries showcasing the extreme educational inequality throughout the country. Then, during his spring semester, Paulsen was placed at Poughkeepsie High School to complete his field work to be eligible to student teach the following year. He recalls, “It was one thing to read about educational inequality, but another altogether to experience it firsthand. I soon became enthralled with our education system, and I read every book and watched every documentary that I could find that summer to learn more about it. Before my senior year even started, I knew that I wanted to apply for Teach For America to help dismantle the vicious cycles of oppression that have permeated our society for generations.”
Success in Newark
Founded in 1989, Teach For America (TFA) is a nonprofit that recruits outstanding and diverse leaders to teach for two years in a low-income community, where they experience the challenges and joys of expanding opportunities for at-risk kids. Paulsen was placed at East Side High School, the largest comprehensive high school in Newark, and as he remembers it, “Teaching math in the Newark Public Schools for six years was truly the most transformational experience of my entire life. In many ways, I was born to be a teacher. As far back as I can remember, I have loved school and valued education as one of life’s most treasured gifts. In front of a classroom, I feel alive, and I take my role as an educator seriously because I fundamentally believe that I am teaching the future leaders of our world.”
Paulsen witnessed firsthand what high expectations, exemplar pedagogy, and a tremendous amount of caring can accomplish: his students consistently outperformed their peers on the rigorous PARCC standardized exam. In 2016, Paulsen’s students had the highest student passing rate in the entire Newark Public Schools for high school math teachers, and he taught the only three geometry students in the entire district who scored in the ‘exceeded expectations’ range. In 2017, his students had an even higher percentage of students demonstrate college readiness on the Algebra II PARCC exam, and Paulsen was the only math teacher at East Side to have students score in the “exceeded expectations” range. In 2018, his Algebra I class had a 67.9 percent pass rate, beating the state average by more than 20 percentage points. In recognition of his efforts, Paulsen was named East Side High School’s Teacher of the Year, received TFA’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, was a national finalist for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, and was recognized by the Newark Teachers Union. He also found time to serve the community, teaching adjudicated adults incarcerated in correctional facilities through the Petey Green Program and serving as the academic coordinator for Hockey in New Jersey, a nonprofit affiliated with the National Hockey League’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Paulsen obtained two master’s degrees while teaching. His MA in Educational Leadership, Management, and Policy from Seton Hall University and his EdM in Public School Leadership from Columbia University both served to broaden his awareness of the systemic issues plaguing the American education system. Indeed, his graduate work helped Paulsen develop several innovative and effective approaches to teaching mathematics to culturally diverse secondary school students in urban settings. Looking back, he says, “My graduate studies stretched my thinking and introduced me to like-minded peers who share my belief that every student should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
Paulsen was deeply impacted by the students he met in Newark and their incredible resilience. He remembers one student he taught freshman and sophomore year who grew up without a father. Paulsen took him under his wing, got to know his family, and admired how he never gave up. That student was recently accepted to Washington University in St. Louis. Another student who touched his heart was an undocumented immigrant from Brazil. He, too, grew up without a father. During his senior year, his mother was deported, and the student was homeless for a time before the school secured him short-term housing. Says Paulsen, “My former students are truly some of the most inspirational people I know, and they have shown the world that all students can have the opportunity to succeed with robust mentorship and support.” Paulsen’s student from Brazil is now a sophomore at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
Paulsen finds inspiration and a role model in Saint Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Marist Brothers and the patron saint of education. “The Marist Brothers educated the most vulnerable and powerless to provide them with opportunity. Champagnat was a remarkable man, and I try to emulate what I imagine he would do.” It would be fair to say that, for Paulsen, being an educator is no longer a career; it is truly a calling. Paulsen adds, “While I can never truthfully say that teaching is easy, I can say without hesitation that I have loved every second of it. My experiences both inside and outside of the classroom during my six years in Newark confirmed my belief in the untapped potential of all of our students. I believe that we can and must do a better job educating all children if we are serious about moving our world forward.”
After teaching in Newark for several years, Paulsen’s interest in learning about different cultures grew. He took every opportunity he could to travel abroad and quickly realized that his interest was much more than tourism; he truly wanted to experience other countries and get to know their culture and customs. So far, Paulsen has visited dozens of countries around the world. He notes, “In a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. How else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life – what US Senator J. William Fulbright referred to as ‘mutual understanding’ – we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways.”
With this in mind, Paulsen applied for a Fulbright grant in order to contribute to the late Senator’s vision of creating a world with more knowledge and less conflict. During his Fulbright year, he lived in Taiwan and visited schools throughout Asia to conduct research for the U.S. State Department. Paulsen also visited the Marist Brothers in South Korea and the Marist-run LaValla School in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His research sought creative ways to implement best practices derived from eastern pedagogical approaches to traditionally under-resourced educators teaching in urban secondary schools throughout the US. The experience was transformative for Paulsen. “Not a day went by in my year abroad in which I did not work hard to advance the ‘soft power’ of our country. As a cultural ambassador for the United States, I was invited to meet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, had an interview with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, and gave a presentation to US Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce. On a daily basis, I had the opportunity to interact with ordinary people that had never met an American before.” (A video produced by Fulbright Taiwan in which Paulsen discusses his experiences can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZFUeZRloyo.)
Returning to the US, Paulsen began working with Agile Mind, which provides schools across the country with curricular support, educational technology, and professional services. “In this work, I look to empower leaders and teachers throughout the country to revolutionize their thinking about what is possible in their school.” In January alone, Paulsen visited schools in seven states, adding to his broad and deep understanding of K-12 educational issues. Never one to rest on his laurels, he recently began a Doctor of Education program in Leadership and Learning in Organizations at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Says Paulsen, “My hope is that the EdD program will provide me with a learning community that will push my thinking while also providing me with the skills needed to become a transformative school leader. There are so many capable students in every school, but too many never have the opportunity to realize their full potential. And I want to change that.”
Paulsen’s long-term dream is to serve on a leadership team working to end the systematic inequalities that have plagued the nation’s schools for decades. For him, leaders have a responsibility “to give a voice to those who don’t have one.” Sammon, his longtime mentor, has full confidence that Paulsen will indeed change the world: “Andrew has taken to heart Marcellin Champagnat’s belief that ‘to teach young people you must love them first, and love them all equally.’ He not only has a gift for teaching but also a passion for this vocation and a desire to see his students reach their potential. In particular, he looks out for kids who might feel marginalized or are dealing with difficult personal or family issues. My hope is that he continues to work to change our world, one student at a time.”