An Unconventional Route to Teaching: Ken Cote

Story by Abby Wang, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Kenneth Cote was not “one of those people who know when they’re five years old that they want to teach,” as he put it.

Instead, his desire to teach grew in increments—and sometimes in bounds—from his high school years. “My first inkling [that I might want to teach] came with a friend in high school, Clay Nowell. He was an avid writer… and I had some of that in me… it was a mix of envy that admiration,” Cote said, that inspired him to attempt to emulate Clay.

He enrolled in the University of Connecticut as an intended psychology major. Then his freshman year changed his life. An English professor named Stephen Jones—“a wizard in the classroom,” described Cote—with a captivating personality and extensive knowledge in the field became a mentor figure to him. “I wrote a paper for him; he said it was one of the best in twenty years [that he’d seen].” Cote paused. “That was the first inkling I had something worth developing.”

Another professor at UConn, Sam Pickering, was Cote’s “most ruthless writing coach.” (Pickering, played by Robin Williams, was the inspiration for the critically-acclaimed film Dead Poets Society, which explores how the lives of high school students at a preparatory school change after having an unprecedentedly unorthodox English teacher.) Both professors played instrumental roles in Cote’s eventual desire to teach.

“I knew I wanted to do something with English,” Cote said. “I considered academia… but the more I thought of it, the less I liked the idea of competing with colleagues for publication and acclaim. I feared stagnation in an office.”

After graduating with a Bachelor’s in English, he happened upon a NYT article about the Alternate Route to Certification program in Connecticut. At this point, he had a vague idea that he wanted to teach—specifically, at a high school level. To Cote, high school students represented the perfect balance of idealism and intellectualism; in other words, there was a unique sense of “promise and hope” in the classroom, he described.

Cote began substitute-teaching in Groton for a year; he applied for the Alternate Route to Teacher Certification program in the summer of 1991 and has “been at SHS ever since,” he chuckled. The ARC program allowed him to teach with temporary teaching certificates while he returned to school for a Master’s degree. “I didn’t get my Master’s in Education…I went to Wesleyan, their Graduate Liberal Studies program, and got a Master’s in Liberal Studies with a concentration in literature,” he explained.

The realization that teaching was the right fit for him came gradually. In fact, in his twenty-six years of teaching, he developed more than a handful of realizations about teaching and what it meant to him.

Cote expressed honestly, “I appreciate the opportunity to teach literature to an age group [high school] that had developed intellect and retained purity of heart.”

“The older I got, the more I wanted to give students what I had as a kid,” Cote said, pausing. “The world is enchanting. I don’t mean to sound presumptuous… but I want to carve out 78 minutes in each day and give students a sense of that.”

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An Unconventional Route to Teaching: Ken Cote