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Faculty Q&A with History Teacher Ian Rusten

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

Growing up in the artsy neighborhood of Soho, it is no surprise that Ian Rusten set his sights on a career in the arts. While he enjoyed subjects such as history and English, “I liked drawing even more,” he says. However, after teaching English in Korea after college, he caught the teaching bug and went on to earn an M.A. in Education and an M.A. in History, both at Hunter College.

“It’s funny; teaching as a career just never really occurred to me,” he says.

His students are glad that it finally did.


So, you wanted to be a visual artist?

Yeah. I loved to draw and was pretty good at it. Plus, growing up in Soho, being around all those galleries was an inspiration.

Did you study art in college?

I attended LaGuardia High School, which is for kids interested in becoming artists, actors, writers and singers. I’d planned to attend an art college, but when it came time to apply, I asked myself, “What exactly am I going to do with a fine arts degree when I graduate in four years?” So I majored [at Hunter] in history and the classics and graduated in 1995.

And then?

I wasn’t really sure. So, what does a college graduate in New York City do when he doesn’t know what he wants to do?

He waits tables?

Exactly! Which is what I did for two years. But after a while I took stock and saw I was going nowhere fast. I saw an opportunity to teach English in Korea and took it. After I returned to the United States, I discovered I needed more training to become a New York City teacher, so I pursued an M.A. in Education at Hunter.

Were you still waiting tables to make ends meet?

No, I was a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Still flirting with an art career?

No, I just loved art. Still do. I even incorporate it into my Beekman classes.

How did your first years of teaching go?

They were rough. I was at some pretty tough places—Brandeis and Washington Irving high schools. I learned quickly that a secondary education degree gives you little practical advice on crucial skills like classroom management. I had 34 students per class, five classes per day, in Government, Social Studies, and History.

It sounds like a recipe for burnout.

It was. After ten years, my passion started to fade. Most students weren’t interested in learning and, worse, I was increasingly teaching to standardized tests. But there was a silver lining in all this. I was appointed to run an International Baccalaureate program, which attracted ambitious students. Also, the class-size was smaller. This was an indication to me that I should look towards independent schools, which have both of these qualities. That’s how I ended up at Beekman in 2010.

Unlike you, most students don’t feed off subjects like Government and World History. How do you keep them interested?

Obviously, teaching history responsibly is about teaching facts. You can’t get around it. But beyond that, I try to make the ideas relevant to students.  For example, in a unit on America’s Progressive movement, I’ll talk about things NYC kids can appreciate—building codes. Without those codes, more apartment dwellers would die in fires or building collapses and gas explosions (which we read about this winter).  I also use a good deal of primary sources—photos, letters and other ephemera—because they also exist in a practical realm.

Thank you.

Wait! One more thing! Our students live in a visual culture, so I utilize many PowerPoint presentations, with photography, graphs, portraits, famous documents. I’m kind of a PowerPoint nut, but I find it really successful. Not only does it work as a teaching tool, but the visual elements also draw students out to ask questions and make observations.