Anna Leader, Pennington Teacher and Author: “Teaching Makes Me a Better Writer, and Writing Makes Me a Better Teacher”
By Donald Gilpin
A live, masked, physically distanced audience was in attendance as the lights dimmed at the Grand Theatre de Luxembourg on the evening of October 2 for the debut performance of Deliver Us, a play about the coronavirus specially commissioned by Luxembourg’s national theater.
The 24-year-old playwright, Anna Leader, was not present, however. She was in her dormitory apartment at The Pennington School in the midst of her first full semester of teaching English and French, and overseeing the young women boarders.
Born in the United States and raised in Luxembourg, Leader has been a writer since childhood, author of a number of award-winning poems, plays, and novels, and an aspiring teacher since her high school years.
Settling at Pennington this fall was Leader’s third move to New Jersey. She came to Princeton University from Luxembourg in 2014 and graduated in 2018. She then worked for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., for a year before returning to Princeton to earn her New Jersey teacher certification through the University’s Teacher Preparation Program in January 2020, after which she went back to her job in D.C. She returned again to New Jersey in August this year to begin her teaching career at Pennington.
Leader realizes that her life in Luxembourg and the United States, and in the worlds of teaching and writing, offers many options as she contemplates her future.
She talked about her life as a teacher and a writer. “Teaching makes me a better writer, and writing makes me a better teacher,” she said. “Teaching brings a sense of fulfillment. Watching others light up when they read something that’s new to them or when they get a concept that they haven’t gotten before. Then writing allows me to synthesize everything I’ve experienced and reflect on it and nurture myself intra-personally.”
She continued, “Being able to spend time laboring over my words and dissecting every theme makes me a better teacher of literature because I can encourage students to think about the writer making choices, and I can encourage the students to think about their choices and do their own creative writing.”
Leader, who supervises the Pennington student literary magazine, added, “Promoting literature and creative writing is a passion of mine.”
Despite her love of writing and her impressive literary accomplishments, a full-time writing career is not one of Leader’s goals. “I don’t have the stomach for it,” she said. “I don’t like the instability, and, second of all, I think it’s so important to keep getting input. If you’re just sitting at a computer looking at a screen — I can only do that for a couple of hours in a row. You start turning into this infinite loop. Whereas if I’m with the kids reading books, hearing their ideas on books, they come up with stuff I’ve never thought of before. Plus, you get to know more people and you have that emotional fullness to your life. I don’t think that’s replaceable. That’s a balance that I think will suit me well, hopefully forever.”
Leader, whose father is a high school English teacher and mother is a fifth grade teacher, started writing at a young age. She had her first poem published in a children’s magazine when she was 5, “and that really lit a fire under me,” she said. She went on to write three novels when she was a high school student at an international school in Luxembourg.
Leader described the inspiration from her father. “He is also a writer, who has been writing since he was quite young,” she said. “He writes poetry, novels, and plays as well. We love reading poetry together. That’s what got me inspired to write poetry.”
It was also primarily her father who helped to spark her fascination with teaching. “He was always reading so many interesting books,” she recalled, “And he had the power to decide what to think about those books and how to help students think about the books and what activities to do with them.”
Leader, who went on to expand her literary interests as she proceeded through high school, added, “I did not have the happiest of social lives. I felt quite disconnected, and I used to write as a way to feel more at home, more engaged. Wanting to teach has been a passion of mine since early in high school. It’s part of what happens when you grow up with parents who talk about differentiation and lesson planning over the breakfast table.”
Leader’s father is English, her mother American. They had met in Peru, and eventually moved to Washington state, where Anna was born, then moved to Luxembourg four years later. “They saw an ad in the newspaper that teachers were wanted in Luxembourg. It was closer to my father’s parents, who were in Britain and were struggling with health issues, so we packed up and moved to Luxembourg,” explained Leader, who has triple citizenship: U.S., U.K., and Luxembourg.
“It was a genius decision as I look back,” Leader said. “It was a huge leap of faith, but they ended up picking the best country in the world to move to. It’s a beautiful place to live. I don’t know if I myself would be moving back there in the near future. It’s less of an exciting young person’s place. It’s got socialized national health care, a huge amount of support for, and interest in, the arts. It’s super safe. It’s very green. There’s free public transportation for everyone. It’s a paradise.”
In addition to her commissioned play, Leader has benefited in many other ways from Luxembourg’s support for the arts. She has won the country’s national literary contest for authors under 25 three times, her literary translations have been awarded numerous prizes, and she has received several commissions from the ministry of culture.
“Luxembourg really does invest in its arts and literature and culture,” she said. “I love Luxembourg a lot, so I’m sometimes called upon to be an ambassador. I just did a virtual livestream interview for the Luxembourg embassy in India about Luxembourg and its culture. I told a fairy tale from the country. Luxembourg has invested a lot recently in its English language and culture to appeal to all of the expatriates in the country and to get the Luxembourg culture out to the wider world.”
Coming to Princeton for college was “a bit of a random choice,” Leader explained. “When I was 13 we happened to be going on a road trip to America while visiting my mother’s family. We stopped off in Princeton because it’s pretty, and I made up my mind on the spot. It ended up being a fantastic choice.”
Describing her four undergraduate years as “like being on a five-star cruise,” Leader emphasized the value of her education at Princeton, for the work she is doing in her current job and far beyond. “I really feel I got the best undergraduate experience I could imagine in the subjects that I care most about,” she said. “They give you so many opportunities, so much attention and support.”
An English and comparative literature major, Leader wrote her senior thesis on a Luxembourg poet. “She was an idol of mine, and I got to interview her for my thesis,” Leader noted. “I think the purpose of an undergraduate education is to furnish your soul for hard times, like the coronavirus pandemic, so you have reserves to draw upon, reserves like beauty and resilience and knowledge and all those things. I think that’s what Princeton was able to do for me.”
After graduating, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, Leader went to work for a year as program coordinator for Capital Partners for Education, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where she did career counseling and career preparation skills for low income high school students. She worked with her case load of about 60 students at various high schools in D.C.
She returned to Princeton for a semester to complete her student teaching in English at Princeton High School, then went back to work in D.C. Last spring she decided to apply for full-time teaching jobs.
“Job searching during the pandemic was an interesting situation to be in,” said Leader. “I knew I wanted to teach English, and I was looking in D.C. and New Jersey because I knew those areas. Then during my Pennington interview they said ‘You’re bilingual in French. Can you teach French?’ I said I’d never taught French before, but I didn’t see why not.”
When she was offered a job, the choice to come to Pennington was not a difficult one. “I was so excited at the chance to teach two subjects that I really love and to be immersed in the boarding school environment and being only a couple of hours outside New York City. It all really clicked into place, and this was a really good decision.”
She continued, “I’ve really loved it here. The small class sizes and the ability to teach two subjects has provided a good mix of not extremely difficult teaching with only 12 or 13 in the classes. Doing my first year of full-time teaching during a pandemic and partly online has been much more manageable with that really supportive, small, immersive environment.
“I feel really confident, really happy with my choice. Pennington feels more like a community than my high school did. Even with the pandemic going on and the face masks and sanitizing the classrooms every five minutes, it feels really welcoming and kind.”
As she continues her teaching career at Pennington, Leader also looks forward to writing opportunities in the future. Her next goal is to expand on Deliver Us. Her play, a series of conversations between delivery room nurses and women going into labor, has three timelines, each set in a moment of crisis: 2020, 1962, and 1918.
In 2020, a young woman is having a baby amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In another part of the play, inspired by a conversation between Leader and her grandmother, who gave birth to Leader’s father in 1964, nuclear war looms during the Cold War, as a housewife prepares to give birth. In the third section of the play, it’s 1918 and an unmarried woman is fighting the Spanish flu as she goes into labor.
Originally Leader included women from five different time periods, but she chose only three for the final draft of Deliver Us. She is looking forward to putting the extra material back into a play that covers five different years in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“It was really fun to write and to do the research,” she said. “To see those resonances across time was exciting for me. My parents went to see it two nights in a row and met the actresses, and they loved it. It’s gotten a really good response, so I’m hoping it all worked out well.”
As her days remain filled with classes and students and an array of writing challenges, Leader acknowledges the unpredictability of life in the current world and her life in particular. “There are so many possibilities,” she said. “I can’t predict what’s going to happen. When I look ahead I try to be flexible knowing that wherever I go I’ll probably end up in a good place.”