All educators come to teaching for different reasons. Maybe it's because of an inspirational teacher or to have a lasting impact on the world. Perhaps the choice stems from turning something negative into something positive. The stories I share each week are meant to showcase pieces of these educational journeys. This week, I take you on a full journey from beginning to now. It's a real treat to see each step unfold into the story of someone who I admire very much and the perfect story to share at the start of Teacher Appreciation Week. Here's Jennifer's story...
I happened into teaching initially out of convenience more than calling. Teaching university writing while doing my MA at the University of Colorado at Boulder allowed me to write and study almost exclusively for three years. Later, I was able to make a living off of my English and literature background by teaching outside the United States, making at least a bit more than the itinerate bartenders I knew. But I learned a key lesson in my first two years teaching high school in Central America, one that connected back to my own experiences as a student: A teacher taught a subject area, while an educator helped foster everything about students so they could become the best versions of themselves as human beings. Within weeks of entering my first high school classroom, it was clear that my purpose was to be an educator.
I was sent to schools that fostered me as a human first and foremost, and I remain grateful to my parents for swimming against the current in the 1970s and ‘80s to give my sister and me an alternative education. In schools like The School in Rose Valley (Pennsylvania) and the Jefferson County Open Living School (Colorado), we had the good fortune to have experience-based, child-centered learning opportunities throughout our youth. We were taught by educators who trusted us as learners and thinkers, who created a balance of indoor and outdoor experiences to foster our growth. They knew how to ask the kinds of questions that brought out my original thought, that honored ideas that might have seemed “weird” in a more traditional context. A BA at Bard College took academic rigor to the next level, but still in a way that honored innovation and the student as an independent thinker. My experiences weren’t perfect, of course, but the majority of my teachers empowered me to make my own choices and solve my own challenges, to engage with the world constructively and meaningfully and, years later, to educate in a way that did the same.
When I found myself in my first high school classroom, the experience was transformative. It was 1995, I was living in San José, Costa Rica, and I was teaching 10th grade English at the Lincoln School, a prestigious private school in the Central Valley region. It was a challenging first year, with 125 students across five sections and an “American Literature” textbook that was almost completely irrelevant to my students. “American,” I quickly learned, is a misnomer Latin Americans resent deeply because it rejects the notion that America includes two continents and a land bridge between them. That first year, three things happened which solidified my goals as an educator. First, my students and I worked together to make the U.S. Literature course into a more relevant exploration of self expression, and I learned to listen to my students and make meaning with them. I later discovered the power of educators when I learned I had the children of presidents and policy makers in my classroom, and the motivation to help young people of privilege use that power for good remains at the heart of my pedagogy. Then, at the end of the first year, a student came out to me—and I was the first adult he’d ever told he was gay. Coming out was the first of many steps that led him to health and wellbeing, and I learned that inclusion requires brave students with adult advocates alongside. That young man still guides my practice today, and I am grateful that I was a part of helping him survive his childhood. He helped me find my path as well, and it was his father who, many years later in his son’s apartment in Toronto, made clear the distinction between a teacher and an educator when he thanked me for saving his son’s life.
I spent 19 years in the classroom. In The Global Education Guidebook, I write that I used the strategies that had been used with me before I even knew terms like student-centered, expeditionary or project-based learning. It was a pleasant surprise, years later, to discover that channeling the best educators I had myself meant I was using the kinds of pedagogies that John Dewey and Paulo Freire espoused. I still remember sitting in an Understanding by Design workshop once, around my 1oth year of teaching, wondering what was supposed to be innovative about beginning with the end in mind because it was what I’d always done. I honored the need for student voice and choice because I couldn’t have survived school without it myself. I trusted my students as learners and thinkers. I tried to help them fall in love with language and the power of being able to convey ideas in ways that created change in others and the world around them.
A wise mentor told me once that I’d know when it was time to leave teaching, and she was right; it happened over time, but it was a call I had to pay attention to—even though I knew working with adults would never be as much fun as working with teenagers. I still believe I learned more from my students about how to be a good teacher than from any professional development workshop I attended; I only learned to recognize what each young person needed for optimum growth because I learned to ask the right questions. I fostered my students’ ability to advocate for their own learning, to think for themselves and build a life around their deepest values. When I left the classroom, my goal was to help other teachers do the same through a better, more relevant sort of professional development that would inspire change and transform their practice.
I spent a little over seven years outside the schoolhouse, giving professional development workshops in North, South and Central America. It wasn’t hard to apply what I’d learned in the classroom to educating adults, and I strived to be a facilitator more than a director. I learned that teachers need good leaders who see their mistakes in the same way a good teacher sees their students’ mistakes: as an opportunity to reflect, learn, and apply the learning to continued improvement. But the work was also exhausting and frustrating, given the constraints so many teachers face. I ran workshops of varying lengths, positively disrupting the thinking of teachers but never able to change the systems around them. I saw little of the fruit of my efforts because I rarely went back to the same school twice. I had almost no contact with young people other than my nieces, and travel made that difficult as well. I spent two of those years writing The Global Education Guidebook, and by the end concluded that I needed to make a change and get back to my educational heart again or I would burn out as a consultant.
When I was asked to become Head of School, or “Rectora” at Gimnasio Los Caobos, just north of Bogotá, Colombia, I had my opportunity to come back into a schoolhouse community. We are trying to build the kind of positive, constructive school culture I know is possible because I lived it myself, combined with challenging academics grounded in authentic, real-world problem solving and constructive engagement through Project-Based Learning (PBL). In a country where no teacher preparatory programs have a focus on student-centered learning in general, much less PBL in particular, this is no small feat—but I see the fruit of teacher growth every trimester, and every day I see happier, more engaged and challenged students.
I have to admit that some elements of administration have pulled me away from why I love education, and I understand now why so many principals disappear back into the classroom after a few years away. Educators love young people, and that’s what motivates us to take on such hard work. Too much of the work of administration has little to do with the young people themselves, and I flinch every time an operational concern takes me away from working to improve a teacher’s practice or making it to grade level meetings to help craft high-quality projects that address authentic challenges. I am doggedly pursuing ways to stay tied to kids and teachers, through teaching an elective in Slam Poetry for the first two trimesters and through mentoring four senior project students for the third trimester. The more time I spend with students and teachers, doing the real work of educating, the more I can bear the meetings, politics, and operational work that take up so much of my time.
If I were to offer advice to emerging educators, I would encourage you to do these four things in your practice:
1. Listen to your students.
They will teach you exactly how to meet their needs if you know how to ask the right questions and really listen to their answers. When you’re looking for authentic challenges, your students’ perspectives will lead you to the most relevant ones. Your job is to fold your goals in with theirs, and to make meaning together.
2. Trust your students as learners and people.
Students are generally capable of more than even their best teachers expect of them, particularly when they feel a sense of authentic challenge and purpose—and know you believe in them. Let your students surprise you, and be sure to tell them when they do. A wise educator told me early and often that you can teach a student anything if you know how to build a relationship with him/her.
3. Channel your passion and experience into your curriculum.
Remember your best teachers and why you became a teacher yourself. Teach from inside that place. Help your students fall in love with learning, with your discipline, and with the ways your discipline can be applied to solving our biggest challenges. Help them learn to collaborate and grow, show them you see them as whole human beings.
4. Travel as much as you possibly can.
Connect with teachers and students in other parts of the world. Spend time in their classrooms; ask them about their challenges and triumphs. Immerse yourself in the day-to-day life of a place where people think and live differently than you are accustomed to, and travel humbly enough to let it change you and your classroom practice.
One incredible young leader I’ve gotten to work with, Hindogbae Kposowa of Sierra Leone, recently told my teachers in a live video conference that educators are the most powerful group of people on the planet when it comes to creating change because we educate the next generation of change makers so that they can create ripples of change even from inside the classroom. If I have succeeded at anything in my career so far, I hope that it has been to disrupt educational structures that maintain the status quo while crafting innovative pathways to new ways of thinking about education—and new ideas about what it means to educate our current youth generation to help us craft a better world.
A product of experiential project-based education herself, Jennifer D. Klein taught college and high school English and Spanish for 19 years, including five years in Central America and 11 years in all-girls education. In 2010, Jennifer left teaching to begin PRINCIPLED Learning Strategies. As a writer, speaker and bilingual workshop facilitator, Jennifer strives to inspire educators and shift practices in schools around the world. Her first book, The Global Education Guidebook: Humanizing K-12 Classrooms Worldwide through Equitable Partnerships, was published by Solution Tree Press in June, 2017. In August, 2017, Jennifer became Head of School at Gimnasio Los Caobos, a project-based preK-12 school outside of Bogotá, Colombia.