The essence of Rebecca Kuhn is this: center stage smoke machine swirl straight out of a Korean pop band; rocker chick in black business casual (sensible yet dramatic); spotlight and finger--same trajectory--gesturing toward something larger, some greater existential meaning, or maybe...Kansas?
Herein lies the American teacher abroad, the “We’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore,” “If It Makes You Happy” Sheryl Crow cover belting, exhibit A: The Extroverted Teacher.
This version of Episcopal’s Social Studies Chair might not seem completely far-fetched. While on a typical day she is not fronting for a Korean-ballad-American-90s pop-cover faculty band, Kuhn plays the role of gregarious, bubbly lead well. But, this sort of confident risk-taking is something that Kuhn had to learn over time and over many miles.
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Kuhn and her husband, Dr. Alan Newton, had spent five years in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, before transferring abroad. Newton was teaching at the Pine Crest School and Kuhn enrolled in a PhD program at Florida Atlantic University. While preparing for her dissertation defense, Kuhn substitute taught at Pine Crest, eventually coming on full time as a History and Journalism teacher. “I volunteered to chaperone a debate competition,” she remembers. And while many adults might find that sort of round-the-clock supervision of and engagement with adolescents to be a challenge, Kuhn found it exhilarating. She realized that she absolutely loved the high school setting. “This is where I’m needed,” she says.
When Kuhn and Newton were approached about a teaching opportunity in Korea, they realized the timing was right to take a risk. “It was chaos when we arrived,” Kuhn notes. The school that hired them was in the process of beginning a school-within-a-school for Korean students interested in pursuing selective colleges in the US after high school graduation. The concept was to emulate a Western boarding school experience, and they started small--just 20 per grade. Kuhn recalls both the optimism and frustration involved in building a school from scratch. In many ways, continuing her work with high schoolers was enormously rewarding. In fact, the infamous Episcopal Tea Club was built upon a similar experience Kuhn had with her students in Korea. What began as a traditional Korean tea ceremony evolved into a slowed-down space for both introspection and spirited dialogue. “Drinking tea is civilized, calming, soothing,” Kuhn says. “Talking about some issues can be tough. Conversations can be fraught.” But bringing tea into the mix created what Kuhn describes as a “meditative experience.” Students worked through complex personal situations: the only son in a family, for instance, felt immense pressure to find the right college, meet his potential, and in his words, “be the family hope.” There, among friends and warm mugs of tea, he wrestled with the complicated intersection of expectations and choice. Students debated ethical issues like corporeal punishment and dissected the post-modern philosophical arguments of Derrida. These are the moments of teaching that Kuhn finds especially inspiring. The concept of “the whole child” (what eventually drew her to Episcopal) is important to Kuhn. Happiness, growth, rest, not “unhappy study robots” as she considers the alternative.
Yet, her time in Korea also revealed a mindset that compromised that mission of caring for the whole person. Her biggest challenges weren’t students who seemed apathetic or shirking their potential. Rather, she worried for the students who sought praise for getting three hours of sleep (better than most nights). She worried for parents who measured success only by acceptance into an Ivy League. Kuhn’s not-in-Kansas-anymore homesickness grew, and her desire to find a school with a personalized student approach became her mission. So, in 2015 after planning and preparing to return to the States, Kuhn made her final purchase, a traditional Korean tea set, and journeyed home.
Dr. Kuhn believes in fun. She believes in adventure and risks and navigating the joyful angst of adolescence with her students. Her interdisciplinary graduate work lends itself well to caring for the intricacies of teenage development. Kuhn merged a passion for social sciences--sociology, government, economics and politics--with religion and film studies and learned the tough work of “writing on the boundaries of the humanities and social sciences.”
And isn’t that what secondary education, in its most idealistic form, can do best? Blur the lines between discrete disciplines to see the interconnectedness between issues? Prepare young people to synthesize concepts from a deep toolbox to problem solve and make the world better?
Dr. Kuhn, qualified to teach at the university level, never felt compelled to pursue a professorship. It is here, in high school, that Kuhn feels most able to promote that interdisciplinary pursuit that inspired her as a student and allowed her to seek understanding of the human condition. It is here that she says fun renews every year with her new 9th grade students, that she realized, as an extrovert, she could “have more insightful conversations with young people, more intellectual stimulation” than she might in another setting.
With a global perspective, Dr. Kuhn says she is intentional with her language. During a lecture while pointing to another continent, Kuhn makes a point to say, “when” not “if” as she helps students consider the places they’ll go, the people they’ll meet. “I build in a narrative that they will act on global mindedness.”
For Dr. Kuhn, home will always be in Kansas. But, for her students she is a study in the sort of self-discovery that happens when you take a risk, grab the mic, and understand that the world is bigger, grander, than you could have ever imagined.
Katie Sutcliffe is beginning her seventh year at Episcopal and has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that have practical implications for understanding and addressing real world challenges.
Grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the Courage to change those things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
“Concedeme la Serenidad para aceptar las cosas que no puedo cambiar, el Valor para cambiar las cosas que puedo cambiar y la Sabiduria para conocer la diferencia
Mary Spencer, Dean of Students
The clock on the wall in Mary Spencer’s office spells its numbers in Spanish--uno, dos, tres--a small nod to her background that began with much of her childhood--12 years--in South America. Spencer went on to major in Spanish and began her foray into education as a Spanish teacher. “I even dream in Spanish,” she says.
Spencer’s father eventually became the Episcopal Bishop of Colombia and Ecuador. She explains that this combination of “preacher’s kid” in a missionary family and living abroad has shaped the way she responds to others. “I’ve had people say that my ear, or my heart, or my mind is more in tune to nuance sometimes--that I tend to be a little more empathetic and listen for what people are trying to say, rather than what may be coming out of their mouth.” This empathy was likely also fostered by that early exposure to families living very different socioeconomic and cultural realities.
With an ear for language, Spencer is a listener. She values the connection that can only come from truly hearing someone, but she also quite literally detects subtleties in phonemic language itself. “I can tell if someone was raised in the Andes mountains or on the coast,” she notes. “It’s a part of who I am.”
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Spencer also comes from a strong independent school tradition and background. While she did return soon after college to work as an administrator at her alma mater of Chatham Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia, she knew it was wise to experience work life outside academics. So, before resuming a career in education, Spencer did temp work which landed her in the home office of a large insurance company in Virginia. Here she installed the “mini-computer” in offices and trained brokers, agents and staff on how to use the computer system. “It gave me a different insight about what parents are juggling outside of a school setting,” she says.
Spencer later met and married her husband, Andy Spencer, Episcopal’s new Director of Advancement, and her career continued at the Virginia Episcopal School. She became the Director of Women’s Life, Spanish teacher and head coach for varsity field hockey and assisted with the basketball team. The school had recently become co-ed, and Spencer worked to make sure all voices were heard equally and that programming was representative of all students. In the midst of all of this, the couple’s children, Sarah Elizabeth (S.E), and George, were born and Spencer says that it was “almost idyllic to raise kids in a boarding school environment.”
The Lovett School eventually recruited Andy, and the family moved to Atlanta, where they remained for nineteen years. It wasn’t long after they settled that Spencer began subbing at Lovett and eventually moved into teaching and administrative roles. Here, she nurtured her approach and philosophy. “There is one ‘d’ in Dean,” she says. “Discipline is only one factor.” Spencer’s prior work with social-emotional learning inspires the majority of the way she approaches her role as Dean of Students. “Students are learning the skills to learn from their mistakes,” she says. She shares that she, herself, is flawed--we all are--and that “making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person.” Spencer sees her role as one that first meets people where they are, one that offers and expects respect, and one that is both consistent and fair. “I’m not good at playing games,” Spencer comments. And while she is known to often use humor in her interactions with students, she finds sarcasm and discipline that puts a child down to be incredibly harmful.
It’s no wonder Spencer leads with empathy. Language research indicates that “Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others…” (Kinzler). And while Spanish is less and less a part of her daily interactions, Spencer’s ear for language and emphasis on clear communication is at the forefront of how she forges meaningful relationships with students.
“Why was it so easy for me to say yes to Episcopal?” she asks. From the outside looking in, Spencer witnessed a clear sense of community, an honor code that values living with character, and rituals and traditions that reinforce who we’re all striving to be.
Katie Sutcliffe is beginning her seventh year at Episcopal and has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that