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.