First Year Teacher Reflections: Karen Kao

Stephanie Huie

Manhattan Lower School Science Teacher

The following speech was given at the New Faculty & Staff Orientation on August 30, 2018, to the 45+ incoming members of the Windward community.  

Good morning everyone. Welcome to Windward! My name is Karen Kao and, last year at this time, I was sitting where you are now; this will be my second year at the Manhattan campus. I am very happy to be here sharing some insight on my first-year experience at Windward. It does not matter which campus you are on, you will find in the upcoming weeks, months, and year that you have entered a community with an overwhelming generosity of spirit, designed to help support your endeavors as a teacher and lifelong learner. More critically, I want to share an anecdote about the efficacy of the Windward program and the profound impact it can have on a child’s life. Before I begin my reflection on my first-year experience, I will share a brief overview of my background.  

I graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures. I worked in banking and then for an NGO in Asia. My experiences abroad convinced me that an appreciation of other cultures and languages builds mutual understanding between people and allows for multiple modalities of expression. Knowledge of another language can be an amazing foray into a world of exchange.  

Armed with this conviction, I returned to Columbia for graduate school to study Bilingual and Bicultural Education. In various bilingual teaching contexts, I observed multiple classrooms in both independent and public schools. In each class, there were always two or three children who clearly struggled with internalizing information presented to them, not only in Mandarin, Spanish, or French, but more strikingly in English. This observation led me on my path of inquiry to examine students who have difficulty expressing and learning through the English language. For many of these students, school has become a means to reinforce negative learning cycles – perpetuating frustration and low self-esteem.  

After completing my bilingual courses, I changed my focus to Special Education. During my student teaching placement, despite well-intentioned teachers, not all students’ learning needs were being addressed. When optimal learning is occurring, one can observe this in a child’s demeanor, body language, and interactions with peers and teachers alike. When optimal learning is not occurring, it is unfortunately all too clear. I was searching for a place that could truly help students with learning challenges. When I began my Windward journey, sitting in your seats a year ago, I was not sure if such a school existed. I now know, it exists at Windward.  

Through happenstance and serendipity, this past year I was placed in the sixth grade, where two students from my student teaching position had begun their first-year journeys at Windward as well. Over the course of the year, I saw both students adjust to the structure and academic rigors of the Windward methodology and grow into strong, confident learners. One student, “John,” struggled in his previous school contexts. When I first met his parents during Parent/Teacher conferences, they relayed that John was bullied by other students for being a slow learner and that he did not like school. Pre-Windward, I observed how he struggled to understand the material presented to him. John kept to himself, would not raise his hand to participate, his handwriting was small, his written assignments were always brief, and he did not like to draw attention to himself.  

This past year at Windward marked a major shift in John’s intersection with learning. He would frequently comment that he understood what he was doing and liked school. I saw him begin to raise his hand to share his ideas. His writing folder showed remarkable progress from short brief answers to fuller expressions of his ideas. At the Parent/Teacher conferences this past June, his parents remarked what a difference Windward has made in John’s life. Windward not only has a positive impact on his academics, but in his belief in himself. Windward sets high expectations for students and provides all the tools to help them succeed.  

Windward will challenge you in this upcoming year but know that you are supported each step of the way. The program is not only designed for students to succeed, but also intentionally designed to help you succeed. One of the lessons that I have learned this past year is everyone within the Windward community – parents, students, and the people surrounding us here today – is my teacher. I am constantly humbled at everyone’s dedication, but even more so by the passion of the community and generosity of spirit here. You need only to reach out and you will quickly find support and guidance from top down and bottom up. Windward has changed my perspective on what a powerful impact a school can make in a child’s life, but also on mine. I have been inspired to adapt a growth mindset and challenge you to do the same this year. Not only will you see your students make progress this upcoming year, but you will also be able to mark your own growth personally and professionally.   

Windward has changed my perspective on what a powerful impact a school can make in a child’s life, but also on mine.  

I conclude in offering this advice: take advantage of the myriad of resources at Windward –the TTI courses, the staff developments, and the first-year meetings. Reach out to your mentor teacher, the other first years, and the administrators. Volunteer for the Friday night field trips, coach a sport, or teach an after-school club to develop a rapport with our students, who you will quickly find are amazing and talented people. We are all here to support you in this upcoming year and look forward to growing together with you. Welcome to the Windward family!