Karin Van Orman: Packing Her Suitcase ☆

Karin Van Orman

Karin Van Orman

Tell me about where you’re teaching now.

I teach at Purnell in Pottersville, New Jersey. It’s a school for girls who, for many reasons, haven’t found their stride. Some have learning differences, some need to build confidence to activate their potential.  They have raw materials but haven’t put them together for one reason or another, and they are able to do that here. The small environment helps girls find success.

The girls choose to come and they are usually open to the experience. Generally, their only resistance comes from being afraid to try something because they haven’t been successful in past. Many girls in a co-ed environment wouldn’t take a risk, but after Purnell, girls are transformed. That’s what makes Purnell so important for girls. There is a change. It’s exciting to see how far our students come in a short time period. Even one year can make a huge difference. The most rewarding moments have been watching girls realize that they are learning things they didn’t think they could learn – math, organization, or recognizing their own strengths.

There are many great programs here. For example, the affinities program is an integral part of the year. Throughout the academic day, girls are encouraged to reflect on their strengths and think about how to utilize them to their advantage. Questions like “How do I know myself? How do I use my strengths to address areas of weakness?” run throughout the curriculum.

There is also a great diversity program at Purnell. Diversity is a key issue for us since a boarding school has the privilege of a protected environment. Contrary to what you might expect about an all girls school, we don’t have a homogenous student population. Diversity classes are crucial to stimulate conversation about all kinds of differences: ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status. The students open up, which speaks to the trust between students and faculty. The school has a great level of personal care and a familial atmosphere.

Was this type of education important to you when you were younger?

My parents were incredible in trying to help my brother and me be as educated as we could be. They were always intellectually lively when we were growing up – they read a lot and modeled good learning habits all the time. They valued education tremendously.

Both of my parents loved school but they found it hard to be students. My dad had lots of untapped talents and my mother came from Canada and was plopped in a classroom with the expectation that she would learn by immersion. They both made it through high school but it was challenging for many reasons.

For me, going to college was a team effort. I was the first person to go to college so getting my master’s was very exciting. It was beyond what anyone in my family could have imagined in many ways. So, when I told my dad that I wanted to pursue doctoral studies at first he couldn’t understand why I was going back to school. Getting another degree represented a totally different world for him. He was confused because I already had a good job. He asked me, “Why would you want to do that?”

So why do it then?

Because I want to contribute to the conversation at the highest level, to investigate and document what students are doing, and to add to collective knowledge to make education better for everyone. To do that at Teachers College with such giants in the field of education everywhere is an incredible opportunity. There is a wealth of knowledge with all the departments in TC and it is such a vibrant school community.

The other thing that sealed the deal for me was Sheridan Blau. I was so touched by his generosity of spirit. There was a kind openness and a willingness to bring me into this new world and to give me the opportunity to contribute. I expected some measure of distance between faculty and students and I felt none of that when I visited TC. How could I not go study with these people who are willing to reach out to me in this way?! (Laughs.) I think it’s rare. It’s more rare than it should be.

How’d you get interested in teaching?

Before teaching, I was in marketing as a chief marketing officer in Boston. I kind of fell into it. You know, I was an English major as an undergrad so I knew how to communicate ideas. (Laughs.)

I decided to I shift to teaching after my mom died. I spent the last three months of her life taking care of her. It was the perfect time to reflect on the big questions like “What do I really want to do with my life?” I always wanted to be a teacher. I can remember teaching my brother read before he went to his first day of kindergarten. But my parents told me not to be a teacher because they said I wouldn’t make any money.

My first teaching job was in San Francisco, California at Ida B. Wells Continuation High School. It’s an alternative high school, which meant that it was the “last chance” for my students. Working with the students there was probably one of my most rewarding teaching experiences.

The students’ high school experiences differed from mine, but we connected because I really wanted to teach them and they really wanted to learn. There was not one student there who did not want to learn.

I had incredible freedom to design curriculum that would simultaneously meet the standards and captivate my students. For example, I did an after-school workshop on heroes in Japanese animation. I didn’t know anything about anime so I had the students help me to plan it. We looked at the concept of heroes. I had them bring in texts and we found some together online. I didn’t have to have the answers. I just had to have the willingness to find out where students were and then help them move forward.

How do you see this work connected to your Zankel Fellowship as a Reading and Math Buddy?

Any reflective high-school teacher sees her students arrive to the high school classroom with a rich educational history. Every time students have an interaction with a teacher it informs their attitudes. They are filling a suitcase with their experiences. I want to gain experience working with students in earlier phases, while their suitcases are still empty. It’s about trying to put better things in there – a joy of reading and writing – so they can carry them forward into the high school setting and beyond.

I also think seeing high school readers at an early stage will be very enriching and informative for me. Education is like a two act play and I’ve only seen the ending. I want to go see the beginning to help me understand what’s going on. I want to know where my students are coming from.

I was doing my master’s thesis at San Francisco State University with Jamal Cooks. Jamal was instrumental in pushing me toward doctoral studies. He also coaches track in Oakland and he has remained connected to kids and his community. If I’m going to be a professor, that’s the kind of professor I’d like to be. Jamal’s teaching at the collegiate level is completely grounded because he knows what his high school students are thinking.

The Zankel Fellowship will help me to maintain that connection to students. It’s not just academic – it’s real.