By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Jen Kunec was born and raised in Ann Arbor. Her father, Jerome Jelinek, was a concert cellist and a Professor of Music at The University of Michigan. Her mother, Fran Jelinek, was a member of too many boards to list and worked for more than a decade at AAPS leading the intergenerational program called Teaching and Learning Communities.
Kunec and her siblings, Jerome and Judi, attended Allen, Tappan and Huron.
As a 1988 graduate from the University of Michigan with a major in history, Kunec followed her father, mother, and sister into the field of education. She says she was fortunate to do her student teaching under Robin Wax at Pioneer High School and to start teaching at Pioneer in 1989.
In 1993, she married Rob Kunec, also an Ann Arbor native. They have two sons, John and Ben, both of whom followed their father’s path through Lawton, Slauson, and Pioneer. John is currently a junior at Kalamazoo College and Ben is a freshman at the University of Toledo. Except for a one-year leave in 1993, Kunec’s entire career has been at Pioneer where she continues to teach and is chair of the social studies department.
What is your fondest memory of teaching at Pioneer High School? My fondest memory is teaching my students about all the ordinary people in history that were faced with extraordinary circumstances and stepped up. Helping them realize that this could be them and that they now have the example of many people who faced adversity, didn’t back away and instead made a difference. People like Nicholas Winton, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Margaret Sanger, Diane Nash, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and so many more. When my students understand that we owe these people a lot and now it is their turn to remain committed to maintaining the freedoms of democracy that these people in history protected, I feel like I’ve actually made a difference. If my students could remember this lesson from my class, that would mean success for me as a teacher and it would be the best compliment.
What inspired you to become a teacher? As I mentioned earlier, my family was full of educators, and they had a big influence on me. I also coached swimming for several years and loved it, so I knew I enjoyed working with kids. It was my experience student teaching with Robin Wax at Pioneer, however, that solidified my desire to teach. Robin was an amazing teacher, and I knew I wanted to be just like her if I could.
What is the most important thing I’ve learned about teaching teenagers? I have been teaching for 30 years, and the students haven’t really changed that much. The cell phone phenomena has changed things a bit, but in the Social Studies Department at Pioneer we have committed to using phone caddies. Phones go in the caddies at the beginning of the hour not to be touched until the end of the hour unless a class project requires their use. This has worked beautifully, discussions and overall engagement in class activities has been terrific. Frankly, the kids just get a break from their social media frenzy, and we’re teaching them that they can be productive as well as social with their fellow students and still survive with putting their phone down for an hour. It really has not been an issue. Beyond the phone, kids are kids whether it is 1990 or 2019; they want to be respected, they want their teachers to know their stuff and have structure in their classrooms. I have loved teaching this age group and teaching in general.
What advice would you give to a first-year teacher? The advice I would give to a first-year teacher would be to hang in there. Those first few years are overwhelming. I would argue that it takes about five years to find your groove with classroom management, content and the bureaucratic jungle that surrounds public education. You know more than you think, stay confident and know that you are always learning as much as you are teaching. Be open to learning from others, including your students, they are often your best guide. I changed the way I organized my classroom two years ago and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it earlier. Another example was with how I was grading exams, I listened to another teacher’s methods (way younger than I), I tried it, and it was like an epiphany! Finally, one of the greatest parts of teaching for me is the people I work with. So many of them I have known for a long time. While I respect them as educators, I also enjoy them as individuals and being social together. Be part of a positive team in your building. Do things together out of school, as simple as going to lunch on professional days. Building a sense of community is important to any successful school. So, when a staff member organizes a function, go out of your way to stop by and get to know people. Don’t be that person who runs in before the first bell rings and runs out right when the final bell rings at the end of the day. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the greatest parts of being a teacher.
What do you do when you are not teaching? My second job has always been being a parent. This was exhausting physically and mentally when my boys were younger. The whirlwind years of teaching teenagers and then coming home to teenagers were comical at times. I often found myself longing for the daycare days when they would run and jump in your arms when you came to pick them up after school. We did have a lot of fun together when John and Ben went through Pioneer, however. Now Rob and I are in our first year as empty-nesters, and while we enjoy the quiet and clean house, we love it when they come home for a few weeks or the summer and mess that all up! People will tell you this, and it is true: They may be adults and out of the house, but parenting never stops; it just evolves as your children grow up. Unfortunately, you never stop completely worrying—so it goes with love.
When I am not teaching or parenting, however, I like to catch up with my friends for lunch, dinner, on the tennis court or by the pool. Together, Rob and I enjoy sports and also love to travel. Exploring new places, seeing old friends in the United States and abroad is a passion. We look forward to doing more of this in the years ahead.
What’s the best thing about teaching? In a nutshell, the best thing about teaching is working with wonderful students and colleagues. I have had the great fortune of working with a wide variety of students. I have taught AP classes and college prep classes. For over 10 years I have been the advisor for the Interact Club which is the high school division of Rotary International guiding students to find ways to help others in their community and beyond.
More recently I have partnered with English Chair Don Packard to also run the after-school Pioneer Learning Center where students can get help on their homework as well as a 9th grade transition class working on soft skills necessary for high school success. Whether it is those AP students who don’t think they are as smart as the other kids in the room or the students that have rarely felt success in school, nothing is more gratifying than guiding them to unveil their own potential to reach goals they never thought possible, mostly through plain old hard work. They don’t realize it, but students are constantly teaching us as much as we are teaching them, and I have learned a lot! I am also lucky to have worked with many amazing teachers and staff over the years. Don’t get me wrong. There are always challenges to work through. But that’s part of the package.
When you wake up well over a majority of the time looking forward to going to work, you know you have been part of something special. Being an educator is a demanding and rewarding profession and I’m so proud of choosing this career. It has been an amazing 30 years.
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