Profile and photo by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
Kristal Jaaskelainen (pronounced “Ja´-ska-lie-nen”) was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula, moved to the Ann Arbor area to attend the University of Michigan, and has been here ever since. She obtained both her bachelor’s degree in English and her secondary teaching certification from U-M, and it was Buzz Alexander’s Prison Creative Arts Project that inspired her to become a teacher.
Jaaskelainen’s entire 15 years have been spent teaching within Ann Arbor Public Schools. Knowing that she wanted to work in alternative education, she student taught and then was hired at Stone School (now Pathways to Success) where she learned from “amazing” educators that included Gayl Dybdahl, Vivian Lee, Chris Curtis, Kurt Maier, and Wendy Reinhardt.
When Skyline High School opened, she was hired as the English Language Arts lead teacher, joining what she calls “an outstanding group of AAPS educators,” including Dan Neaton, Kay Wade, Kathe Hetter, Pat Jenkins, Tom Pachera, Pete Pasque, Sara Duvall and many more.
Jaaskelainen hopes to eventually earn her PhD so students can call her “Dr. J.”
Who or what inspired you to become a teacher? Teaching was not always my dream, but thankfully a class and program at the University of Michigan pushed me in the direction of social advocacy and public education. That program was the Prison Creative Arts Project. I took classes and volunteered at Boysville and Mound Correctional Facility. Through these experiences, I learned much about myself, about inequality and social justice. I learned that I was good at facilitating and I was passionate about proactively working towards solutions. PCAP showed me that I wanted to become a teacher, specifically in alternative education.
Describe an average workday. My alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m. and I snooze for at least 15 minutes. I arrive at school about 6:45 a.m.daily in order to have time before students arrive to prepare—and drink some much needed coffee.
Skyline has five periods in a day, and I teach 1st through 4th hours. The first class is the Communication, Media and Public Policy magnet course that I team-teach with an amazing social studies teacher, Patricia Jenkins. The course is an ideal blend of our contents, project-based learning and innovative instruction. This is my first year with the magnet and I am loving every minute.
My second and fourth hours are reading recovery – formerly Read 180. I revamped the curriculum and renamed the class English Plus. This course is small in number, and again, I have the pleasure of sharing the classroom with talented adults, this time special educators as my co-teachers. These courses are my true passion and these kids make me bring my A game every single day.
In the middle, I teach an English 9 course filled to the brim with a diverse and brilliant group of young men and women. During my prep period, I make it a point to walk around and visit my colleagues, as I value collaboration and do not ever get enough time with other educators. After school is often filled with meetings or Skyline sporting events.
You say that you wouldn’t be the educator you are today without the lessons you learned at Stone School. Why is that? The students there challenged me to be engaging, thoughtful and reflective of my practice. From them, I learned that relationships are paramount and content is secondary; that success breeds success; and that celebrating even the smallest victories is imperative to creating a cycle of success.
What’s the best thing about working at Skyline? The best thing about Skyline for me has always been my colleagues. I have learned so much from so many people that I cannot ever fully express my gratitude. My colleagues are my friends, my mentors and often the fuel that keeps me wanting to improve on a daily basis.
I continue to gain invaluable teaching experience thanks to the many numerous opportunities provided by Ann Arbor Public Schools.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning? I firmly believe that success breeds success and getting to know my students well enough to recognize and celebrate even the smallest victories is vital. For some students, simply coming to school that day may be a huge success and if I can recognize and celebrate that, I will encourage that same victory the next day. For other students, speaking in front of or with peers may be a huge success, and I need to notice and acknowledge such. I have learned that I teach children content—not that I simply teach content. Whatever I can do to reach a child, show him/her how they are successful and build upon that, is my most important job.
Which apps and websites would you recommend to other teachers? I absolutely love Google and everything it offers. I have actually presented at MACUL and ISTE about how we use Google Tools at Skyline to teach students digital organization. That said, any tool that works best for you in your classroom is a great tool. I think incorporating technology is more about teaching students how to use these tools for academic purposes rather than just the tool itself. That said, I love Quizlet, NewsELA, Google Forms for grading (another process I’ve presented about, so just ask if you’re interested in knowing more!), and Kahoot. The students love Kahoot the most because they get to use smart devices and it seems like a game.
How do you stay organized? Admittedly, I lose paper, so my entire work life is digital. I love Google Docs and Forms. I love that Chrome lets me keep three different accounts open in the same browser, and each always has numerous tabs running as well. I keep a class website where I have a running document of my daily lessons for each class, and that helps not only me stay organized, but my students as well. It is a digital running record of everything that happens in class. Also, all 9th grade students create online portfolios (Google Sites) in ELA classes, and all mastery work is submitted onto those sites. I keep one spreadsheet for each trimester so that all of my students’ work is located in a single, digital space.
What technology can you not live without, both at home and in the classroom? Google everything.
What is the most rewarding part of teaching? I feel most rewarded when I see growth and learning happen right before my eyes. It may be within a single lesson or over the course of many years, but either way, I am proud when I see children I have taught learn, succeed and find happiness.
What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher? I wish that everyone realized that just because you were a student for many years, you are still not an expert in the art of teaching. Everyone has had great teachers, good teachers, and even some poor—yet that experience alone does not an expert make. Providing high quality, relevant, meaningful instruction to a large, diverse population on a daily basis is much more than giving a lecture, assigning a task and grading. I wish that everyone understood that teachers love children and want them to succeed. I wish that everyone understood that teachers teach more than just worksheets; teachers teach life skills. I wish that everyone understood that yes, we have a great vacation package, but we earn it! I wish that I could flip the old negative cliche into “Those who can’t teach, do” because good teaching is hard work and few that have not been teachers could do our job. I hope that someday soon, teaching again becomes recognized as the highly respected profession filled with educated, passionate, dedicated, talented, intelligent people.
If you could change one thing about public education, what would it be? I wish the negative perception of educators of late would just end. I also wish I could win the lottery and provide the funding that public education deserves.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? When I’m not at work, I enjoy good books, time with friends and naps. I am not so patiently awaiting book 6 in the Game of Thrones series and love a quality book recommendation. Also, in the fall, football Saturdays are sacred, and I bleed maize and blue.
You describe yourself as an “optimistic idealist.” Are you ever discouraged? If so, by what or whom? I am a solution-oriented thinker, and so when I feel frustrated or down, my first inclination is to fix the problem. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to not get caught up in a political atmosphere that can be extremely negative. However, Stone School also taught me about William Glasser’s Choice Theory and so I never allow myself to remain content in negativity for any length of time. Sure, a situation might seem icky at the moment, but then I think, “What are my choices and what am I going to do to change the dynamic?” Often, some great ideas come out of this process.