Staff Spotlight: Ken Kern
Ken joined Turnaround in 2012. As Senior Director, Professional Development, Ken is responsible for overseeing the design, facilitation and coaching of Turnaround’s theory of change to its school-based staff. He also supports other departments in implementing staff training.
THE 180: What brought you to Turnaround?
KEN KERN: Prior to coming to Turnaround, I was an elementary school principal in the South Bronx. Although I was originally hired to develop and coach staff on the school curriculum, within a few months of my time there, it became really clear that the school needed someone to lead the 400 children in the elementary division, so I assumed the role of principal. It was a challenging position, and one of the things that made it difficult was that I had little support as a leader and we had few systems in place to help students most in need. The teachers were mostly new and not prepared to work with students who had experienced a lot of adversity and trauma.
When I found Turnaround, it was a perfect fit. Turnaround for Children addresses the three major issues that I encountered as a principal: tools to strengthen school leadership, strategies to help teachers work with struggling students and a robust student support systems to get students what they needed.
THE 180: What does a typical day look like for you?
KEN KERN: There is no typical day for me. I research and design professional development and partner with others in the facilitation of professional development; I help our staff think through topics that will help better engage and motivate the teachers in your partner schools; and I observe and provide feedback to our instructional coaches and social work consultants.
I travel to schools pretty often, although not as often as I would like. Being involved in schools on the ground really helps me to understand what the current trends and needs are that our team requires in terms of professional development. The closer I am to the actual work, the better positioned I am to get people the support that they need. I also get requests from our central staff to help them better understand what people in the schools are doing. For instance, I may walk a colleague, who isn’t a school-based staff member, through our curriculum to help them to better understand how it is oriented.
THE 180: Did you always know that you wanted to do this kind of work?
KEN KERN: I always knew that I wanted to work in education. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Zell, inspired me and I knew that I wanted to be like her. I started out as an elementary school teacher. After teaching in a particularly challenging school for several years, I became frustrated with how poorly the students were being educated and the lack of support for the staff, so I decided to go back to graduate school. I always told myself that if I became so frustrated with teaching, that I was doing more harm than good, then I would leave the profession. Instead, I decided to meet the frustration head on and do something about it.
I got my Master’s Degree in teacher leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Through that program, I met someone who was running a program at the University of Chicago that provided professional development and mentoring for new teachers. I started volunteering my time mentoring and doing professional development with that program. Then when the director left, I was asked to lead it. That’s really what made me leave the classroom setting. I found that supporting groups of teachers made a bigger impact on more students than I could as a classroom teacher alone.
THE 180: What do you think is unique about the way that Turnaround partners with schools?
KEN KERN: One of the things that made me super excited to work with Turnaround for Children is that we have a really unique partnership model. We, as an outside organization, have so much access to our school partners. Adult learning best practice says that in order to change teacher practice, teachers need job-embedded professional development, which we provide to all the teachers in the school and with more frequency than other organizations do. Teachers also need implementation support, which we refer to as coaching.
THE 180: What’s your favorite part about being at Turnaround?
KEN KERN: That we are constantly learning and improving. We understand that we don’t have it all figured out and are willing to go along the journey to figure it out. As a staff member, that can either be really challenging or it can be really compelling. For someone like me, who likes to learn and grow and challenge myself, it’s exciting.
THE 180: What do you think is the most important thing that students need to succeed?
KEN KERN: I think that they need caring adults that seek to understand them and that relentlessly work to help them to succeed. The adults need to show them that they are able to succeed and give them the support necessary to do so.