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Turning the tables: teachers reflect on their own high school experiences

By Megan Martin

Turpin attended Head Royce in Oakland. Photos by Aleeza Zinn
Turpin attended Head Royce in Oakland.
Photos by Aleeza Zinn

Many teachers at Alameda High School have unique high school experiences that lend themselves to new ways of teaching. And even before they were teachers, they were drawn to their professions by moments along their individual academic journeys.

Anne Turpin, AP European history teacher, never really thought about being a teacher until she became one. When trying to find her major in college, Turpin studied art history because it was what she was most passionate about. In the process of getting her bachelor’s and going to graduate school, she taught undergraduates as a teacher aide and loved it. “It was just so fulfilling,” said Turpin. “It was really only my experience doing it that made me realize that I loved it.”  

“In that sense I would really encourage people to try new things, because you never know what you are really going to love,” said Turpin.

Her favorite moments as a teacher are working with sophomores who, in some cases, come in scared and passive and still are essentially still freshmen. Over the course of the year, she watches them develop into more assertive and excited learners.  “They really are masters of their own learning, and that’s exciting to see,” said Turpin.

Turpin went to high school at Head Royce in Oakland, and she explains that her experience there was complex. She said she is appreciative of the “very good education” she received, and while the price was not as astronomically expensive as it is now, it was still a hardship on her parents. Turpin said that while she did have an amazing opportunity, the school was very small socially. It was very homogeneous, and largely contained a lot of rich white people.

“I felt that the school did not reflect the real world. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so intellectual about it at the time, but I always felt a little bit like a fish out of water, or uncomfortable,” said Turpin.  “And I felt embarrassed by the privilege.”

Her experience was filled with high points and low points. The best part of her high school experience was acting in plays. “That was a chance for me to express myself and feel less angst-ridden,” said Turpin.

A lowlight was the competition and the “one-up-manship” she felt in the advanced classes. She was surrounded by students who were descendants of Nobel prize winners and could recite the Canterbury Tales in middle English. Turpin explains that “probably getting together with those people today, it would be very nice and wonderful, it was just in high school you are so filled with angst, everybody is. And they probably were too, I just didn’t realize it at the time.”

Turpin’s advice to high school students today is to realize that you will never know what people are going through, especially the ones that look like they have it all together. “Think of a duck, where they look like they are gliding on the water but underneath their feet are paddling madly,” said Turpin. High school can be a time when people go through a lot of difficult periods, but “life for sure gets better, and if you peak in high school, that would be pretty sad,” said Turpin.

The biggest differences she sees between AHS and Head Royce are the size and diversity. But she worries that the AP classes can be just as competitive. “I’d like for everybody to feel welcome and nurtured and challenged,” said Turpin. She also worries that because of the new technology readily available, students in general are more naive because they don’t get out from behind their phone and experience the world.

Her high school experience most definitely impacts the way she teaches her class. Through feeling intimidated and overwhelmed, she learned that she got the most engaged when the teacher was excited and passionate, and she tries to translate that into the way she teaches. In addition, Turpin wants to demystify the AP test, and teach strategies for how to be successful. “There are tips and tricks that some people already know coming into the class or do without thinking, and if you let others in on those secrets they can do equally as well,” said Turpin.

Roenisch attended boarding school on the East Coast.
Roenisch attended boarding school on the East Coast.

Cynthia Roenisch, who teaches advanced English to sophomores, juniors and seniors, wanted to become a teacher because she is passionate about public education and loves the energy of teenagers. In addition, a lot of the skills she got as a lawyer and studying for law school translate into the English classroom.

Roenisch loves teaching English because she gets students to realize “that they don’t know everything yet” and that is OK.  Through exposure to literature and nonfiction and current events in class, Roenisch teaches students the vitality of constant learning and a passion for expanding your point of view through the acquirement of new knowledge.

Roenisch attended the Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut for her high school years. “ Californians need to know that that doesn’t mean I am a problem child. It’s top level education and both my parents and grandparents and everyone went to boarding school,” said Roenisch.

Roenisch loved boarding school for a multitude of reasons. At boarding school, you are away from your parents and get to become independent while still living with your friends and teachers, all while “creating an identity for yourself,” Roenisch also always had small classes of no more than 15 students, pushing every student to “be involved and think and challenge your ideas,” an atmosphere that Roenisch hopes she brings to her classroom at AHS.

Roenisch truly loved the whole experience. When asked if she would want to do anything differently, she responded “not a darn thing.” The things that stood out most to her were the independence of being away from home and having to learn how to live with a stranger at the age of 14 and manage her time wisely. Also, because it was co-ed, she learned “absolute comfort with males as well as females because you are eating dinner together you are in class together, you are really living with one another.” This made it an easier transition to college.

Roenisch’s advice to high school students is to be “open to new experiences, new opinions, to really get to know people when you go to college, and listen about their experiences because until you understand their experiences you can’t understand why they think the way they do.” Doing that, you can help them and they can help you figure out who you are and what you stand for, she says.

Roenisch also believes in the importance of activism. She encourages everyone who turns 18 to register to vote, because you can’t complain about government unless you are willing to take a part in it. “I really encourage people to be active in their small communities. Start small and it goes all the way up to the national level. So be active, pitch in, do the best job that you can do, and don’t wait for people to ask you to pitch in,” said Roenisch.

The biggest differences she sees between her high school experience and what AHS is like is the way school is taught. At the boarding school, because class sizes were small, you didn’t get to check out and there was an absolute understanding and expectation that all students would be prepared and participate. Also, the representation of different opinions and the willingness to have opinions tested is quite different. “I don’t think we do as good a job here, making it a comfortable place for all people to express their opinions without labeling them or taking them personally. And I think that is work that needs to be done both on the staff’s end and student end also,” said Roenisch.

“I loved every minute of my education, and I hope I bring that passion to the classroom,” said Roenisch.

Carman attended Skyline High School.
Carman attended Skyline High School.

Chris Carman, English and Academy teacher, wanted to become a teacher because he loves literature and wants to try to pass on the interpretation of poetry and literature to young people. Some of the amazing teachers he had at Cal inspired him to pass the skill of literary analysis on.

Carman loves literature because “you can read a great work of literature many times and you can see something new every time you look at it.” He has been teaching the same works for a long time now, yet he still sees things he did not notice before and gets insights from students.

His favorite moments are not specific, “just ‘aha’ moments where a student gets something or sees something they hadn’t seen before,” said Carman.

Carman went to Skyline High School in Oakland during a time period of great social upheaval that translated into the environment of the school. ”Skyline was kind of a tense place when I went there because there was a lot of racial tension in Oakland at the time.  This was a time like Black Panthers, Civil Rights movement stuff, so it was kind of tense in Oakland,” said Carman.

He did not like high school that much because he felt he was one of the outsiders. This was a time period that cliques were flourishing, so there were “jocks and hippies” and he felt he didn’t quite fit in with these specific groups. “I had friends at Skyline, but we kind of kept to ourselves to be honest. I wasn’t a big part of the mix,” said Carman.

Carman fell in love with mountaineering and backpacking, and ended up reading literature icons like John Muir that excited him. He felt like he spent most of high school wanting to be in the mountains, so when he fell in with a group of kids that were older that took him under their wing and took him to the mountains to hike, he loved it.

He enjoyed being a journalism student and reporting news stories, and he liked his English and social studies classes. “The quality of the teaching was fine but not great,” said Carman. Some of his English started him on the road of loving literary analysis that was further extended once he got to Cal. He started reading the work of Beat poets, which “opened up a whole counter culture that I was unaware of. It felt like an expansion of consciousness,” said Carman.

Carman was classmates with Tom Hanks, who was a year behind him in school. “We were chemistry lab partners together. And neither of us were really good at chemistry and we barely helped each other squeak through in class,” said Carman.

If he could do anything different in his high school years, he would want to be less judgemental about people. “I had a tendency to be highly judgemental about people based on the social group that they were associated with,” said Carman.

“Oh and I would have asked out a girl that I thought was really cute,” said Carman.

His advice to students in high school now is to put your cell phones away and go into nature. Experience the real world out from behind your electronics.

The main differences he sees between AHS and Skyline (at the time) is that AHS has a more “welcoming, accepting” feeling at the time. The environment was so charged and there was a lot of racial tension that he does not sense is prevalent here.

The main thing he learned from his high school days that he has applied to his teaching is that he doesn’t want to be the teacher that is burned out. “Even if I was in it for years, which I have been, I wasn’t going to be the guy that was going through the motions. I think that is a big deal,” said Carman. His impression of high school teachers, especially male ones, were that they were a lot of “deadwood and losers,” with some exceptions.

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