Featured in this week’s Between Classes is professor Suellyn Henke. As a highly appreciated and extremely well loved mentor, Henke is a professor in the Education Department at Albion College. She is also a regular professor of the first year seminar, Mauka & Makai: Place and Education in Hawai’i.
After a stressful week of classes in the middle of the semester, Henke and I had some free time on a Friday afternoon to sit down for a chat. Often accompanied by the well known campus therapy dog, Kai, we settled down in the very welcoming and comforting environment of her office.
Jessica Behrman: How has your day been going?
Suellyn Henke: Kai and I have had a good day. We just got back from the library visiting some friends.
JB: I’m excited to hear your story, I often hear students complimenting you. So many people love you on campus.
SH: That is so sweet. I can’t imagine being a very interesting piece in the paper, but if I can help you, I will.
JB: So, to get right to it, did you always plan on going into the field of education?
SH: No, not a bit. I never thought at all about education. So my bachelor’s degree is in philosophy and interdisciplinary studies. I also had a minor in creative writing. During my studies, I had to fill a class, so I took a directed internship where I went to school, like an alternative school, for one semester. I did that my junior year, and I got curious about it because I had never reflected on schooling before that. And so, I thought well this is just a curiosity. I never wanted to teach or anything like that. I was pretty shy.
And then I went on for my masters degree. I thought I was going to be a librarian, and I thought, “Well, I like to write,” and I was quiet, and I just thought it would be really cool to recommend books to people and work with teenagers that way. So, I started off as a masters in educational leadership in media specialist. And then my first semester doing that I had an assistant-ship so I could teach. I had a class with someone who was a critical theorist in education, and his name is Henry Drew. If you ever look him up, he has hundreds and hundreds of books. People come from all over the world to study with him, and I just happened to be babysitting his kids. And, so, I took his class that semester. It just made me feel like if you really care about society and care about the world, then education and teaching is something that you should do. It’s just really galvanic, my impression of what matters about teaching. So, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to do this. I really want to teach.” So, I switched my master to an arts in teaching. They let me keep my assistant-ship, but it took me three years to go through my masters and teach.
JB: Was it hard to switch your academic education focus? What interested you in teaching?
SH: I’m really quiet. So, the hardest part for me was doing the whole public speaking and being in front of people and teaching. The first time I had to do a practice lesson, I had to run out of the room, and I freaked out. I just couldn’t do it. Everyone was looking at me. So, it was a lot to go back in there, but I am so glad I did.
I taught in Cincinnati public schools for about five and a half years. So, I got my masters and went on and taught, and I loved it. It was an urban high school, and I just really really loved it. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything else. But I was pregnant with my second son and the school I taught at I was really invested in. I helped build a school within a school. Our teachers got together and built a partnership with the university. It was a school within a school to help at risk ninth graders. So, I loved what I was doing, but with the birth of my second son, I had to be absent every once in awhile because of kid’s appointments and sick days. Whenever I was absent, a student would get in trouble in my class. The trouble was seen as the school to prison pipeline. So, when I saw one of my students get suspended or expelled I would think “Oh, if only I was there, they would’ve come in my room and hung out or stopped by, and I couldn’t stop it.”
It was a real pull, so I decided to take the next step and start a doctoral program at the university nearby, because I was curious about a lot of things. Like, “why it was so bad for the students I was teaching?” It was so clear to me that they weren’t getting what they needed in school, and they weren’t getting supported. I would watch the news and one of my students’ family members or someone they knew would be getting handcuffed or something. It was really upsetting. So, I had a lot of questions about where I was teaching. So, after my kids, I decided to start on my doctoral degree and go back to teaching high school because I really just loved it. I cried when I left and I just couldn’t imagine leaving.
JB: Where did you end up after that?
SH: So, then I started my PhD, and I thought I would just do a year of that and then go back into school, but I got really invested in doing my doctoral work. I actually ended up writing my dissertation about how a broadcast arrest of my teenage student in my school in downtown Cincinnati got told, and how it had an impact and how people saw urban high schools and students. They would have the idea that they would need to be policed and that they were criminals.
So, I was finishing up my research and teaching part time at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I was teaching in a visitors position while finishing my dissertation. I really liked to think about multiculturalism and all the different perspectives of schooling and how the school I taught at was a range. I had African American and Appalachia students. It was a very interesting cultural mix. So, I was curious about it, and so I knew I wanted to go somewhere with a lot of diversity. So, I applied for a lot of jobs and had a lot of interviews because it was just one of those times there was actually a lot of positions for faculty in education. So, I had a lot of choices. So, after my dissertation I really wanted to help students who were studying to become teachers, because I just felt a passion about the difference you could make by working at schools. So, I decided to go into teacher education, which is a little different because my doctorate was actually in curriculum and cultural studies. A lot of the people I worked with went on to usually go the more research route. But teaching mattered to me more.
JB: So what was your first job after you finished school? Did you end up teaching high school students again or just college level courses?
SH: I took my first job in Hilo Hawaii. It was my first academic job. I went there because a good friend of mine who studied in Hilo just said that it was really diverse, but it has a laid back kind of feel to it, and [she thought I would] really like it. I had never been to Hawaii or anything like that, so my spouse and I went out for the interview, and I just loved it. I was really fortunate that a lot of the people I got to work within my department were native Hawaiian. They were really helpful in helping me understand local culture and perspectives. So, I taught at the University of Hawaii Hilo for two years. Honestly, I just loved it so much. It had a huge impact on me, but it was really far away from home. The two young kids and a death in the family while we lived there just made it hard. We were really far from the grandparents, and we realized some of the things we would be sacrificing to stay. It was a really hard decision, but some of the pieces that I really loved about teaching and living in Hawaii were that it was so communal. It was very community-minded and wasn’t as individualistic. There was a lot of multiculturalism and diversity, and you had to be aware of other cultures. And be respectful and learn. I just really valued that.
When I first looked for jobs after leaving Miami University, I actually got an offer to teach at Albion. I had lots of options, but I turned it down. And I liked everything about Albion, but I had the opportunity to go somewhere totally different, so I went to Hawaii. So, when I decided to apply for jobs again, I emailed the [Albion] department chair at the time, and said ‘I don’t even know if you’ll consider me again, but if so, I would love to come.’ I cried when I left Hawaii. The students put together a graduation slideshow for me before I left. My heart is there. I have a part of my heart in all the places I’ve been. I am pretty fortunate to go back and visit and build some bridges.
JB: Did you ever take a break from school or did you just keep going until you finish your PhD?
SH: I just kept going. I was always working throughout it by babysitting. I worked in a lot of bookstores. Overall, I went straight through from high school to college to my masters degree, which took a long time. I had part time jobs in between and during. Then, I had a five year break before going back for more. The more experience, the better.
JB: What brought you to Albion? Are there any parts of Albion that you really enjoy?
SH: The things I love about Albion, that are similar to Hilo, is that it is a small community, it’s diverse and very community minded. When I work in the local schools and with people from the community it really matters. It has that feel to me that I like so much. So when I was hired again here we were just starting [the teacher education program]. I was super excited because we were building a program at the time and working with the faculty and local community. And I love teaching here because they allow you to be creative and come up with different sorts of lasses. You get to build relationships with students and it has been really meaningful. But at the end of the day, I would have never thought that I would have ended up here. Especially from being a quiet and reserved person. I knew I wanted to work with teenagers, but only in like a library.