The Path of Patrick O’Kane from Navarra to Sturgis (Summer 2016)

Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty.

By Patrick O’Kane, Principal – Sturgis East

"Un hijo trae el pan bajo el brazo" (Every baby comes with a loaf of bread)

“Un hijo trae el pan bajo el brazo”
(Every baby comes with a loaf of bread)

The woman rocked the child in a state of nervous anxiety. She desperately needed to get him to calm down…..doze off….anything….just be quiet. Her husband was addressing the faculty of the University of Navarra and her infant child didn’t care that his father wasn’t quite the fluent Spanish speaker the audience had anticipated. The baby was simply tired or hungry or teething or…it didn’t matter, he was just too loud for the crowd–a crowd already straining to understand what this visiting American professor was attempting to say.

Amid a growing number of annoyed looks and loud sighs from those around her, the infant’s mother tried rocking him on her other shoulder as she silently prayed to God to quiet her child. Unbelievably, two minutes passed without a sound. After five minutes of calm, her husband shooting her a glance of gratitude, the woman offered a quiet prayer of thanks as she glanced at her newborn baby. To her surprise, she realized that ‘God’ had taken the form of an elderly Spanish woman quietly feeding sugar cubes to the now content six week old child, Patrick O’Kane.

My journey to Sturgis Charter Public School was underway.

O.K. Maybe that is a bit of a stretch. The idea of charter schools, let alone that of Sturgis Charter Public School, was probably not even conceived in 1973.   Yet, I can argue that infant, secure in his mother’s arms hearing, smelling, breathing the air of Spain was destined to become a Spanish teacher….one who would arrive at Sturgis in 2009 after a winding path through multiple educational institutions. What follows is a glimpse of my journey over the past 20 years.

Bilbao, Spain–1996

Traineras--not my crew, but similar conditions

Traineras–not my crew, but similar conditions

“Espuma, por favor?” No luck…again. My tailbone started to throb. I desperately needed foam. Not shaving cream, but rather the type that filled cushions in couches and easy chairs. Rowing had been a passion of mine since my introduction to the sport at the University of Richmond.   Rowing “traineras” was a bit different than rowing 8 man shells, however. Traineras, or whaleboats, traveled in open water, weighed about 500 pounds and held 14 rowers wedged between two fixed pieces of wood–hence my desperate and ultimately unsuccessful search for foam to cushion my lower back.

Orange Trees in Seville

Orange Trees in Seville

Upon graduation from Richmond in 1995 with a double major in History and Spanish, I was eager to return to Spain. Perhaps it was the primal urge to relive the comfort I experienced with my mother as an infant. More likely, however, it was the desire to re-live my junior semester abroad in Seville. Nothing can compare to the smell of the orange trees in Seville in the springtime. While not edible, these trees that line the streets of this southern spanish city infuse every experience and every conversation with an air of sweetness and excitement. When I first arrived in Seville in late January of 1994, this smell was my first impression of life abroad–or maybe it triggered the latent sense of comfort instilled when I was an infant. This impression imbedded itself into my mind as I walked daily to and from class through the gypsy neighborhoods of La Triana and Los Remedios.

Great Wall of China, 2008

Great Wall of China, 2008

I have seen many sites since that Spring of my junior year; The Great Pyramids, Paris, Rome, The Alps, The Great Wall of China…. However, that smell of oranges, coupled with the view of La Giralda and La Torre de Oro along the Guadalquivir River, remains the strongest, most comforting reminder of my life abroad. I knew then, as I walked the streets of Seville in 1994, that I had caught the travel bug and things would never be the same.

So I returned. I landed a job as an English teacher at a primary school outside of Bilbao. I lived in a university residence with 80 Spanish college students, traveled to nearly every city in Spain, achieved my desired level of fluency in Spanish, and yes, destroyed my lower spine attempting to row whale boats with Basque men vastly tougher than me.

Hiking in Bilbao with 4th graders in 1996

Hiking in Bilbao with 4th graders in 1996

It was my first experience as a teacher and it was….horrible. I taught hour long classes to first through fifth graders with no curriculum, no support, and no idea of how to teach. Over the course of that school year I learned the value of patience, fortitude, and most importantly, planning your lessons. My learning curve was steep but the trajectory was always positive. By Spring of 1996, my teaching had improved greatly and I realized I loved being in the classroom with children. Cognizant that I needed to learn how to work smarter in the classroom, I decided to return to the US and enroll in a one year intensive Master’s of Education program at New York University.

Brooklyn, New York, September 1997

I stood in the office of the Head of Alternative Schools, Master’s Degree in hand, totally exasperated. The director, name long forgotten, peered over his spectacles and, with a sigh, explained that there were simply no history teacher openings two days before the start of school. I repeated, for the fifth time that day that I had been incorrectly promised a position where I had student taught. I had just found out the previous week that my spot was taken by a transfer teacher. If only I had a file number, I would……He politely interrupted my rant and suggested I return in mid-October to see if any new teachers had quit by then. Dejected, I turned to leave. Before reaching the door, I turned and in a off-hand manner said, “I also speak Spanish.”           

(Director)                  “Patrick O’Kane speaks Spanish?”

(Me)                             ‘No, really. I majored in it and spent a year teaching English in Spain. I am….”

(Director)                  “Say something to her [his Latino secretary] in Spanish”

(Me)                            “¿Qué quieres que yo diga? Es que necesito un trabajo.

(Secretary)               “He speaks fine”

(Director)                 “Here are three openings in three high schools. Good Luck”

Three hours later, I was hired as a Spanish language teacher at Brooklyn College Academy (BCA), a 7-10 public middle/high school in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn.

I spent three unforgettable years at BCA with some of the most dedicated and practical educators I have ever met. Maria Fisher, Ivonne Sanchez, April McKoy, Rosemary Maher, and Madeline Lumacchi provided me with great examples of what it meant to educate the whole child. They were firm and fair. They were funny. They knew what rules were important and which could be bent. They were blunt. They had seen it all and accepted no excuses. I soaked it all up like a sponge. I taught four sections of Spanish and rounded out my schedule by teaching middle school physical education in a space with 6 foot high ceilings.

The most important lesson I learned during this three year stage of my journey was that all students could learn. My colleagues were adamant about this point and worked 24/7 to prove it. The work turned in and the depth of understanding I witnessed from (most of) these students was of high caliber and would be indistinguishable from any work I or any of my peers turned in from high school. If I had any preconceived notions about who could and could not learn, they were quickly dispelled by the students at BCA.

Suburban New Jersey, Spring 2002

You’re going to Voorhees?

I can still remember the look of betrayal on Alex’s face as he confronted me with my dirty little secret in May of 2002.

“Yes, Alex, but don’t be offended. you will always be my….most…uh…memorable student.”

I was nearing the end of my second year as a middle school Spanish teacher at Long Valley Middle School and I naively believed that nobody knew I was leaving for the high school 4 miles down the road in the North Hunterdon-Voorhees district. Two days later, as I explained this to my Principal, he confided that he had known this for weeks, as his daughters both attended Voorhees High School and…well, word spreads quickly in these parts.

I taught in New Jersey for a total of 7 years; 2 at Long Valley Middle School and 5 at Voorhees High School.   I was a Spanish teacher for 6 classes per day for 7 years. Looking back, these were the years in which I really came to understand how to effectively teach languages. I learned the role of grammar (over-emphasized in most classrooms), the value of connecting with students over content, and became enthralled with the possibilities that the newly minted “World Wide Web” presented teachers in all subject areas.

Egypt, 2007

Egypt, 2007

Perhaps the most influential colleague during these years was a woman named Magaly Reluzco. Maggie and I came to Voorhees High School in the same year. Three years after our arrival, enrollment in the upper levels of Spanish had doubled. I would love to claim credit for these changes, but the truth is that I was in the right place in the right time. Maggie was a stellar teacher and a pied piper with the students. My strength, I suppose, was in my ability to recognize this and learn as much from her approach as possible. Most of the tools in my teacher toolbox are blatant copies of techniques and methods used by Senora Reluzco and I am forever indebted to her for making me a better teacher.

Chitzen Itza, Mexico, 2011

Chitzen Itza, Mexico, 2011

Teaching Spanish day in and day out, however, took its toll in ways I could not have foreseen. The constant reminder of Spanish culture nagged at me and kept me eager to return to life abroad. Since my return from Bilbao, I managed to take a few trips (Mexico, Thailand, Spain, and Puerto Rico), but a week or two in another country is vastly different from spending a year there. So during my fourth year at Voorhees, I applied for a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Argentina. District red tape kept me from this opportunity but my wanderlust remained and the next year I found a position in the international teaching world–in Rotterdam, Holland. Another stage in my journey was set to begin.

The American International School of Rotterdam (AISR)

Holland

Holland

I pedaled hard as I shifted into 12th gear on my red mountain bike, a gift to myself during my senior year of college that had survived several crashes, one theft, and a trans-Atlantic trip to my new home in Rotterdam. I was biking my way to school during the third week of classes at AISR and was running a bit late. As I pushed hard along the Rotte River, I heard the noise of a bike behind me. Competitive by nature, I unconsciously pedalled even harder, only to find that same bike effortlessly passing me. Depression really set in when I realized the woman rider was accompanied by a 3 year old on a back seat and an infant perched in front on a handlebar seat….and she was speaking to somebody on her cell phone. Welcome to Holland.

Purchasing a new Dutch-style bike was the first of many adaptations I made during this next stage in my journey. Accompanied by my wife, Charity, and son, Tiernan, we navigated our new environment as a team. During our two years in Rotterdam, we struggled through the seemingly endless layers of bureaucracy, waiting for three weeks in an empty apartment for our shipment of clothing and furniture to clear customs. We learned the importance of looking right three times when crossing streets…once for the bike lane, once for the car lane, and then again for the bike lane on the other side of the street. Together, we sampled stroopwafels, turkish pizzas, hundreds of coffees, ate cheese with nearly every meal and fell in love with kibbeling–deep fried cod. We also travelled to a dozen countries on three continents.

I wore many hats at AISR. I taught Spanish to students in grades 6 through 12. I was a technology facilitator as we rolled out a new learning platform, StudyWiz. I served on several committees for our accreditation review. Most importantly, however, was my first direct experience with the IB curriculum. Starting with my training in Montezuma, New Mexico and continuing during my two years as an IB teacher in Rotterdam, I quickly realized the IB was the curriculum I had been searching for. The approach to Spanish was communicative and focused on what students learned (as opposed to what they didn’t learn). There were no pre-recorded dialogues to suffer through, no endless explorations of grammatical tenses nobody used anyway, and certainly no limit to how creative I could be as a teacher.

AISR Track and Field, 2008

AISR Track and Field, 2008

Most students at AISR would also remember me as an athletic coach. Over the course of two years at AISR, I was fortunate to coach during 7 athletic seasons in volleyball, swimming, basketball, and track and field. It was surreal to travel to another country for a contest. Track competed in the national stadium of Luxembourg as well as Sigtuna, Sweden. Swim meets were in Luxembourg and Sweden. We played basketball in Antwerp, The Hague and Dusseldorf. Volleyball got the short end of the stick and only got to travel to Amsterdam and Hamburg.

Our athletes were from many different countries and many had never played the sport they joined. I recall one conversation with Emil, a six foot four 8th grader from Iceland. I was confused by Emil’s question until I realized his sport experience was limited to soccer. I suppressed a grin and answered that, if he agreed to start turning in his Spanish homework, I would consider allowing him to play both offense and defense during our next basketball game. Thinking he had been granted a huge favor, he thanked me and promptly turned in homework for the rest of the season.

In 2008, the Great Recession was in full force and many expatriates were sent home to save corporate money. While my job at AISR was secure, the enrollment at the school was dangerously low and I decided to return to the US for the next stage in my journey. Little did I know I would hit the jackpot when I hit ‘connect’ and began my Skype interview with Eric Hieser.

Sturgis 2009 – Present

So my journey continues here in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. When I began looking at employment possibilities after AISR, Sturgis was a bit of an afterthought. Once I interviewed with Mr. Hieser, Mr. Marble, and Mr. Steedman, my opinion started to change. For once, I was speaking with educators who appeared to get education right. When I actually visited classrooms and saw that what those three said was actually true, I was sold. IB for All, as I learned over the next few years, spoke to me in every sense of my educational philosophy. My previous schools all had strengths and weaknesses. Sturgis is strong in every area that matters. “Student learning is why we are here”, as Eric Hieser likes to say. Teachers come from a broad range of backgrounds, are experts in their fields, and truly and deeply care about students. Our students also come from a wide range of backgrounds. Sturgis, with the help of the IB Curriculum, educates the entire student and challenges everyone–students and teachers alike–to reach beyond their comfort zone to achieve something previously thought to be impossible. I have found my tribe and can think of no other educational institution that I would rather be a part of.

Principal Patrick O'Kane - Sturgis East Graduation 2016

Principal Patrick O’Kane – Sturgis East Graduation 2016

When I arrived at Sturgis in 2009, I was known as Señor O’Kane, the new Spanish teacher. After a year as a full time Spanish teacher, I started a gradual shift in responsibilities to administration. Over the next four years, my time was shared as Spanish teacher, athletic director, lead language teacher, assistant IB coordinator, and administrative intern. I also enrolled in a part-time doctoral program in educational leadership through Lehigh University.

As I ready for the 2016-17 school year as Principal at Sturgis East, I know that the tools I bring to my new position are the result of a rich mosaic of experiences from two continents, a half dozen schools, and a love of new experiences. I am ready for the next stage in my journey.

 

 

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