My name is Jessica Huls and I graduated from the Teacher Education Program (TEP) in 2012 with a Master’s Degree in Education and as a Noyce Mathematics Scholar. I obtained my Bachelor of Art’s Degree in Mathematics and Sociology from UCSB as well ( Go Gauchos)! I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the third grade and specifically a math teacher since the 7th grade. During my freshman year, I took the Writing 2 course for students interested in the education field. One of our assignments was to interview a professor at UCSB and I was extremely fortunate to meet Professor Sue Johnson for the first time. She informed me about an “internship” opportunity with CalTeach at a local junior high or high school where I could obtain field experience that I needed to apply for acceptance to the UCSB teaching education program. During the spring quarter of my freshman year, I volunteered at Goleta Valley Junior High.
Upon graduating from TEP, I taught at a K-8 school in San Jose, where I was the only 7th and 8th grade math teacher. Being the only math teacher was challenging so I decided to transfer to a neighboring high school with a well established math department. What a difference it made! I realized how crucial it is to collaborate with other colleagues. They are your best resource! However, during spring break of my second year at that school, I visited Portland, OR. I instantly fell in love with the city so I decided to pack my car and drive up to the Pacific Northwest at the end of the school year. Since arriving in Portland, I have been teaching math at the same Title One high school with one of the most diverse student populations in Oregon, representing 29 different countries around the globe. I am now in my fourth year at the school and absolutely love working with students from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. It would have been my 5th year but I took a year off to travel around the world.
GGSE: What inspires you to see so much of the world?
Huls: During the 2017-2018 school year, in addition to math classes, I taught a CTE (Career and Technical Education) course entitled Introduction to Education. One of the units for the Education course I taught was about how education differs around the world. I had students read “Smartest Kids in the World” which describes how the education system differs in the US, South Korea, Finland and Poland. Preparing for and teaching this class sparked my interest in taking a year off to travel around the world to experience first hand how education is different in other countries. Further, one of the great benefits of being a teacher, at least in my district, is that I am guaranteed a job if I come back within two years. Knowing I had job security made it easier to pack my bags and take a year off.
GGSE: Where have you been?
Huls: The short answer: Everywhere besides South America and Antarctica. I toured Europe during the summer of 2018. I came back to the US for a few weeks in September for three weddings (coincidentally, they were all back-to-back so it made it convenient for me) and then I left again in October 2018. In the fall I went to Asia, then from late December to March, I was in New Zealand, then traveled to Australia for a month-and-a-half. I then spent the last 8 weeks of my trip in southern and eastern Africa.
GGSE: What has most surprised you in your travels?
Huls: What I learned from my experiences visiting and volunteering at different schools around the world. One school I went to in Malawi (see photo at top of the story), one of the poorest countries in Africa, had 12 teachers for 1500 students. How are they supposed to teach with that class size? I was also surprised by the amount of money it costs for students to go to school. Primary school is free but secondary school is $80/term. I met so many teenagers selling arts and crafts alongside the road. When I spoke with them, they were selling their artwork in order to get money to afford to go to high school and university. It broke my heart.
While in Zambia, I was able to visit two schools. It costs $35 USD to send a child to school for each term and there are three terms per school year (primary to secondary). University is about $1500 USD. To put it in perspective, I visited a quarry in a small village. In a day's work, one parent can make a pile of stones to sell for about $0.05 USD. However, there were days when no one came by to buy a pile of stones. If, let’s say they make $0.05/ day, and it costs $35/ term for them to send one child to school, they have to work 700 days to send one child to school for one term which is impossible. That is why many children do not attend school.
For those who do go to school, uniforms are mandatory. Some children only have one set of clothes so it is good that they do not have to compare the quality and quantity of their outfits to others.
In Zambia, the typical age of a high school graduate is 25. This is because during some years students have to take a year off to work in order to continue funding their education. If they take a year off, they have to repeat the year they did before going into the next year. For example, if they took a year off after completing year 8, they do not go straight into year 9, but instead they repeat year 8 again.
I also volunteered at a school in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (second photo). These students were so well behaved! The children respect their teachers as much as they respect their parents. If teachers and education were more respected by lawmakers and society in the US, the US education system would be so much better.
I also visited a local area school in the middle of the farm country on the South Island of New Zealand. It was a K-12 school with only 250 students in total! Each class had about 5-15 students. There were two math teachers who taught 7-12th grade math. The math teacher who I talked with was expected to teach Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus in one class. She had very small class sizes but I gave a lot of respect to her for being able to teach many different math levels in one class period. What I thought was interesting was that students need 80 credits to graduate high school. A math standard such as “Evaluating Logarithms” is 2 credits. However, if you take a course on how to use a kayak you get 10 credits. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to see how education is different in other countries during this year abroad.
GGSE: What's next?
Huls: I am so happy to be back in the classroom! I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I didn’t teach for a year. Traveling was great, but teaching is so much better! Having a purpose and being able to fulfill that purpose is just amazing.
I have only been back for a month now, but so far this has been the strongest start to any school year. I have grown personally and professionally during the past year and have implemented some changes into my teaching and classroom as a result of my experiences. After volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery in Myanmar, I realized the importance of mindfulness. This year, I decided to omit math warm ups ( students never really did them anyway) and have instead incorporated “Mindful Minute” into my class. At the beginning of each class period, I take one minute for the students to settle in as their lives and schedules are hectic. They are expected to only have a five minute passing period between classes and immediately start a different subject. It is important that as a society, we take more time during the day to focus on our minds. I tell them that whatever happened in first period, put it behind them, because now we are in a new class period, with a new teacher with a different group of classmates. This is a good way for students to have the benefit of a restart. It is also great for me as an educator. If, for example, I had a stressful first period, in the past years, I would have carried over that stress to my other class periods. However, now I have implemented time in my day to do a mental restart as well. In my class, Mindful Minute comes in all different forms such as body scanning, focusing on breathing, writing in their gratitude journal, listening to a guided meditation, or sitting in complete silence for one minute. I was expecting a lot of pushback but my students have expressed their appreciation of it. There was one day where we had a guest speaker who came in at the beginning of class so we didn’t do Mindful Minute. A student, later in that period, raised her hand and asked if we were going to do it. I can tell most students really look forward to it. It has changed my classroom culture tremendously as well as me as an educator. I couldn’t be happier about how this school year has started and it makes me so excited about walking into the classroom each day!
GGSE: Add anything you feel important that was not covered in the questions.
Huls: If you have the opportunity to travel abroad, try and visit a school while you are there! Even if you are on a one week vacation for spring break, stop in a school in the country that you are in and talk with the students and teachers. it is amazing to see how education differs in other countries. You can then bring back what you learned to your classroom and students. I have shared bits and pieces of my travels with my students. They have expressed their appreciation of learning about different cultures and educational systems.