A passion for education
Interview by Marcy Stamper
Jim Kistner has spent a lifetime in education – in Germany, in the Methow and in other Washington school districts. Today he is devoting his considerable expertise and contemplative, inquiring perspective to improving education by putting students at the center and by integrating the experiences of teachers and administrators in pedagogy and school leadership.
Can you describe your background and how you came to the Methow and to education?
I was born in Yakima, graduated from high school there. I was an Army paratrooper, spent my time in Germany – that was shortly before Vietnam. I met my future wife, Doris, in Germany. I went to the University of Washington and then we went back to Germany.
I was actually thinking about being a writer. Fortunately I landed a job at a German school that had been founded as part of an educational reform movement. I was teaching and had 12 kids in my family – that’s part of the job. That was really a wonderful introduction to what works, and what doesn’t work, with kids.
I probably could have stayed there easily, but my parents were getting older. The kids we were working with were largely wealthy – the son of the president of Germany, the son of the ambassador to Russia. It was interesting; there was no doubt about it, but I began to think, “Is this what I want to do?” So we came back to Seattle in ’74.
Did you teach in German?
I taught in English – my German was pretty weak, although I was pretty fluent by the time I left. I was teaching English and American literature and history, and the language itself. The kids knew more on the average about American literature and history than many of our students do, and their writing was also sophisticated.
I went back to UW, did some graduate work in literature, and that’s when I came to the Methow Valley, from ’76 to ’86, and taught here. That was a wonderful experience. It was quite different, coming from Germany to this environment, and it caused me to rethink how I would work with American kids, especially on language skills and trying to deepen their writing, their critical-thinking skills. The best part of that time was when Bill Hottell and I developed a humanities program. Bill did largely history, music history and art history, and I did literature and philosophy.
Did you already know the Methow, or did you just apply for a job?
I had no clue about this area. I was part of that urban exile group that came over in the early, mid-’70s, so I had these instincts for community, for reconnecting with that environment. This became home for all of us.
Then I was beginning to feel like I wanted to experience some other things, and I had some friends who wanted me to teach at a school in Tacoma. After that I went up to the Bellingham area and was vice-principal for two years, and then principal at one high school for eight years and five years at another, and then retired, so to speak, and came back here.
Now I’m contracting for several organizations, and my work – which I’m absolutely loving and feel honored to be able to do – is on school improvement. I’m also working as a leadership coach with principals. So I’m traveling a lot, but I’m doing work that gives me a sense of purpose and meaning. I think it’s important work and I hope it’s benefiting kids.
What the work is all about is really trying to get a clear, aligned focus on students, and put them at the center. That’s not just an empty phrase. It sounds simple, but schools have not traditionally had that clear focus.
How would you define it?
What do students need, not to learn in just the narrowest academic sense, although that’s important – they need to be able to read, write, speak, think – but what does student learning mean in terms of personal growth? My job is not to come in and do that for people, but to come in and ask the right questions and provide the support. A lot of my work is around reflective practice – one of the things that’s lacking not only in schools, but in most of our lives.
We have to ask honest questions. In a school, you use data, and that can be quite broad. Sometimes that’s stinging and not comfortable, but if it’s taken in without defensiveness, then we begin to really get into a cycle of continuous learning, as an institution, as a school, as a district, but also as individuals.
The other piece is helping institutions make the transition from what I would call 19th-, 20th-century schools, which are like egg cartons, where kids go to each little component and where teachers go into their rooms and close the doors. We need to move from that system – and we are beginning – to one in which there are collegial teams of teachers and leaders working together.
The Methow Valley is really beginning to make some nice moves in that direction – teachers working together and looking at evidence of student learning, and not just abstract data, but talking about real kids. Having students become a larger part of their learning process, and then family and community support.
I can see how this is different from the way it is traditionally done – for instance, when teachers work together and don’t have these atomized subjects – but how does the student-focused part work?
We have stereotypes, frankly, about what traditional schools are or have been. There has been some real quality for the last 100 years, so it’s very important we don’t just say what we used to do is all wrong, but it has not necessarily been systemic.
We are also getting a lot more information about what our kids know. Even though some people question the WASL – and I think it’s really important that we do question standardized testing – it has brought about some clear standards.
The WASL has also made us aware of the achievement gap. Is it surprising that schools that are struggling are by and large in those areas that are largely minority and largely poverty? Schools are not just individual, isolated entities. They’re part of a larger culture.
Some of the serious questions I have are not only about schools but, why, in the wealthiest nation in the world, am I going to schools where 50 percent of the kids are living in poverty? Why are families as stressed as they are in this country? All of that impacts what we’re trying to do in education.
Small districts can’t offer the range of electives that a larger district can, so they often rely on people in the community. But what do you do when people don’t have the skills, or the time or inclination to offer them? How do you give kids a wider choice?
That’s a good question, and I don’t have easy answers. You do the best you can. Not all education happens within the walls of the schools. There are students who have been involved in theater; there is the community garden. There are probably hundreds of things I’m not even aware of where the community is providing educational support.
Do you find economically struggling families have the time to be as involved? Are those kids having their needs met?
When you look at data around the state and ask which kids are achieving and which are struggling, in many cases it is the children of poverty who are struggling. But there are schools in the state that have high minority populations, high poverty, and those kids are achieving at high levels.
How have your experiences been influenced by your roles as a teacher and as an administrator?
When you step from teaching to administration, and step from daily, intimate involvement with students, your focus becomes the system. I have to say that was difficult for me, because I really liked that connection. I made that move because I felt that here’s an opportunity, if I lead well and effectively (it’s always up for grabs) I can influence the lives of lots of people, not only the students who pass through my classroom. What’s happening now in education is that administrators are not only required to be good managers, but we’re also asking our administrators to be instructional leaders.
What about school financing? I know some groups are suing the state for not fulfilling its basic mandate to fund education.
That’s not my area of expertise, so what I say is almost from a “civilian” point of view, but funding has always been an issue. It’s very difficult in this country to do long-term planning, when you don’t know what your finances are going to be.
What we can do is, we don’t blame the kids, we don’t blame the community, we don’t make excuses. At the same time, we do need to speak to the political aspects of schooling in America. So, when people vote, they need to ask themselves, what are the educational philosophies of our candidates, and how will that shape education in the future?
I support charter schools and different approaches to education, but competition alone won’t resolve the issues of poverty, won’t resolve the issues of school inequality and, frankly, won’t resolve our economic system. Competition without a direction or focus leads to a disaster.
Another huge dichotomy between Europe and the United States is that in Europe anybody can go to college without graduating $30 or $40 or $50,000 dollars in debt.
What other things have you done that have been important to you?
It’s really clear that this is my focus and my passion, and I don’t even quite know how I’ve ended up where I am. I’ve learned from raising my own children, and from watching others. I’ve found meaning and purpose through community theater, and through the Confluence. I’ve certainly been outspoken about my political beliefs, because I think it’s important to state honestly what you think and feel, and to do it respectfully. I’ve always given it my best shot.
There is the connection to the natural world. We’re incredibly fortunate that we have that here. I worked three summers for the Youth Conservation Corps, and we worked at the Winthrop Fish Hatchery. We did tree planting and environmental education. When we would take kids into the high country – to watch them change over that week, and become more comfortable, it was really remarkable.
It goes back to learning; being grounded in connections, in purpose, in relationships. Those have been some experiences in my life that have grounded some of the theory in some actual experience.