Amika Kemmler-Ernst has changed the way that Boston students learn by starting at the source: the teachers. She is a retired Boston Public School (BPS) teacher, but is still mentoring and creating a supportive community for the next generation of teachers from her home in Jamaica Plain.
When Kemmler-Ernst was young, she wanted to be an astronomer. But when she had the opportunity to teach kindergartners in Sunday school, her love for teaching began.
“These five year olds had an innate curiosity that nobody could dampen, as if anyone would want to,” she said. “When I looked at my peers, their interests in learning were not intrinsic—they wanted to get a good grade to get into a good school to get a good job to make a lot of money. To me that felt horrible.”
Kemmler-Ernst started wondering what it was that “killed curiosity” in students, and her life work has since been focused on nurturing and maintaining that curiosity among students.
“There are no simple answers,” Kemmler-Ernst said about maintaining curiosity in young students. “But you have to have positive relationships, get to know your students and build on their existing interests in your teaching. Every student needs an entry point to the subject that they’re learning. They need to feel that they can do it, and have success, and get excited about it, and be aware of what they’re learning.”
Kemmler-Ernst said that she recommends interdisciplinary, inquiry-based and project-based learning.
“We all learn best when we make connections to what we know,” she said.
Kemmler-Ernst began teaching in Brookline in 1969 and later received her Ed.D. in education from Harvard University. In 2006, Kemmler-Ernst transitioned from teaching students to working full-time as a BPS New Teacher Developer (NTD), mentoring 14 different teachers every year from a variety of schools, mostly K-8.
Kemmler-Ernst said that that was not an “evaluative position, but more of a support position.” The NTD program is a joint effort on behalf of BPS and Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and was designed to help new teachers improve by mentors observing their classes and meeting weekly to discuss their strengths and concerns. She said that the work “helped people survive their first year as a teacher and deepen their practice.”
“We were helping teachers solve their own problems, not in a prescriptive way, it was more, ‘What are you struggling with? How can I help?’” said Kemmler-Ernst.
She said that the NTD provides advice, but noted that “generally when you tell people what to do, they don’t learn as much as when they figure it out for themselves.” NTDs provide resources and ideas to new teachers in order to help them succeed.
“[Mentoring] is never as challenging as classroom teaching,” Kemmler-Ernst said. “There is nothing more challenging than classroom teaching. You’re ‘on’ all the time. But when you’re working with adults, some of the things you know about working with kids is also true.”
Kemmler-Ernst said that finding students’ strengths is the key to helping them get better, and it is the same with adults.
“We blossom when people know what we do well and appreciate us,” she said.
She started First Fridays in 2007 when she served as a NTD. First Fridays is a mentoring program to help first-year teachers perform better in the classroom. It is a monthly open house at Kemmler-Ernst’s home and gives teachers the chance to share stories, discuss concerns, and gain feedback and support from their peers. First Fridays were originally intended for new teachers, although alumni of the program have continued to attend and remain connected to each other. Kemmler-Ernst retired in 2009, but she continues to host First Fridays when she is not traveling.
Kemmler-Ernst said that she still hosts First Fridays because helping teachers is very rewarding to her.
“You’re helping more than one person when you’re working with teachers because you’re helping them to impact their students, too,” she said.
“The best teachers are always learning,” she said. “You may gain mastery of a subject, but you never gain mastery of a kid.”
Kemmler-Ernst, who has lived in JP since 1980, continues to volunteer regularly at the Curley K-8 School working with teachers and students. She also creates a monthly photo essay for the BTU’s newsletter, entitled “We’re Learning Here.” The essay includes photos from classrooms around Boston and are captioned by the students who describe what they are learning.
“It’s important to ask kids what they’re learning,” Kemmler-Ernst said. “Reflection is a practice to provide engagement.”
Reflecting on her long career teaching in Boston, Kemmler-Ernst said that schools are “definitely better than they used to be.” She said that in the late 1960s, most elementary school classrooms had rows of desks and kids never talked to each other. Now, it’s expected that kids talk to each other and work together as part of their learning process, and desks are normally seen in circle shapes, which Kemmler-Ernst sees as a positive change.
Kemmler-Ernst said that the high school dropout rate is “ridiculous,” but that it used to be higher in the 1950s and 1960s. She also said that schools are now educating students with autism, which was not done when she started teaching.
“When I started teaching, they believed that the way of learning was like building a tower,” Kemmler-Ernst said. “There was this whole idea of the ‘basics’ and how those came first. You had to learn how to add and subtract before you could learn how to multiply, for example.”
But Kemmler-Ernst says that studies have shown that this isn’t the best metaphor for how people learn.
“The image looks more like a web. You start at the center of the web and the way you learn is to make connections to what you already know.”
For teachers interested in attending a First Friday meeting, contact Amika at 617-522-5730 or email [email protected]