#198 – An Educational Journey, with Rena Clark

Unpacking Education July 5, 2023 33 min

In this episode, we talk with Unpacking Education cohost Rena Clark about her teaching career. From her personal experience as a struggling reader who did not want to be a teacher, to a successful career as an elementary teacher, district learning coach, and educational leader, Rena shares what she’s learned along the way.

Overall, Rena says, “I have lots of hopes and things for the future. I think it’s looking good. We’re heading in the right direction, just not as fast as I would like.” She believes that schools are striving to provide students with more choice, leverage family and community assets, understand each other better, and offer creative options to students, and teachers are increasing their use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies when planning lessons.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

Maya Angelou, author

Core Values

As Rena finished up her degree in school administration, she had an opportunity to reflect and redefine her core values. She feels that it’s essential to identify these values, and then align your practices to them. For Rena, these values include joy, equity, and creativity. Throughout our conversation with Rena, these values resonate and can be heard embedded into nearly every comment and insight she offers. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Rena Clark is one of the hosts of Unpacking Education. She has work experience as an elementary teacher, a digital learning coach, and a district-wide STEM facilitator. She also recently completed her administration certification at the University of Washington. Rena comes from a family of educators.
  • Growing Up: Rena grew up in Walla Walla, Washington, a town of around 30,000 that is located about 5 hours from Seattle. She is the middle child in her family and has an older and younger brother, both educators. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, is a college professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla. Rena had a busy childhood, filled with soccer, basketball, volleyball, ice hockey, horse riding, and piano lessons.
  • Early Academic Struggles: Rena recalls, “In third grade, I couldn’t read. Reading was super hard, which then makes everything hard.” In hindsight, Rena believes she had been struggling with dyslexia. These early experiences influenced the way she approached teaching.
  • Pulled From Her Passion: Her academic struggles led Rena to be pulled out of one of her passion areas—art—to receive extra services. With her parents as advocates, she worked hard and was able to reenter her art classes. In retrospect, she says, “We pull kids out or make them do double duty, and then they don’t have access to other areas where they could really thrive.” Rena believes that we should find ways to keep students engaged in their passions, even when they’re struggling in core content areas.
  • Kindling a Passion: Although Rena did not want to be a teacher growing up, her views began to shift during her college years. Through her passions for sports and music, she had a lot of coaching and camp opportunities where she worked with kids. She also did some tutoring and found she really enjoyed it. Rena discovered that working with kids combined all of these things she loved, and she decided to pursue a master’s program for teaching at the University of Washington.
  • The Value of Mentors: Rena is grateful for the mentor teachers who have helped her develop her teaching skills and philosophy. She shares that she had an “amazing mentor teacher” when she began teaching third grade and another “amazing teaching partner” when she moved to a new district to teach 6th grade. Rena believes this new mentor helped transform her teaching. She says, “I had the luxury of having an amazing teaching partner who introduced me to this thing called computer science. She introduced me to, we didn’t have a name for it then, but project-based learning essentially, and I completely shifted my learning. And I learned about being a lead learner through that experience—and really releasing control of my classroom. So my teaching really shifted in those 2 years. I would bring things in that I had no idea how to use, like computer science and Scratch, and be like, ‘You teach me, and we’ll figure this out, and we’ll integrate it into what we’re doing.’”
  • The Power of Parenthood: Rena says, “Once I became a mom—and I had this experience of like having my own human that I cared so deeply about—when I was in the classroom, I thought every single one of my students was someone’s baby, and I really shifted. I’d go home at the end of the day and think, ‘If my kid was in my class, was today good enough? Would I think it’s good enough?’ And if it wasn’t, I was going to do something different. And that really shifted my thinking. And I cared about students deeply, but it was a different way of thinking about students.”
  • Opportunities for Creativity and Ownership: Rena always looks for ways to allow students to be creative and own their learning. Oftentimes, this includes the integration of technology. In addition to a flight unit and projects with computer programming tools like Makey Makey, Rena recalls teaching the hero’s journey by having students program with Scratch and create interactive and creative projects for classmates to experience. Her students even shared their projects through a district-wide tech expo. She says, “It was really about the kids being the leaders,” and adds, “That was a big shift.”
  • A Broader Perspective: Rena feels like her experience as a digital learning coach and STEM facilitator has given her broader perspective. She says, “Being at district office, things were enlightened that you just can’t see when you’re just in the classroom, and I could see some systems-level changes and what was going on.”
  • An Administration Program: Rena recently completed her administration program, and she has found this to be another growth experience. She says, “It really forced me to get to know myself and dig back into my beliefs. . . . What are my core values? What are my beliefs?”
  • Support System: Rena takes time at the end of the episode to thank her family and her “amazing husband” for being her unconditional support system. She shares how important it is to have that someone who “has your back no matter what.” She encourages all teachers to find that person in their lives.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What did you learn from your childhood that helped you become a better educator?
  • What did you learn from your earliest days as an educator?
  • Who or what has helped you improve your craft as an educator?
  • What are your passions, and how can you integrate those into your work?
  • What are your core values, and how do they impact your actions as an educator?
  • Where do you see hope for education in the future?
  • Who makes up your support system?

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