Staff shifts in the English department provoke changes for the upcoming year



It’s inevitable. It’s constant. It’s new.

It can either make or break a person.

The day before school started, Kelli Potts and Lisa Penninga– members of the English department– were greeted with a substantial change that would shift their entire school year.

For Penninga, her preparations all summer for her usual Honors English 9 and English 11 classes were thrown overboard when she got a shocking phone call while sitting in her kayak.

“It was about three o’clock in the afternoon,” Penninga recalled, “ [and] I was in a kayak out in the middle of the lake at our family cabin. I [was] just enjoying the last day of summer with my kids and our family [when] Mr. George and Mr. Passinault called.”

A teacher from the English department moved out of state for family reasons, which ultimately led to Passinault looking for a new teacher to take over. Passinault and George worked together to make the best decisions that would benefit everyone involved in the transition.

“Mr. George was also instrumental [in discussions] because he’s the department chair,” Passinault said, “so he was involved in discussions with me and the teachers. It was a collaborative discussion.”

After multiple discussions, it was decided that Penninga would be taking over the previous teacher’s classes because Passinault and George felt she was best fit for that role.

The phone call from the principal and the English department chair in the middle of a Sunday afternoon thoroughly surprised Penninga. In the phone call, Penninga was informed that she would be switching to Senior Composition, AP Seminar, and AP Literature (AP Lit)– three classes that Penninga had not prepared for over the summer.

“I was shocked,” Penninga said. “I spent all summer changing things for Honors 9 and English 11 the way that I would want to. For a minute, I was sad that so much of my summer had been wasted essentially because I’m not teaching either of the classes that I planned for and read books for.”

Penninga quickly embraced the change, though, and left her previous preparations in the past, so she would be ready to take on a new school year with all new classes.

With two AP classes, Penninga is required to meet new CollegeBoard expectations that were not previously an issue in Honors 9. Five weeks into the school year, Penninga has discovered that the biggest challenge with the change is adjusting to new requirements and catching up on classes that she missed.

“I am taking a class this October for AP Lit,” Penninga said, “and I’ve just been meeting with the former AP Lit teacher who retired two years ago. She’s amazing and has been a huge asset in letting me know what the expectations are and how I can prepare my students best.”

Change is unfamiliar territory, and Penninga is trekking the foreign road that is AP Seminar one step at a time. Penninga co-teaches AP Seminar with Steve Labenz, which is a substantial change for her. Co-teaching is both new and exciting to Penninga, and she appreciates Labenz’s help and knowledge of different social studies topics to complement her English background for the class.

“It’s really fun [to co-teach],” Penninga said. “I love working with [Labenz], and I think we really compliment each other well. He loves hot topics and is aware of politics and different social studies topics that I don’t really focus on in my classroom. I can bring in more of the English component and help students with their writing and perfecting because writing is a huge part of the class.”

Although Penninga can’t help but miss teaching Honors 9 and watching her freshmen students grow, she has been able to assist Kelli Potts in her part of the English department switch.

“[Potts and I] are very good friends outside of school,” Penninga said. “In school, we work really well together, so it’s been kind of a perfect blend for both of us when we get time to collaborate.”

For two years prior to the change this year, Potts was primarily teaching English 10. Similar to Penninga, Potts was preparing for her usual English 10 classes over the summer when she was called by Passinault and George regarding taking over Penninga’s Honors 9 classes. Passinault felt that she would be the best fit for this change.

She agreed, as long as she could keep at least one section of English 10 because of her love for the class.

“They asked if I was willing and interested to do it,” Potts said. “I said yes, as long as I have a lot of support and grace in the process. My schedule was going to be four sections of Honors 9 and one section of juniors, and I really liked teaching English 10, so I asked if I could keep my sixth hour English 10.”

Potts was able to keep one section of English 10, so her day includes four sections of Honors 9 and one section of English 10. Despite the demands and busy workload, Potts has been enjoying her new classes.

“I really like Honors 9 so far,” Potts said, “and I really like teaching freshman and the curriculum of Honors 9. I really love English 10, too. Even though the switch is hard, and it’s busy– especially since I have an infant child at home– I am excited about it. They do some great stuff in English 9, so I’m excited [about] the new material. I don’t mind change; it’s just hard because it’s so late.”

Because Penninga spent the summer preparing for Honors 9, she was able to lend Potts assistance and materials for the tough transition. Much like Penninga, Potts has been taking it one step at a time in order to embrace the change as much as possible.

“Mrs. Penninga has been an awesome help,” Potts said. “We have met several times and she has helped me with different units, so that has been great. I [am] just planning one unit at a time because that’s all I can do, along with the grading and the planning of English 10.”

Even though Potts and Penninga were informed of the change before school started, it didn’t go into effect until the middle of the first week of school. So, for the first couple of days, they were running their original schedules and meeting students that they would only have momentarily.

“We knew we weren’t going to be with those kids the whole year,” Potts said, “so it was really awkward because it’s like, ‘I’m going to be your teacher today, and then tomorrow I’m not.’ ”

Passinault realizes that it would have been easier had there been more time to prepare, but the first couple of days running through the original schedule were not too much of a problem because of the simplicity of those days.

“It would have been easier had it happened over the summer,” Passinault said, “and then we could have made the transition [smoother] and students wouldn’t have [had] that disruption, but I felt it was fairly minimal.

Even though the transition was a bit rocky at points, Passinault was very pleased with the decisions he made and the way Penninga and Potts quickly adapted and prepared.

“We talk about being a team here all of the time, and things come up [that] aren’t easy situations, especially at the last minute,” Passinault said. “Those teachers had to do some extra work, and I can’t thank them enough. It just says a lot about who they are as teachers and as professionals.”