Jen Bladen

We were making gift baskets in anticipation of the swiftly approaching holiday season – Christmas comes very early when you work in retail. It was 1996 and I’d recently been promoted to In-Store Trainer at The Body Shop in North County Fair mall. My co-worker – and now trainee – Jaime and I were choosing $30-$35 combinations of skin- and hair-care products, arranging them neatly in cheap baskets full of shredded paper, and then shrink-wrapping them. It was fun the first 30 times I did it.

“Jen, you’re ten times better at teaching us stuff than any of my teachers at school,” said my high-school-aged coworker.

I’d given a product-knowledge training that morning on the banana hair-care line before the store opened. The Body Shop had great training materials and we’d talked about how emollient bananas are. There was a story in the packet about how some guy’s gear shift was stuck in his old car, so he peeled a banana and shoved it down in the gear box, and drove away! My trainees loved that story; it stuck with each of them.

“Wow, Jaime,” I replied. “I don’t know if that’s a huge compliment or a very sad story.”

“Seriously,” Jaime said. “Why don’t you become a high school teacher?”

I looked at her – a look that is now familiar to me, but this was the first time – in utter awe that she knew something so obvious that had evaded me so completely.

A high school teacher? That’s what I had wanted to do when I was little. I used to play school with my sister at the vintage student desk my mom had from when she was little. My eighth grade English teacher Mrs. Patrick inspired me with her sheer incompetence and poor grammar to become a better teacher than she was. My high school drama teacher was the most important person in my life for two very crucial years of my adolescence. I had always wanted to inspire students the way he inspired me – inspired me to be my best, to try things that scared me like acting and producing stage plays.

But by the time I finished high school, I wanted to act and direct. Then college beat that dream out of me with set-building and failed auditions and unkind professors. So I majored in English literature. I forgot about teaching – and about acting – and just read every word the Romantics wrote and pontificated with my English-major friends.

It took me six years to get my bachelor’s degree – I was having too much fun reading and had put off some of my general ed requirements. I was working part-time at a small, local parenting magazine in San Diego when I finally graduated. I had hopes of promotion to an editor’s position but was passed over. After resigning on principle, I spent a few weeks on my mother’s couch. Then I spent a few months sending résumés to every publisher in the continental U.S. Then I spent a few weeks reading rejection letters.

My four-years-younger sister was sick to death of my moping around the house.

“Why don’t you come work with me?” she asked on her way to work one day.

“At the mall!?” I snobbed. “Um. No, thank you.”

“What’s wrong with the mall?” she asked, indignant.

“Meredith, I have a bachelor’s degree,” I huffed.

“My manager has a Master’s in social work. I think you’d be surprised by who works at the mall,” said my eons-more-mature-than-I sister.

So I was working at The Body Shop as In-Store Trainer when I got back on track with what I’d wanted to do since I was in elementary school.

That brief conversation with my young coworker set the stage for my entire career. What Jaime saw in me then lives in me now: my deep love of helping another person come to some new understanding.

I love it when I can break down the steps of something really complicated – like color-balancing an image in Photoshop – so that my students can understand it. Some of my students are vocal learners – I was like that, too. When a favorite student of mine finally “gets” a new concept, she says loudly and with genuine surprise, “Ohhhhh!” My math analysis teacher Gordy Mills wouldn’t even stop writing on the board when I did that. He’d just say, “Bladen’s finally with us.” I wore it as a badge. And I secretly swoon when I hear it from my own students now.

I love it when I can read a novel with students and the feeling in the room is palpably of discovery. My favorite memory of this was reading Shakespeare with seniors during my first year teaching. We had 90-minute class periods, five days per week, which terrified both my students and me as the time for Macbeth approached – the last unit of the year. We made a deal, I’d give them part of the class period to ask questions about anything: how to do laundry, how often is too often to come home from college for the weekend, what foods can safely be cooked in a dorm room. And they gave me their undivided attention for witches and King Duncan and “Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”

They expected the “ask me anything” hot seat sessions to be the most exciting part of the day, but eventually, we were able to read and discuss Macbeth for the entire class period. They surprised themselves (and me!) by how interested they were in murder and intrigue and “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” I felt like I’d won some kind of contest.

My own love of discovery – that magical moment of understanding something new – greatly influences my classroom. I took a course in the pedagogy of leadership a few years ago that entirely changed the way I communicate with students and I expect them to communicate with me. I have spent hours and hours since reading management books, watching TED talks, and researching further the concepts of effective leadership so that I now teach other teachers how to grow and guide good leaders.

One summer, I was teaching a four-hour leadership seminar to yearbook editors and advisers from all over Southern California that two of my own students attended. The room was filled with young journalists and teachers from about 20 different schools. I was in my best form – enthusiastically guiding the class through discovery of the concepts of communicating respectfully, empowering others, coming to consensus. I lead games that made students giggle but also reinforced important thoeries. It was a great class. At the end, my two students called me over to them.

“Ms. Bladen!” Rebecca whispered loudly. “You’re an amazing teacher!”

I laughed. “Rebecca, I’m your teacher at school!”

“I know, but we never let you do what you’re good at,” Julia chimed in. “We should just let you teach us. You’re great.”

It was better than the best performance review I could get from a supervisor. My students respect me!

Perhaps my proudest moment as a teacher was not in a classroom at all. Namir, a former student of mine, invited me to his housewarming party when he got his first apartment after getting his first real teaching job. He and I had developed a genuine friendship in the years since he graduated from high school. We met for lunch to talk about his college courses. Later, we met for dinner to talk about how miserable he was in a job he had after college working for a stock broker. Later, we met for drinks to discuss whether or not he should try his hand at teaching.

“Jen,” we both giggle when he calls me by my first name. “Jen, I really want you to come to my housewarming. I want you to meet all my teacher friends.”

I dragged myself to his new place, dreading an evening with people a decade my junior and just feeling old.

When I arrived, Namir introduced me to his new friends.

“Hey everyone, I want you to meet Jen,” he called out. “She’s the reason I became a teacher!”

I looked at him – a look that is familiar to me, but this was like the first time – in utter awe that he knew something so obvious that had evaded me so completely.