Welcome Back To Ms. Burke, English & Reading Teacher!

This fall, we welcomed Jennifer Burke to Common Ground – for a second time! Ms. Burke was a reading and English teacher at Common Ground from 2007 to 2013, and also played an important role in curriculum development. We are excited to have her on our team again! Our educational change interns sat down with her to learn more about her journey.

What is your job here at Common Ground? 

I am an English Language Arts teacher. I also have a background as a reading teacher so will be supporting students with that as well.

What is the path that brought you to Common Ground?

I was fortunate to begin teaching at New Haven Adult Ed, in the GED writing program. There were a lot of layers to work through with those students, but we all got along. It was a great first teaching experience. That’s when I earned my high school teaching certificate. 

I first came to Common Ground in 2007. I remember the first time I saw that the position for an English teacher was open. I was so excited, and they took a chance on me. Common Ground was a lot smaller then! I was attracted to the environmental aspect of the high school. I lived nearby, and enjoyed West Rock very much – so I loved being able to come to this beautiful campus every day. I worked at Common Ground from 2007 to 2013 – first as a full-time English and Reading teacher, and then through some part-time curriculum development work. 

At that point, I moved across the country, and started farming. I believe in the importance of growing your own food and learning how to live sustainably. We had a wonderful opportunity to be part of a family-owned farming business. It was a wonderful experience, and there were a lot of lessons I learned! 

This past summer, I made my way back to Connecticut, and back to West Hills – mostly for family reasons. I was also looking to get back into teaching – I missed it! I was lucky that there was an English teaching opening at Common Ground. I applied, and once again I am grateful that they decided to take a chance on me. 

What can students rely on you to do for them? 

It’s interesting that you say “do for students.” I like the term do with them. I want to help students feel comfortable in class, create a good culture, be patient, allow opportunities to make up work to get a better grade. I hope that I create a level of comfort, so that students know they can come and talk with me about non-school issues, or just have check-ins. I’d like to make sure that the work is attainable to the students, and also challenging, so that everyone can be successful. I expect students to show up, be present, put in their best effort. I want to help them create routines and habits that last. 

What motivates you to work here at Common Ground?

I believe in the vision of Common Ground. I believe in being able to get to know everyone, and say hello to everyone on a regular basis. One of the great things that Common Ground offers is a strong basis for relationship building. When you go out into the world, you don’t always choose the people you work with. Common Ground helps students build skills on how to navigate that, how to build those relationships, how to work with people whom we might not have gotten to know otherwise. 

What are your goals for working at Common Ground? 

My goal for working at Common Ground is to be an important part of this school – to help develop in the English department, help develop the reading program, to be a strong voice of students, being able to see what students need and advocating for that. 

What motivates you to work with young people?

I think young people are fun. When I left teaching Common Ground the first time, the one thing that stuck out to me was that I didn’t laugh and smile every day like I used to. Students say funny things, and I just love hearing it. I love being a part of that, catching those smiles. 

Tell us about yourself as a person.

I’ve been growing food in the city for many years. I live in West Hills, right around the corner, and have had a garden at my house for 15 years. When I was out in California I was growing food too. It’s a really important part of my life. 

I traveled across the country as well. I have a love for discovering different places and different people, for figuring out how different parts of the country live and work together. I really enjoy the music I listen to; it’s a big part of my culture. I care a lot about my friends and family. I enjoy getting out into the community too, getting to know my neighbors, making sure I know everyone on the street, say hello to everyone who passes through. 

What were you like as a high school student?

I’ve always been a social person, a people person. I was great at all of that as a high school student. I wanted to be part of all the clubs, activities, and sports – that’s what really kept me going. When it came to academics, I was okay – I participated in class, but I wasn’t an A student. My choices for college were limited, because I didn’t have the best SAT scores. My school didn’t teach how to take those tests. I understand that it’s really hard to take standardized tests – and no one was teaching me how to approach them, like we try to do here.. 

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I am hard working. I believe in setting high and clear expectations for myself, and also for the people I work with. I think that I’m a caring person, an understanding person. I’m also extremely honest, perhaps sometimes too honest. If I say I’m going to do it, I’ll get it done.

I’ve always enjoyed hands-on work – I like to be moving, interacting with people. I worked in restaurants after I got out of college, and really enjoyed that. I had an office job for three years, and I hated it. I was bored, and felt like I couldn’t focus. I did well enough, but I didn’t  feel successful. I realized that’s not for me – I want people, I want action. It’s really important to figure out your work style, as you’re going to college and beyond. 

My weakness is sometimes I take on too much! It’s hard to say “no thank you, I cannot do that because my plate is full.” That comes along with one of my strengths: I like to help people. 

What does environmental justice mean to you? 

Justice for me means fairness – which is so hard! So many things are unjust, and that gets frustrating. I always feel like I’m trying to fight for what’s just. I often speak up on behalf of the people, and students in particular. Living in a city, and everyone being different, there are so many times when something is unjust.

Environmental justice, on a global scale, can also get so frustrating – so much destruction, so much pollution. I compost at home, I recycle at home. When I was living out West, I was living sustainably as best I could. Sometimes, I just realize that it’s so big – it’s not like I can necessarily change the world. But I am just going to continue to do the best I can within it. I am going to try to be my best self, environmentally. I try to make smart choices, and use my buying power. I try not to patronize certain companies, buy from certain stores. It’s hard – Amazon is amazing, I can get that next day delivered to my door. But I have to ask myself, am I making a good buying choice? Who is it affecting down the line? Who am I supporting when I buy my clothing? My coffee? I try to think, in a global sense, with all my actions every day. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the students and families\?

I’m really grateful to be back here at Common Ground. It’s only been about six weeks. I’m looking forward to having a certain amount of time behind me so that I can look back and reflect on my role within Common Ground, how I have developed, how this place has developed, how I have helped. It’s always tough starting something new – and I’ve been away from teaching for a while, so it feels new. I am looking forward to what’s to come!


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