In Education Lab's continuing 'Why I Teach,' feature, we talk to Nathan Sun-Kleinberger, a language arts teacher at Kentridge High in the Kent School District.

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For Nathan Sun-Kleinberger, teaching high-school English is all about making the material relevant to the students.

A lesson about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” might include comparisons to recent events in Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore. An examination of the Declaration of Independence has been juxtaposed with a Taylor Swift single.

Sun-Kleinberger, who has taught at Kentridge High in the Kent School District for nine years, makes an extra effort to reach students who aren’t academic stars but put forth effort and show promise. Every year, he teaches students to write resumes and cover letters and holds a contest where the top three finalists get to consult with an interview coach.

What follows is a condensed version of our conversation on the theme “Why I Teach,” an occasional series from Education Lab. Some responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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How did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?

My parents both work in education, and I always kind of knew I wanted to help with people, and I liked working with kids. But I think the moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher and that it was my calling happened when I was teaching in China. There was a group of exchange students from Canada who were high-school kids, and we were stuck on a bus going to some tourist area and it took much longer than we thought — traveling in China is that way.

One of the students asked me, “What’s life like here?” It was a big, loaded question, but I started talking, and I noticed 15 or 20 minutes later, the whole bus was quiet. Clearly, my perspective resonated with them. That pretty much confirmed this is what I want to do.

What is it about teaching high-school kids that appeals to you?

Well, the irony is I never liked being in high school (laughs). I’m in a job where I get to really help people meet their potential. We go through lots of peaks and valleys and some of them won’t, but when they do — I thrive off that energy. In their best moments, you see them as emerging adults.

I especially like teaching 11th grade. It’s the most difficult year of high school. By the time they’re seniors, there’s a condition you might have heard of called senioritis. Sophomore, by definition, means immature. But (in junior year), they get their (driver’s) license; many of them have jobs. They realize, “Oh my gosh, in a year and a half, I have to figure out what I’m going to do with myself.” And I just like to see the intellects, the maturity clicking in. That’s exciting to me.

There’s something about high school. It’s always different –new pop music, new fads — so that keeps it fresh. There’s also routine to it. I like the cyclical nature of the school year.

What’s the most challenging part about being a teacher?

There are those days when the kids are just not motivated to be here. You have to give them some energy and adapt and find some way to get them interested. There’s a certain point when there’s only so much you can do to get them to pass.

I also think there is so much change and pressure going on with the Common Core, with the testing going on, with funding — things that are out of my control in the classroom.

What’s your favorite novel to teach?

I really like teaching “Frankenstein” because the kids think they know what it’s about. It’s fun to get them to unpack their expectations and then realize that the monster is the creator, Victor, and not the creature.

Nathan Sun-Kleinberger, center, works with a student at Kentridge High School. (John Lok  / The Seattle Times)
Nathan Sun-Kleinberger, center, works with a student at Kentridge High School. (John Lok / The Seattle Times)

How do you keep literature relevant to teenagers?

I went to a conference a couple of years ago, and they talked about teaching the Declaration of Independence as a break-up letter. I thought that was a great idea, so I show them the video for Taylor Swift’s, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and then we compare it to Jefferson’s letter. T.J.’s probably rolling in his grave, but really he’s saying, “We’re breaking up with England. We’re done, King George.” Obviously the language is different, but the theme and the tone are basically the same.

If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing before your first day of teaching, what would it be?

Two things, I guess. One is teach the students, not the curriculum. It’s great that you have a textbook or these lesson plans, but those connections with the kids are more important.

And just be authentic. Each teacher has his or her own teaching style. There are certain teachers who do things that I would never do, or I do things that they would never do, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for them. If you have passion for something, I think that’s the most infectious thing of all.

Which teacher should we feature next? Send your nominations to Caitlin Moran: cmoran@seattletimes.com.