After 39 years of teaching at Colorado Academy, Suzanne Kolsun Jackson (KJ to her friends) still has plenty to say and no shortage of opinions. But when you try to get her to talk about herself, she will do everything she can to change the subject.
Instead, she would prefer to talk about her former students: Eli Saslow ’00, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer with the Washington Post, Maeve Moynihan ‘13, who received her Master of Science degree from the University of Oxford and is now researching migration at the University of Warwick, or Adam Bry ’04, the Co-Founder and CEO of Skydio, a Silicon Valley company which produces one of the hottest drones on the market. “I couldn’t give Adam enough math,” she remembers, laughing. “We had math problems stretched up and down the hallway!”
And if you can steer the conversation away from the hundreds of successful alumni who have learned in her classroom, she would like to talk about the devotion of CA parents, who, she says, are always willing to help out when they see a need.
And don’t get her started on fellow Fourth Grade teachers, Jeff Brown and Chris Hertig. “We worked together every single day as a team,” she says. “CA gave us the freedom to develop new curriculum while mentoring each other. Leaving those two guys was so hard for me.” She also has many kind words to say about the leadership of Lower School Principal Angie Crabtree: “She is so respected for her civility, strength, and graciousness.”
And even as you attempt to wrest control of the conversation at this point, there is a good chance that KJ may have seen the news of the day and yes, she has a few thoughts she would like to discuss with you about current events.
That is Suzanne Kolsun Jackson—as energetic, sharp-witted, and fierce as the day in 1981 she first interviewed with then Dean of Students Chris Babbs. “Why should I hire you?” Babbs asked the young applicant.
“I said, ‘Well, if you don’t, you would be making a huge mistake,’” KJ recalls. “I meant it. But I wasn’t being disrespectful. I just wanted him to know that I loved the profession of teaching, so what else could I say?”
Adventuring from England to tribal lands
In today’s era of professional college counseling, it’s hard to image KJ as a high school senior, standing on her tiptoes at the library to reach a thick book listing all British universities, and from that book picking the University of Manchester as her first-choice college. She applied and was accepted via snail mail. But why England?
“I already had spent my lifetime loving English and American literature,” she says. “I had this 18-year-old dream that said, ‘You will go to college in England.’”
She has also had a sense of adventure that has woven its way throughout her life’s journey. She is the granddaughter of Ellis Island immigrants and the child of first-generation parents. “It was a loving Italian-Czech family,” she says. “Knowing I was beloved gave me confidence to handle whatever was thrown at me.” She followed her undergraduate years with post-graduate primary teacher training at Goldsmiths College, University of London. And true to her adventuring spirit, after training in London, she taught Oglala Lakota Native American children at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“It was absolutely phenomenal,” she says. “We lived on the reservation, earned $50 a month, and we loved the kids. I had found my calling to be an educator.”
After earning an MAT degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, she taught at an independent school in Connecticut, but she longed to return to “the great American West.” Fortunately for CA, Chris Babbs took her advice at her interview and hired her on the spot.
Why stay at CA?
What has kept KJ at CA for the past 39 years? In large part, it would be the perfect match of this teacher and the Fourth Grade.
“It’s just a magical year to teach,” she says. “The students love school, they love their teacher, they are friends with each other, they want to work hard and do good work.”
Even as KJ watched CA double in size, she stayed because the school “did not lose sight of its fundamental mission.”
“We cared about the whole child,” she says. “We were always asking, ‘What is the best way to teach math, to teach reading, writing,’ and we were always getting better at it. And we have always worked on developing empathy and courtesy in students, long before it became the focus it is today in the world of education.”
She also stayed because she loved the CA community and campus, the place she calls “the 100-acre wood—pastoral, bucolic, with a family-like feeling.” For 10 years, she lived on campus with her family in faculty housing on the North Road, providing her two girls a “charmed childhood.”
“If parents couldn’t make it on time to pick up their kids,” she remembers, “they would just say, ‘Go on down to KJ’s house.’” Today, she credits her daughters’ professional success to the first-class education that both received as CA “lifers.”
Finally, KJ attributes her longevity at CA to the annual professional development opportunities she received. These trainings and experiences in reading, writing, mathematics, and technology took her around the world, and include a Fulbright year teaching in Scotland, trips to attend reading and literature conferences, and membership in the Beatrix Potter Society. And it was with Beatrix Potter that she said farewell to CA.
The tale of KJ
On her final day in the classroom, KJ taught a lesson based on The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, an author she believes “gives students a role model from the world of literature.” In her classroom sat Fourth Grader Eleanor Jones, 35 years after her father, David Jones ’95, had also been KJ’s student.
“My family will forever get a kick out of this legacy,” says Jones. “There are many CA families with stories like this. It is not a small thing, and it’s special. The close community and the steady soul of CA is unwavering. This must be due, in some substantial measure, to the dedication of long-tenured and beloved members of the faculty like KJ.”
“I love watching KJ in the classroom, because she represents everything special about CA,” adds Head of School Dr. Mike Davis. “She is nurturing, supportive, and child-centered. Her classroom is vibrant with deep learning. She is passionate about justice, and she is funny. Like bend-over laughing funny. We need more KJs in this world.”
On that final day, KJ taught with the same enthusiasm as she did on her first day, still inspired by the philosophy she learned at age 23 studying in London: “Children will teach you far more than you can ever hope to teach them,” she says. “I kept this at the center of my teaching for my entire career. You may well have a lockstep lesson plan in place, but students come in filled with wonder, excitement, and ideas, and it is such great fun to listen to them with respect and with lots of humor.”
As students, colleagues, and CA said farewell to KJ, she said “good-bye” with a promise.
“I hope to come back and maybe just sit in the library,” she says. “Don’t worry…I haven’t disappeared.”