Leading Students Across Cultural Barriers
Photography by Christian Lee
Teaching has become a challenging profession. It is not for everyone. Success is marked by immeasurable passion, a deep love of all children, impeccable integrity, flexibility and creativity. We all can look back to that one teacher that made a difference in our lives. His/her impact can remain with us for all time. If anyone fits the bill it’s Colleen Wynn, a 33-year veteran in the Hilton Head Island elementary program.
We met over coffee at Barnes & Noble. Colleen is soft-spoken, diminutive and stylishly modest. The first thing she said was, “I was shocked when I received a call from Pink Magazine that they wanted to do an article about me.” But don’t let first impressions shuffle reality. Colleen Wynn is fiercely dedicated to her craft and maintains a steely determination to enhance the lives of her students.
Colleen and her husband, John, made Hilton Head their home in 1973. “Things have surely changed since we arrived.” John caddied and worked the concession stand at the Ocean Course in Sea Pines, while she stayed home with her young son. Now her adult son is presently working on his doctorate in Marine Microbiology. There was no hospital, one traffic light, and it was a breeze to get tickets to the PGA Heritage Classic. Hoping to do more, Colleen got her teaching certificate from the University of South Carolina 34 years ago. She has been a vital contributor to the Beaufort County School District ever since.
As years passed, Colleen was recognized by her peers and district leaders as an outstanding teacher. In 2011 she was named “District Teacher of the Year,” and awarded the prestigious “Sue West Educational Award.” After shifts through the tri-colored elementary buildings, Colleen has settled into the International Baccalaureate school as a first-grade teacher.
Colleen was invited to join a “small schools” cohort centered on developing a Chinese-English co-op program in the Hilton Head Island schools. Seven years ago, the program was launched, steadily growing each school season. The program supports over 20 students each year. The curriculum has expanded to include the middle and high school, as well. The program is entrenched in all our schools, both north and south of the Broad. Colleen has worked with four different Chinese teachers. The organizational team has added a Spanish-English component, which has been welcomed by the school community for five years. “I love my job”, Colleen expressed. “We get to bring cultures together, and I’ve been privileged to visit China several times to strengthen my teaching strategies and choose dynamic teachers for the program.”
Embedded within every storied success is woven a series of challenges. Colleen shared that each year the team struggles with limited materials and they were not able to find a suitable Chinese teacher for the first four months of the program. “Since then the teachers have been amazing.” Colleen presently works with Yu Chen, an outstanding teacher. Another fluidity test for the program was the blending of Chinese and American cultures. The two instructional styles are quite different, but the assimilation continues to improve every year. Beaufort County has also received wonderful support from the Natural Chinese Language association and a Utah based online company.
The daily plan outlines a Chinese immersion program with supportive English supplements. During a typical day, the first-graders will get exposure to math, science and social studies, as well as language and reading. Colleen oozes with pride about her students. “We produce kids who are hard-working. My greatest joy is watching the students develop. We also have so many wonderful teachers who guide the kids. They avoid the drama and just do their job!”
There is a pensive piece to this story. “Colleen is hanging up her teacher’s badge at the end of this school-year. I’ve taught a couple of generations of kids. To this day, I still love what I do.” However, you can’t keep an educational icon down for very long. She assured me she will be back in the schools working as a volunteer. After 33 years in the classroom, Colleen’s career summary was concise and positive. “I’m a fortunate person. It has been a privilege to work with students.”
If you have an opportunity to speak with Colleen over the final days of her tenure, please take the time to thank one of the most humble people you will ever meet. Think of the thousands of students Colleen has inspired and motivated over so many years. Give her a hug and share a smile. I wouldn’t worry about this woman disappearing into the sunset or hanging out in front of the television eating bonbons. You’ll probably catch a glimpse of Colleen at the airport as she heads out to learn about a new culture. Wherever you cross paths, I’m sure she’ll be doing what she does best…teaching and learning!
Seeing Triple: “I always read three books simultaneously—One on an iPad, one on an iPod, and one hard copy book.”
The Hills are Alive: “I love hiking. While hiking in North Carolina, I hiked the Narrows Trail to Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness.”
Proud Mom and Wife: “My husband, John, was a scoutmaster and my son is an Eagle Scout.”
Sense of Adventure: “I am an experienced sea kayaker.”