Sunday profile: Teitler finds his calling in bilingual education
When Kenny Teitler began his teaching career at Basalt Elementary in the early ’90s, he noticed a problem with the school district’s Latino students: Only two out of 45 Latinos from kindergarten through eighth grade scored in the 50th percentile or above on standardized testing.
“I felt like some kind of programming change needed to happen,” Teitler said. “So I approached my principal at the time and asked if she would be interested in us doing a bilingual program – teaching in both Spanish and English.”
So Teitler, who was the school’s Spanish as a Second Language teacher, got the green light to design a bilingual program. The following year, the school began the program with one classroom each from kindergarten through fourth grade. Twenty-five years later, Latino students make up 50% of Basalt Elementary’s student population, and those students are thriving.
“The thing I liked best about the program is that it gave the Latino students, who had struggled academically and lacked confidence in answering questions and doing the work, a chance to shine,” he said. “It made them leaders in the classroom.”
Freedom with boundaries
Teitler, who has spent 26 years teaching in the Roaring Fork School District and will retire at the end of this school year, said his favorite aspect of teaching children is seeing their curiosity, love of learning and open mindedness.
“They have the ability to see the best in others and themselves,” he said. “I’m amazed at their resiliency, and how they can take something that is difficult and find the silver lining.”
Another aspect Teitler said he loves about teaching is that it is always different.
“Every year you start with a different group of kids, and there’s always dynamics and needs and abilities,” he said. “So not only do I get to do new things, but I have to adapt and be creative and think on my feet. It gives me the ability to explore and find out new things, and have new relationships every year.”
One of the more challenging aspects of teaching, Teitler said, is creating boundaries — not just with students but with the amount of time devoted to the work.
“You could go 24/7 and you would still need to think about, ‘what about this student, and what about that other student,’” he said. “That is something that over time I’ve gotten much better at — just deciding that if I don’t work all the time, it’s OK. There has to be some time when you say, ‘I can’t do more.’”
Of course, boundaries between teacher and students also are needed within the classroom as well, Teitler said, such as how much leeway you give them, how much freedom, how much you direct them, and how much you let them direct themselves.
“My philosophy has always been to hold students to a very high standard,” he said. “But at the same time promote a fun atmosphere at school with respect being the cornerstone for everything that happens in the classroom, because as long as there’s respect, then anything else is possible.”
From big city to big adventure
Teitler was born in New York City, and lived there until the age of 5 when his parents moved the family to Crested Butte to start a new way of life. The change — moving from a city of seven million to a town of 300 with one paved street — was dramatic, and young Kenny had a tough time adjusting.
“Half a year after the move I decided to run away back to New York to live with my grandparents,” Teitler said. “But my brother caught me three blocks away, so I didn’t make it too far.”
Growing up in Crested Butte, though, turned out to be a great life for a young boy — skiing 60-70 days every winter, and biking and hiking in the summer.
“We had so much freedom,” Teitler said. “The whole town was our babysitter.”
After high school, Teitler took a year off before enrolling at CU-Boulder. He didn’t know what he wanted to do until his senior year when he decided he’d either be a doctor or a teacher. So he took some pre-med courses as a senior and graduated with a degree in sociology.
“All through college I supported myself by working in restaurants and saved up enough money to go on about a year-long trip to Central America, Australia, New Zealand and Asia,” Teitler said. “While in Asia I volunteered to teach English in Thailand for a couple weeks. That solidified my idea that I wanted to be a teacher.”
Teitler ended up moving to Seattle to try out the big city life again, but during that time he frequently traveled to Guatamala to buy textiles, purses and bags that he imported home and sold to stores and student unions — a practice he continued while obtaining his teaching degree from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
“While I was in Guatamala I would sometimes stay for an extended time and go to Spanish schools to learn Spanish,” Teitler said. “So when I got to Greeley I decided to get a bilingual teaching certificate.
“I also went to a language school in Mexico for a semester. During that time I immersed myself in the language and the culture.”
Finding new priorities
While at UNC, Teitler remet his wife, Karla, who he’d known in Crested Butte as the younger sister of a friend.
“I didn’t remember her right away, but she remembered me and told me the name of my brother, my dad and my dog, before finally telling me who she was,” he said.
After graduation, the couple wanted to get back to the mountains, so Teitler took the job at Basalt Elementary School, where he remained for 13 years before spending seven years at Crystal River Elementary and the past six years at Carbondale Middle School.
During his time at Basalt Elementary, the couple had two daughters who they raised bilingual, one of whom is now a sophomore at Stanford, and one who is about to graduate from high school.
“Teaching was so important to me early in my career — it was who I was and part of my identity,” Teitler said. “But once my girls were born, they became my identity.”
Teitler said retirement will include some teaching at Colorado Mountain College where he’s taught bilingual GED classes for the past three years. But he and Karla still plan to travel extensively, and they also have plans to build a new house.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if it weren’t for my wife. Karla’s an amazing support system and my best friend, and I feel blessed to have her in my life, and I would say the same thing about my girls.”
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