An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

Julie Wong

I feel so fortunate to have had caring, inspiring and motivating teachers when I was growing up – from my third-grade teacher, who believed in my abilities; to my only female high school math teacher, who was proof that women could be both caring and smart; to my adventurous French teacher who taught me how to discover the world. I bring everything that I’ve learned from them to my students with the hope of challenging, inspiring and motivating the next generation.

Julie Wong
Upper School Mathematics Teacher

I feel a mix of sadness, relief, excitement, and gratitude as I begin writing this post. For the past four years - my first four years at Potomac - I have had the privilege of serving as an advisor to a group of Upper Schoolers. They will be graduating in less than two months, after four years that seem to have flown by. Out of the 12 seniors I have in my Advisory, six of them have been with me since their first day of 9th grade. My, how we have all grown together!

Some of my fondest memories of my advisees include our time together on various service trips. We've gone to a nearby park to pull weeds and invasive species, we've cleaned and moved lots of donated furniture and items, and we have spent many hours playing with young children at different day cares, preschools, and Head Start programs. It has been fun to witness my advisees interact with others and step out of their comfort zone in order to help those in need. We've also had poignant moments of learning together as a group. At one facility where we were cleaning donations and moving furniture, our host immediately divided the group into males and females. The males were expected to do much of the moving, and the females were asked to clean and dust items. It was a good learning lesson, as while our Potomac community emphasizes equity and works actively to break down gender stereotypes, other people may not be quite as far along in that respect.

In addition to spending time together on off campus service trips, the depth of my relationship with my advisees has grown through our weekly Advisory meetings. Sometimes these meetings will be a time to relax. We might go out to the Quad and soak in the nice weather or pull out Apples to Apples for some quality board game time. At other times, our Advisory may need to address an important issue. Our discussions have ranged from summer plans to the school's dress code policy to politics and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sharing ideas and differing perspectives has forced each of us to reconsider our own opinions, something that I hope will stay with each of my advisees after they leave Potomac.

It has been a joy and honor to watch my advisees grow physically, academically, emotionally, and socially. They have become better students, friends, thinkers, and writers, and it has been a privilege to walk alongside them in their years of growth here at Potomac. While I am sad to see them go, I am so excited for the new things they will discover and accomplish in the next stage of their lives. I'm honored to have been a part of their time at Potomac, and I feel lucky to have had a close glimpse into their lives as they have grown.

Shortly after Thanksgiving for the past four years, I have had the fortunate opportunity to travel to the People of Color Conference (POCC), which is sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools (of which Potomac is a member). For the past three years, I've also been the lead chaperone for a small handful of students who are able to attend POCC's joint conference for students, known as the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC).

This year, POCC and SDLC were held in Atlanta, and six students and 18 faculty members from Potomac attended. POCC and SDLC are larger conferences, with a total of over 3000 attendees between the two events. There are lots of people in attendance--teachers and students come from all kinds of independent school across the country and even internationally!

POCC offers wonderful sessions featuring well-known speakers of diverse backgrounds who are doing challenging and hard work in various fields, such as law, literature, education, to promote diversity and equity. This year, Bryan Stevenson spoke of his work with inmates on death row and his thoughts on corporal punishment and extreme sentences. We also heard from Poet Laureate Richard Blanco, who read some of his work including the poem he wrote for President Obama's second inauguration in 2013. POCC also offers over 100 workshops, networking opportunities, affinity groups, and book-signings. It is a place to work with other passionate faculty and staff from independent schools to collaborate on making our schools more just and equitable for all students.

I attended the "Asian, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage" affinity group, and it was an amazing experience to be in a room of over 200 educators who share my cultural and racial background. I have never been in a space with so many Asian educators, and it allowed me to be myself--both my Asian self and my educator self--in ways I had not realized I hadn't been experiencing.

In addition to attending various enriching speaker sessions and workshops at POCC, another major highlight of my time in Atlanta was getting to debrief with our SDLC students every night after picking them up from their conference. As a teacher, it is so encouraging and rewarding to witness students growing, whether it is academically, socially, or personally. It's clear from my raw, challenging, and emotional conversations with our SDLC students each night they were growing in their own identity and in their recognition of privilege and power. I am so thankful that Potomac offers these conference opportunities for both adults and students. I know it impacts my life every year, and it is making a difference in our students' lives as well.

Since arriving at The Potomac School in August 2013, I've had the opportunity to teach the Upper School's accelerated Algebra 2 course, a rigorous problem solving-based mathematics course. When I first encountered this curriculum, I had my doubts that it would be effective. Rather than lecture every day on a new topic or idea, this course asked me to take a back seat in the classroom. I was expected to do minimal talking, and the goal was for students to put their heads together to work through problems that lead them to discover, understand, and apply new concepts or ideas. I was a bit skeptical. Could this work? Could a curriculum be designed well enough to lead students, step-by-step, to new conclusions? And, could students rise to the expectation that every day they would be encountering something new, something they had not yet seen before?

I'm so pleased and impressed that, in the three-plus years that I have been teaching this course, all my doubts are vanquished. Every year, students enter this challenging class with a thirst, an eagerness, to figure things out on their own. They love the challenge of a new and interesting problem. Even when I offer to do a quick lesson or lecture about a specific topic, the response is usually, "No wait, let's see if we can figure it out first!" More than that, they are willing to sit with a bit of ambiguity for a few days, trusting that the problem sets and the curriculum will lead them to the necessary conclusions. My students feel empowered when they discover something and come to understand it authentically. They take ownership of the material because they know they truly understand something—to the point where they can advise others on how various concepts, skills, and ideas work together. Teaching this course has also energized me as a professional. It challenges me to develop problems in a structured, cohesive, yet challenging way, so that students can come to new and interesting conclusions. It has forced me to consider how students think about math and how I can help them to better understand what we are learning. Potomac's students are better mathematicians for the challenges this rigorous course poses to them, but I am also made better by this course.

After a much-needed Spring Break in March, I felt like we hit the ground sprinting (not even just running) when we returned to school. The weeks after Spring Break were filled with getting students back into the swing of homework and learning new concepts. My junior advisees dove headfirst into their college counseling workshops, and the looming weeks of AP exams crept nearer and nearer. Now, in early May, we are squarely in the midst of AP exams, juniors are facing ACT and SAT testing, seniors are embarking on their three-week independent projects, and semester exams are just around the corner. We lead busy and full academic lives here at Potomac.

But in the midst of it all, there are small things that remind me to pause and take a breath. The passing scent of blooming jasmine. The music of May Day performances. The earthy smell of newly laid mulch. And, one of my favorites, the sound of the crack of a bat.

I love the sounds, smells, and sights of baseball and softball, especially in the spring. They remind me of the times when life can take a bit of a slower pace, of watching afternoon games in the sun, of not having to worry about an upcoming deadline or project. While I can't entirely escape the work that needs to be done or the pressures that may come with being at an excellent school, I can take a moment to gaze out my classroom window across the Tundra to the softball field. Whether the team is practicing or engaged in a tight game with a rival school, the cheers of the team and the crack of the bat carry through my window and remind me to take a moment to enjoy a few moments of spring. When I feel I've been in my classroom for far too many hours in a row, I'll take a walk up to the Gumtree Field to catch a few moments of a baseball game, or even just some batting practice.

I am so thankful to be in a place that keeps me busy and productive but also gives me chance to pause, cheer on our students, and spend a few moments enjoying our nation's pastime.

I’ve been fortunate to spend the holidays in different parts of the world and with different people. Throughout those experiences, I think the thing that has become most important to me has been the people I’m with, rather than the location or the decorations or even the food!

Growing up, I was very fortunate to be blessed with a stable and full childhood. My family often spent our school vacations in New York, which I’ll get to in a bit. Occasionally, however, we’d stay home for the holidays. As most of you know, I have a twin sister. I also have a younger sister. We grew up about an hour north of Boston, just south of the New Hampshire line. Together with my sisters, I recall having lots of fun playing together during the holidays. If it was too cold out, we loved to stay inside and play Pretend - it was almost always School or Doctor. I suppose this was indicative of our futures as I’m now a teacher and one of my sisters is, in fact, a doctor! We also spent a lot of time out in the snow. Instead of building snowmen or forts or making snow angels, my sisters and I loved making snow furniture - a snow couch, a snow TV, a snow lamp. We were very practical. There’s usually lots of snow in New England, so we could make full-size living room sets, complete with a loveseat and an ottoman! After all our hard work of creating furniture, we would run inside the house, grab popsicles out of the freezer, and then go sit on our snow couch and watch snow TV while eating popsicles. I remember those Christmases at home as being filled with lots of playing.

We also spent many many vacations and holidays in New York City. My mom’s side of the family lives in New York, so we frequently made the 5 hour drive down to New York City, all piled into our 1985 Oldsmobile Station Wagon. At the holidays, my entire extended family, including 2 grandparents, 8 aunts and uncles, and 14 cousins, would crowd into my grandparents’ tiny 1-bedroom apartment in Lower East Side Manhattan to celebrate the Chinese version of Christmas. This meant that, instead of ham and sweet potatoes, we had roast pork and roast duck, mushrooms cooked with noodles made from mung beans, lots of green leafy bok choy, and occasionally we’d have soup with dried scallops and jellyfish. I remember these gatherings fondly as being noisy and cramped, adults talking over adults, kids talking over kids, and smaller kids running around trying to play, getting caught under table legs and people legs. Those holidays were always fun and noisy, like a big family sensory overload.

After starting college, the holidays changed a bit for me. My parents decided to move from snowy New England to sunny San Diego. I’d fly to visit them during my school’s winter break, and instead of snow furniture and large noisy dinners, the holidays were quiet, sunny, and warm. My family wanted to explore this new region of the United States, so we would spend the time together going on hikes in Torrey Pines State Park or driving to check out the Borrego Desert. I think one year we even spent Christmas in Las Vegas! We explored our new surroundings and enjoyed time together.

And, the holidays took yet another spin for me when I decided to move overseas. I have spent several years living abroad, both in Istanbul, Turkey and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Although Christmas is interpreted very differently in these Muslim countries as compared to the US, I learned how to take on the challenge of finding meaning in the spirit of the holidays, even when I was far from what I had always known.

I found ways of making the holidays meaningful, even without the security of a snowfall or Chinese food. My friends and I would gather around poorly homemade dishes that were barely a respectful nod to the typical traditions that can be found in the US and we would spend time together laughing and sharing. While living in Istanbul, my best friend was able to join me for Christmas. We spent Christmas Day eating lamb kabobs and fish sandwiches and roaming around the Old City like tourists. One year in Malaysia, my parents came to visit me for the holidays. We wanted to do something special on Christmas Day, but there weren’t a whole lot of options. I think we ended up at the mall, eating in the food court for Christmas! Despite the pathetic sound of a Christmas meal at the food court, my holidays abroad are some of the most memorable I’ve had. Not because of the tradition of it - in fact no Christmas was ever the same from year to year - but because of the very unique and distinct holidays they each were. More important than food or location or weather, being with people that I cared about was the best part of each of my Christmases overseas.

I’m thankful for the different experiences my life has gifted me with - from snow furniture to hikes in the desert, from noisy family gatherings to a few days roaming a new city, the most important thing about the holidays for me has been spending the time with those I love.