Childhood experience leads to career in teaching

Kate Kujawa teaches in the psychology department at Montana State University.
Kate Kujawa teaches in the psychology department at Montana State University.

By MEGAN AHERN/Montana State News

Kate Kujawa may leave those who encounter her with the impression that she is a jubilant woman, as wanton as water and as carefree as a crisp breeze – albeit with a nervous laugh – but behind those wire-framed glasses and flowing blonde hair resides a strong proponent of critical thinking, understanding, self-acceptance, and empathy.

Kujawa is a professor of contemporary issues in human sexuality at Montana State University. Though Kate loves her current teaching position, she never would have imagined herself a professor prior to taking the job.

Kujawa was raised by a single mother who worked constantly to support her children. She was familiarized with responsibility and drive at an early age. She recalls that in her youth, she was responsible for coming home on her own, doing chores and homework, and sometimes cooking dinner.

Some children raised by single parents later struggle to form successful relationships of their own due to the lack of exposure to successful relationships at home, but Kujawa believes her mother’s choice to remain single had only positive effects on her.

“I think it put it into my head that you don’t need to be in a relationship to have a family, and you don’t need someone else to be happy,” she said.

This mindset is something Kujawa felt alleviated pressure during her adolescence. Though she’s always known she would like to have children eventually, she has never felt pressured to find a soul mate and settle down right away.

The self-motivation Kujawa’s mother imparted upon her years ago has continued to play a role in other aspects of her life as the years trickled by. Any student of hers would never suspect that Kujawa hadn’t decided to teach until well into her life.

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in psychology at MSU, she went on to obtain her master’s degree in the same field also at MSU. Following those accomplishments, she decided to test the waters by taking a desk job for a year.

“I had essentially been in school all my life,” said Kujawa , “I never took a year off, I never took a break.” Within the first month, she realized she had made a horrible mistake. “It was so unfulfilling and it took up so much time that I couldn’t have anything fulfilling in my life…the one thing that kept me going through it was my employees,” she said about her desk job.

Despite the dissatisfactory results discovered when pursuing that route, Kujawa was able to take away valuable knowledge from the experience, and views that year as a defining moment in her life; the moment in which she realized she wanted to play a larger role in helping people.

She realized that even when she was a graduate teaching assistant at MSU. “It was a lot more work, but it was way more fulfilling.” With that epiphany, Kate emailed MSU’s psychology department head, which she fondly refers to as Keith, to let him know that if there were openings to teach, her interest was piqued.

At the start of the fall 2015 semester at MSU, Kujawa’s first semester teaching, she admits she carried some hesitation, but it soon vanished as class got underway.

“After the first week of teaching, I realized that I really love it,” she gushed. “It’s something I really enjoy.” She further explained that though the class has been offered at MSU for several years now, the department offers each individual teacher the ability to tailor it to themselves.

“I’ve had the freedom to make it my own as much as I’ve wanted,” said Kate; and making it her own has proven to be something her students have thoroughly enjoyed.

This semester Kate has chosen to teach human sexuality by largely encouraging students to help teach one another. Small group discussions are held for the majority of class time in which students are prompted to reflect on certain topics, though exploration of other subjects is always welcome. As a major project in that class, students are required to form small groups and present to the class their ideas and information surrounding a topic found in the class textbook, “Sexuality Now.”

“I like the fact that it’s an open discussion based class,” said Eli Snyder, a current student in Kujawa’s class, as he contrasted the diversity core credit from more traditionally structured classes offered by the university. “It gives you a different experience than other classes you have.”

Snyder’s peer Jessica Crumpton adds, “This class has produced even more of an open mind that I didn’t even think I needed and has made discussion so impactful that it stays with me even after I leave.”

When asked about what she considers the objective of the class, Kujawa responded thoughtfully: “The main goal is really to open your mind to different possibilities and try to see the world from other peoples’ perspectives … I think we can use our humanity to relate to other people rather than have that divide us based on an opinion – which can change!”

Kujawa went on to describe the course as a crucial developer of critical thinking skills, saying, “It’s also a preparation for being a mature adult who can think critically, take evidence from multiple sources … weigh the pros and cons, and really seriously think rather than make a snap judgment or decision.”

Long ago, Kujawa recognized that her biggest hurdle in life has remained the burden of her own self-criticism.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be in a place where I can say, ‘I am 100 percent perfect,’ but I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to be perfect to be happy,” a thought process Kujawa called, “a very human experience.”

Her hope for her own students is that they realize that the most important thing in life isn’t the grade; it’s the knowledge taken away from the class.

“You shouldn’t feel like you have to memorize every single detail because the people who are memorizing every single detail won’t be able to tell you what’s actually going on one or two years down the road,” she said, encouraging students to embrace the learning process while admitting their strengths as well as their limits.

Though Kujawa has expressed her desire to continue teaching as long as students are willing to take the course, the drive her mother taught her as a child continues to direct her gaze toward the future.

She has decided to abstain from applying to Ph.D. programs this year because of her enthusiastic and newfound love of teaching, but she knows that eventually the time will come for her to move on.

“I came to Bozeman as a freshman and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. I think it will be hard to leave when it is actually time.”

– Edited by Alexandra Dubin

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