Helena Henkin keeps exploring life
Helena Henkin, one of the newest members of the Summit Learning Teacher Residency program, was just 15 when she spent her summer traveling solo across Europe. For Ms. Henkin that was merely just the start of her journey. “I just really wanted to visit these countries … in Europe it’s pretty normal,” she stated nonchalantly.
Ms. Henkin was born in Helsinki, Finland. The summer before starting high school, she stayed with a host family in the UK to improve her English skills. She began wanting to travel to other unique places in Europe, so she decided to travel by train to Germany, France, and Italy — even though she had little money herself. “I stayed at youth hostels, or maybe at somebody’s house — if I knew them — sometimes I stayed on the beach or at the station … It was very like, shoestring travel.”
By most standards, Ms. Henkin has sought out adventure at every turn in her life. When she was a teenager she enrolled in a Jiu Jitsu class to learn self-defense. It turned out that she had a knack for martial arts.
After moving to the U.S., Ms. Henkin took both Karate and Judo classes. She traveled to Kazakhstan to learn Krav Maga. And she trained in the art of aikido at the Hombu Dojo in Shinjuku, Japan, often months at a time. “I would stay there and practice all day long… as much as my body could bear,” Ms. Henkin said.
Out of all her traveling, Ms. Henkin says her time teaching an “English as a Second Language” (ESL) class was the most impactful. She was inspired by her close friend, who was teaching English to Tibetan Monk refugees in India. Ms. Henkin decided to join her friend, and enrolled in an ESL program. She then went on to volunteer in the impoverished West Bank, teaching elementary, middle school, and university students English.
When asked about her motivation to volunteer, Ms. Henkin was passionate: “In Europe, it’s not very rare, but my parents were war refugees, you know, during the second world war. My mom was just an infant, but both of my sides of my family, like basically my grandparents, you know, they were all refugees and they lost their homes.They were moved to an area, where you can’t go to school, your education gets disrupted. It never leaves. You’re living somewhere where you’re not from, so you just have this alienation that you can sense through generations… that’s why I feel compassion for refugees… because it takes a lot for people to leave their homes.”
“They need English teachers all over the world,” Ms. Henkin stated emphatically. “I saw how teachers have the ability to change lives.”
For the past 20 years, Ms. Henkin has lived in the Bay Area. She initially worked at an investment banking firm, which was a lucrative, but exhausting job. “There is no work-life balance, you’re basically always working. So I decided to get out of that,” Ms. Henkin explained.
Ms. Henkin decided to pursue a path to teaching. In college, she worked as a substitute teacher, and she had gained a Master’s in teaching English to speakers of another language. Plus, both her mother and grandmother worked as teachers. Ms. Henkin said, “I’ve always had that teacher mindset. So now that I could just completely do what I wanted to do, I chose to become a teacher.”
To get her credentials, Ms. Henkin enrolled in the Summit residency program. “I wrote my thesis about culturally responsive pedagogy, which is like the theory that believes that every student can learn, you know, it aligns with the Summit philosophy,” Ms. Henkin said on why she decided to go with Summit. “Summit is very special … all this mentoring, you don’t get that anywhere else.”
Ms. Henkin knows that she is at a much different stage of her life then many other residents. When asked, she let out a laugh and said, “compare to them, I’ve lived, like, five lives. I’ve done a lot of stuff.” But she grew serious when further reflecting: “At some tech companies… there’s definitely some ageism, you don’t see a lot of old people there at all… so it’s cool that this residency program accepted me because I have a lot of experience that I want to share with the students.”
Ms. Henkin’s plan is to eventually teach English to immigrant communities. For now, however, she’s happy to work with high school students. Ms. Henkin explained, “Kids have this positive energy. They have their lives ahead of them. Everyday is a new day.”
While she still travels often, the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed Ms. Henkin to enjoy the comforts of home. Most recently, she’s been studying the Russian martial art of Systema. She’s been taking Zoom classes every Saturday morning to relieve stress and get some exercise. It has also proved a way to connect during quarantine: “I’ve met interesting people through this Systema: former military, cops… all these macho men.” For her, it’s just one more thing to explore.
Before ending the interview, Ms. Henkin passed on some parting wisdom to students: “There is plenty of time to figure out who you are and what you want to do… everybody goes through life at their own pace. If you do your best, you can be proud of yourself, and that is enough. The world is your oyster. ”
Featured Image (at the top of this page): Helena Henkin enjoys seeking adventure. (PHOTO CREDIT: Helena Henkin)