Inside Track: Teacher finds her own way of educating students

An unfulfilling student teacher experience pushed Jennie Kueppers to explore management.
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Jennie Kueppers assumed the executive director role for Sylvan Learning of West Michigan while still in her 20s. Courtesy Courtesy Christi Dupre, Island photos

At 31 years old, Jennie Kueppers has quickly climbed the ladder to lead one of the premier tutoring programs in the country.

She took on the role of executive director for Sylvan Learning of West Michigan in 2019. Sylvan Learning is an educational franchise that has “750 points of presence in the world.”

Kueppers leads eight centers in the region and located in Grand Rapids, Grandville, Rockford, Muskegon, Holland, Portage, Battle Creek and Traverse City.

Currently, Kueppers is overseeing 327 students and about 80 certified teachers who provide tutoring services to K-12 students and veterans. The teachers tutor students in subject areas such as math, reading and writing, and they assist with homework assignments and prepare students for the SAT and ACT standardized tests.

Kueppers’ leadership skills during the pandemic last year earned her the recognition of being named one of the Top 12 directors in the country by Sylvan Learning.

The Michigan native always had the gift of teaching, whether it was teaching her older brother how to tie his shoes or reading the book Go, Dog. Go! in front of her kindergarten classmates.

Kueppers said she always knew she wanted to be an elementary school teacher and that was reaffirmed when she got to third grade.

JENNIE KUEPPERS
Organization:
Sylvan Learning of West Michigan
Position: Executive Director
Age: 31
Birthplace: Lansing
Residence: Grand Rapids
Business/Community Involvement: Counselor at Christian athletic camp and member of the women’s ministry at Cross Community Church of the Nazarene.
Biggest Career Break: “Going from regional director to executive director. It took me out of my comfort zone. I was used to having someone above me saying, ‘Yes, you are heading in the right direction or think about trying it this way.’ Now, I am making every decision. I have support. My corporate team is phenomenal. I absolutely love them. They’ve helped me with this entire transition during COVID, but if it wasn’t for me taking that leap of faith and diving in, I wouldn’t be on the CEO Advisory Council. I wouldn’t be where I am professionally today.”

“My third grade teacher, Mrs. Shaw, was the one who really helped me to see that I wanted to be in education because she was a red-head and left-handed just like me, and for a third-grader that was a pretty big deal — someone who was a red-head like you and has that stubborn attitude like you and helped you learn how to write with your left hand properly,” she said. “The biggest thing also with Mrs. Shaw was she didn’t have my brother. She was the only teacher who didn’t have my brother so I could set my own standards instead of following in my brother’s footsteps.”

She took that desire and passion of elementary school teaching with her to pursue an elementary education degree at Spring Arbor University. However, her student teaching experience during her senior year at college changed her perspective on the career and redefined her goals and expectations of how to educate children. 

While she was a student teacher, Kueppers said she realized she didn’t like the “politics” of teaching.

“You can’t build the relationships in the classroom as easily when you are working with 30 to 40 students at a time,” she said. “You can’t hit as many students where they are at, and that is the expectation our teachers have today. It is being able to hit every single individual student’s needs, while still managing the classroom and hitting the standards. It is not fair to our teachers that that is what they have to do when what they are taught is to help all the students, and that is why you see a lot of people aren’t going into education anymore because they cannot help our students the way that our students need to be helped.

“I did my student teaching at a private school and I still didn’t have the ability to (help every single student.) I did not have a positive student teaching experience. I did my student teaching at an elementary school in the Lansing area and it wasn’t what I expected it to be. I wasn’t put in a place to actually learn how to fully be a teacher, but what I got out of it is that there are also many other opportunities to still impact students. To still impact the kids and families around me the way that I dreamed of doing.”

To better influence students on a personal level, Kueppers decided to pursue a master’s degree in reading while she was working at Sylvan Learning in Lansing as a part-time teacher.

“When I first started at Sylvan, I taught three students at a time, each student doing their own thing, which helped us get to one-on-one instruction so the students could understand what they were learning. And then we guided them into independent practice, mastering the specific skill they needed,” she said. “All the lessons that they had were all tailored to what that student specifically needed help with. So, when I was working with a second-grader on phonetics skills, we would talk about vowel digraphs of ‘O, A,’ we would walk through that together to make sure that she understood it and then taking that same lesson and doing it independently. While I am still there for them to ask me questions, we want to get to the point where that student is independent and has mastered that skill before we move on to the next concept because we are not in the classroom with that student. We want to make sure that what they are learning is being transitioned into the classroom specifically.”

In April 2014, Kueppers said she was randomly looking online for director positions and found out that a director position was open at the Traverse City Sylvan Learning, which was a different franchise.

With just about two years of teaching experience to rely on, Kueppers took a chance and applied for the position. The next day she had a phone interview and a week later the job was hers.

During her time in Traverse City, Kueppers said she was able to make the franchise profitable for the first time in a long time by building relationships with parents, which in turn drew more students to the different reading, math, writing, study skills, homework support and college prep programs. 

There were about 40 students who were enrolled at the Traverse City location. While she was able to grow the franchise, Kueppers said she was able to grow personally, as well. She began understanding the business aspect of the franchise.

But after a series of illnesses and injuries that her grandmother suffered, Kueppers decided to move closer to her by applying for a director position for Sylvan Learning’s Kalamazoo/Battle Creek center. The area has a large location and a satellite facility, which Kueppers was responsible for.

Similar to Traverse City, Kueppers said she had to build relationships with parents in order to get more students enrolled.

“I was able to meet the needs of the students and what the parents were expecting to see,” she said. “It was all because I was able to be more relational and meet the students where they were at. Have empathy and understand that ‘Yes, it is frustrating when your child is not understanding certain things,’ but we can help you in showing them how we can.”

At one point, Kueppers said she served 160 students — but not all at the same time. Some students came two hours per week while others would come in eight hours per week. 

Kueppers was promoted in 2018 to the regional manager position in Grand Rapids and a year later to her current executive director role. Although she had the academic skills and a little business experience, Kueppers said she wanted to become more educated about the position so she worked on getting her master’s degree in business with a focus on executive leadership.

In her role as executive director, she oversees sales, human resources, labor, budgets and staffing — including training and hiring directors and franchisees, among other things.

When the pandemic started, Kueppers said they were quickly able to transition to online learning with their students and still provide effective programs for them. Now, Kueppers said she is focusing on something else.

“From the executive director side, I think that there is a big push, that ‘Yes, we made it through COVID,’ we adapted to what we needed to adapt to, but at the same time our focus is helping my directors become more relational with our parents, our students and our communities. We are not focused on the bottom line, per se, we are focused on supporting our communities, whether it is through a food drive or donating to our local community.”

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