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A heart for kids, a hand that can break concrete

Meet Your Administrator: Ellen Akhurst

GrandvilleEllen Akhurst is the new assistant principal for Century Park Learning Center and Grand View Elementary. SNN gets to know her in this edition of Meet Your Administrators.

Other positions in education: Akhurst started her career on the east side of the state, working as a resource room and cognitively impaired teacher for Highland Park and Avondale Public Schools. After relocating to the west side, she began work in Grandville as a resource room teacher for both Prairie View Junior Middle School and Cummings Elementary. She later moved to Century Park as a special education teacher, and most recently served as one of the building’s third-grade teachers. 

What about jobs outside education? Before switching to education, Akhurst had plans to become a veterinarian. While at MSU, she worked for the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, taking zoo animals into local schools for presentations. “I remember we had one Burmese python named Bertha, who was huge — like, seriously, at least six inches in diameter,” she said. “And Bertha liked to fall asleep while I was giving presentations. I remember one day I was talking to a kindergarten group with Bertha wrapped all around me, and the kids had the most amazing questions, but she fell asleep and she started to sag. So I had to be hitching up this big, giant snake around me constantly during the presentation, like, ‘Come on, Bertha, wake up, honey.’ The kids were all laughing; it was so much fun.” 

Education/degrees: Akhurst earned a bachelor’s degree in both general and special education from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in early childhood general and special education from Eastern Michigan University. She also has an endorsement in learning disabilities from Grand Valley State University. 

Akhurst and husband, Don, are pictured on a trip to Hawaii (courtesy)

Family life: Husband, Don, is a part owner at JDH Engineering in Grandville. They have three children: a son, who got married last year; one daughter working on her doctorate in physical therapy; and another daughter studying psychiatry at GVSU. “It’s very quiet right now, being empty-nesters. I’m not sure I like it! I like to be a little busy and I don’t have that at home.” 

Hobbies/interests/little-known talents: Akhurst has studied two different styles of the Korean martial art Tang Soo Do and has five black belts, including one first-degree black belt in self-defense. She started practicing as a way to focus her energy on something other than physical pain following a childhood injury. “No one expects martial arts from me, so I have to show them the video of my block break — I’m up to eight stacked concrete blocks that I’ve broken with my hand. … This is something that I do for myself to keep building a growth mindset. If I believe I can do it, but I can’t do it quite yet, I just have to keep myself focused. I know I can do it if I keep practicing. So I always tell my classes (about martial arts) because it gives them an understanding that they’re not the only ones in pain. They’re not the only ones who struggle. They’re not the only ones who have challenges with friendships and things like that growing up. But that doesn’t mean your life isn’t going to be wonderful.”

Besides martial arts, she and her husband enjoy mountain hiking and scuba diving, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on their diving bucket list. 

Ellen Akhurst’s kindergarten photo (courtesy)

What kind of kid were you at the age of your students? “A major introvert. I was living in my own little world. I always had a book in my hand, and if I wasn’t reading, I was doodling. I doodle all over my pages; I still do. That’s how my husband met me, actually; in high school math class I was drawing all over my notes and he thought that was adorable.”

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your students? “Don’t believe you can’t do it. Because you can do it, but you just might not have what you need yet. It’s all about the tools you use.”

Akhurst says her work in special education, and how the approach has changed in her 30 years of teaching, played a major role in learning this lesson: “The mindset used to be that once you qualified (for special education), you were in for life — and that’s not true, but I didn’t realize it until I got to Century Park and I started teaching my resource room students how to read. I made sure they knew what they were going to do, where they were going to go and exactly what they had to do to get there, and they became readers. At first I couldn’t believe they didn’t need help anymore, but it’s because they empowered themselves to do it.”

What positive changes in education are you seeing as a result of the pandemic? “I think we’re more focused on what our children need socially and emotionally right now, which is huge. We’re not thinking about curriculum as much as we’re thinking about what children need. And we’re all about positivity. I also think our staff has more collegiality than we’ve had in the past, because we need to support each other more than ever.”

If you walked into school with theme music, what song would you choose and why? “Sammy Hagar’s ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ because I am always on the go and I don’t sit still. Give me a list of things to do and I will make sure that it’s all done to the best of my ability…and then give me more to do. It’s hard for me to say no! I like to help people, and if you need help, I will help you.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Rockford, Lowell, Grandville and Cedar Springs. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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