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Bird nerd, off-roader, intentional leader

Meet Your Administrator: Jen Burns

GrandvilleJen Burns is the new principal at Century Park Learning Center. SNN gets to know her in this edition of Meet Your Administrators.

Education/degrees: Burns has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with a focus on math, science and art, from Western Michigan University; and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University Ann Arbor. 

Other positions you have held in education: Burns began her career teaching middle school math and science for Pennfield Schools. “I was actually hired right before I graduated, because no one wanted to be on a cart (without a dedicated classroom). I had four preps and I didn’t have a room, but at least I didn’t have to sub anymore, which was wonderful.”

She then worked for Kent ISD as a science consultant and served as president of the Michigan Science Teachers Association. “The ISD job let me get to know a lot of people in the area, including superintendent (Roger) Bearup, and I ran a lot of PD here — I think that was one thing that drove me back to Kent County.”

Her most recent work was in Ionia Public Schools, first as curriculum director, then as principal for the alternative high school and finally as associate superintendent of instructional services. 

Burns sums up her career thusly: “I went from one classroom every day, to lots of different districts, to one district but moving between eight buildings, so now it’s really nice to be just in one building every day. I’ve had a lot of different hats, but being a principal is wonderful.”

How about jobs outside education? Her first job, at age 13, was at Deer Forest Park in Coloma, where she walked ponies and camels for people to ride, operated the carousel and sold feed for the goats and deer. “We had some nice camels and some not-so-nice camels. Mo was pretty easygoing, but Carol — she was a biter. No one will ever forget Carol.” 

In college, she held an enviable position at her local Target store: “My job was marking things to go on clearance, which was deadly. I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, I hope that thing’s still here when I get off of my shift.’ It was every teacher’s dream — I got to put stickers on things all day. I think it’s worked out really well for me.”

Family life: Husband Michael is the city manager for Lowell. They have three boys: Logan, in 7th grade; Cohen, in 5th grade; and Nolan, who is a year and a half. “It’s wild. Everything is going on at once. One (son) does football, one is going to do e-sports and then the little one is throwing tantrums one minute and laughing the next minute. It’s probably just like any other busy family. Any chance we get, we like to go to the water; the kids love going fishing and swimming.” 

Hobbies/interests: Burns enjoys off-roading at the Silver Lake dunes; she used to have a lifted Jeep for the adventures and dreams of one day getting a side-by-side UTV for family off-roading. She is also a self-described “bird nerd” and has volunteered as a surveyor for the city of Grand Rapids to spot, identify and map birds in the area. “I love birds so much. I think the pheasant is just the most beautiful bird. Some people (at Century Park) heard that and they think I’m wrong, but I think they just don’t get it. Pheasants are beautiful.” 

What kind of kid were you at the age of your students at Century Park? “I would always get in trouble for talking. All the time. I got along with just about everyone.” 

What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from students? “What we see, behavior-wise, is not usually tied to anything that happened at school. There’s usually some sort of factor there, whether it was something that happened in unstructured time or something at home that happened. And once you can figure that out, the kids are successful. You just have to be patient and listen.”

If you could go back in time, which grade would you return to? “I’ll say first grade. I loved my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Griffith. I remember doing a lot of fun activities with her, and I was really into math. When I graduated (high school), she gave me something like a scrapbook page, with pictures of the pilgrim day where we’re all dressed up and other events throughout the year. It was really cool, and I still have it.”

What positive changes in education are you seeing as a result of the pandemic? “I think everyone is more intentional about finding out what kids did not get to learn previously. It could be learning loss from being in quarantine or being sick, or those times where we just slowed down curriculum or had to go to virtual learning. All of that results in unfinished learning. I feel like we’re all better at evaluating what the kids need, what supports are in place, before we start anything for the school year. I also think we have way better ways of communicating with families. We do almost everything electronically now. (The pandemic) forced us to think differently about how we do a lot of things.”

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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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