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From pain to passion to PE

Why I Teach: Tarwo Konbloa

East Grand Rapids — “All I knew was pain,” Tarwo Konbloa once wrote as the opening line of a poem about his childhood in the refugee camps of the Ivory Coast.

Now, as the physical education teacher at Breton Downs Elementary, Konbloa is thriving. He’s found his “why,” as he puts it — his reason for greeting each day — and he can’t quite picture himself doing anything else.

Born in Liberia, Konbloa grew up in the midst of a civil war that he said “tore the country apart.” 

He and his family fled to the Ivory Coast as refugees. His schooling was initially limited to about two hours a day, all devoted to learning the language of the region to avoid misunderstandings and trouble with authorities.

“I would call it survival mode,” he said, “because I had to learn the language to be safe.”

At age 11, Konbloa came to the U.S. through a program that provided aid to refugees. When he first arrived in West Michigan, he struggled to adjust to being a full-time student. The Christian Reformed Church stepped in to help ease the transition.

Teachers are the huge difference-maker in terms of bringing up the next generation. If you know your why, you should go to it.’

— Tarwo Konbloa, Breton Downs Elementary PE teacher

“They took me to school for two or three weeks … to make sure I got there safe and to get the fear factor out,” he said.

Konbloa had always loved soccer, and the church saw a way to turn his passion into an incentive to get more involved with school. 

“They said, ‘If you decide to go to school, we’ll pay for you to go to soccer,’ so that was a game-changer,” he said. “Through soccer, I improved in my language and comprehension.”

Konbloa might have gone pro if not for an injury that hindered his ability to play. Steven Smith, a former coach at Hope College, was one of many who saw Konbloa’s potential on the field, and urged Konbloa to consider playing while also getting his degree.

“He said, ‘I know you have a lot to offer. You could play soccer and you could get your wish (of playing professionally), but if you get your education, it could change your life … and you could do things that people don’t expect you to do,’” Konbloa recalled. “And that triggered my mind to not lean too much on soccer and to focus on school.”

After graduating from East Kentwood High School, Konbloa earned his bachelor’s degree while playing soccer for Hope and also doing some coaching. Later, he obtained a teaching certification from Western Michigan University after being urged to do so by people around him who thought teaching would be a perfect fit.

Tarwo Konbloa, here with second-grader A.J. Proos, is in his third year of teaching at East Grand Rapids

What is the thing that gets you up in the morning and excited about teaching? “The kids are learning, they’re improving, and my goal is to make them better than I was.

“… There’s a huge smile that I see every time I walk in in the morning. … ‘Hello, Mr. Konbloa; I’m excited for gym today.’ That’s what makes me want to get up.”

What are some of the biggest challenges and how do you strive to meet them? “The biggest challenge within my classroom is the kids that don’t have the confidence. That’s when I come in, to see how I can help them — some of those kids who might not like sports, who might live a sedentary life not being active. Trying to find a way to meet in the middle.”

Additionally, Konbloa said he strives to continue to improve his own skills, and fine-tune the way he works with his students, including those with special needs. He said he thinks often about how to inspire them to live healthy lifestyles beyond elementary school, and to form positive memories while in his class. 

What are some of the biggest differences in teaching pre- and post-pandemic? “I didn’t go into teaching pre-pandemic. I did my observation and I thought it was something I wanted to do. … When the pandemic hit, I thought I was in the wrong career.

“Kids would show up, but they’d be not there. They’d be missing classes. It was hard, because this is something I wanted to do, but … I couldn’t see the kids in person and have a positive impact.

“That was hard for me, but two years after the pandemic, I feel much better and I feel like I’m in the right place. I’m a face-to-face person, because it’s easier to understand the kids and be able to guide them.”

What’s the most amazing thing about elementary school students? “They are always excited. In this building, they’re always excited to see Mr. Konbloa. … Even when we do the little challenge of shooting basketballs … when they make one shot, it’s like the highlight. And for me, I’m hungry to see (that). They are always eager to come to gym and learn different types of sports.

“It helps to see how these young ones … learn how to become self-guardians in terms of exemplifying what it means to be leaders and students of Breton Downs.”

Breton Downs Elementary PE teacher Tarwo Konbloa talks about sportsmanship with second-graders, from left, A.J. Proos, Victoria Sanchez-Fernandez and Claire Kelbel

What would you say to someone considering teaching as a profession? “I would say if you want to become a teacher, you should know your reason why. That would be the biggest advice I’d give them. Because teachers are the huge difference maker in terms of bringing up the next generation. 

“If you know your why, you should go to it.”

What do you like about teaching physical education? “Seeing the kids want to be as active as they can. Seeing the growth. 

“I did have a student, actually two or three, that came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Konbloa, I did not like gym … but everything we’ve done, I’ve practiced it over the summer and I’ve gotten better, and gym is now my favorite.’

“That’s the growth that I look for. … I am not looking to see the best athlete shining in my gym class. I know that kid’s always going to be active. How can I bring the ones who are not active … to help them to see the benefit that physical fitness can have?”

Read more from East Grand Rapids: 
New AP brings ‘relationship first’ approach to middle school
Renovations level up playgrounds

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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