Featuring Mr. Rojek
In Athens, Georgia, an elementary school sits on one end of Baxter Street. Further down the road lies a middle school, and a little past there is a high school. The street continues on, eventually leading into the campus of the University of Georgia. For the first two decades of his life, Mr. Joel Rojek, High School General Studies Instructional Team Leader and an English teacher, followed this path down Baxter Street, a straight trajectory from elementary school all the way until college graduation. At the end of the road in college, Mr. Rojek’s educational journey continued beyond Baxter Street, turning in ways he had not expected.
From a young age, Mr. Rojek planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a college professor. As a history major, he assumed he would teach history. Yet after each of his college history courses, he found himself thinking, “Okay, I’ve studied that. What’s next?” Mr. Rojek knew history professors have to specialize in a very specific realm, yet he loved studying new, diverse topics. “I didn’t want to study the 1700s for the next three decades of my life,” he said.
Realizing that specializing in history would not suit him well, Mr. Rojek reflected on what aspects of history did interest him. Eventually, he realized he was drawn to its writing element. He explained, “I liked writing these big, complex papers… I liked challenging compositional situations; I liked building arguments and shining light on things that most people don’t know about.” Once this became clear, he planned his next step in his educational journey: pursuing a writing degree to become an English professor.
Between college and graduate school, Mr. Rojek took a break from the classroom to compose a strong portfolio of writings to showcase when applying to graduate programs. During this time, Mr. Rojek also started working for the Georgia Newspaper Project through the University of Georgia, which tries to document every single newspaper through Georgia.
In the sub-basement of the school’s library, Mr. Rojek would supervise undergraduate students preparing the newspapers for preservation, which would then be photographed, and ultimately documented on microfilm. In addition to the current newspapers, they also preserved old donated documents. Some papers detailed historical events, which he would try to read with the limited perspective of those during the time period. In addition to tracking wars and major history, he would also compare the writing and comic strips between the time periods. He recalled, “It was neat to see what was similar and different about media back then and when I was reading it at the time.”
Working on his writing and the newspapers provided Mr. Rojek with “the bridge I needed for that point in my life,” he said. Afterward, he attended the graduate writing program at the University of Montana. The program showed him all the room for growth and development in his writing. He stated, “In a very good way it was a humbling experience. I felt like I was in a room where often I would feel like there were really talented and intelligent writers and amazing people around me.”
Through a Teacher’s Assistant position, he also taught introductory English classes to college students. He said, though, “Educationally, for me, [the graduate program] was an awesome experience… [whereas] the teaching part was a different journey.” He explained, “I found teaching freshmen college students English to be incredibly frustrating and not very rewarding. They all thought they knew how to write well because they graduated from high school. And I was trying to point out to them that, in fact, no, there’s a lot of room to grow.”
As he had with history in college, Mr. Rojek reflected on what aspects of teaching college students appealed to him and which did not. “I realized that I still very much wanted to focus my life on something related to writing,” he said. However, he recognized he missed “seeing people grow and develop and start in one place and then hit a really impressive finish line.” He could not guide students through this same degree of growth while teaching college students, whom he only saw for one semester. In contrast, he said, “In a high school… you can get to know somebody in ninth grade and then really appreciate who they turn into by the time they walk across the stage at graduation.”
Mr. Rojek decided to switch directions and teach high school English. Having never taught high schoolers, he was looking for a mentor to “show [him] the ropes.” He recalled, “At Yeshiva Atlanta at the time, there was an English teacher who was the head of the English department who had a really nice resume — he ranked as one of the top 100 teachers in Georgia by the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution].” Mr. Rojek applied to YA and then excitedly signed a contract. Two weeks later, he heard that the teacher resigned.
At this point, Mr. Rojek was the only person in the English department. This made him the most veteran staff member, while never having taught a single class. Typically, new teachers are assigned the classes that the more experienced teachers did not want. In Mr. Rojek’s case, however, he stated, “I got to just choose what classes I got to teach — it’s almost absurd.”
Without a mentor, Mr. Rojek said, “I had to learn a lot of things the hard way because I had to do it on my own terms. There was some trial and error and there were some ups and downs. But, honestly, that suited me pretty well, and I really enjoyed the challenge.”
Mr. Rojek was not entirely on his own; he had “a lot of great support since [he had] been on board.” In addition, he said, “I was fortunate to get really high quality professional development early in my career.” After his second year teaching at YA, Mr. Rojek attended the Klingenstein Summer Institute though Columbia University, a program that provides courses directed toward assisting new teachers at independent schools. A few years later, he went to Harvard University’s Leadership: An Evolving Vision program during the summer through the AVI CHAI Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization. Mr. Rojek remembered, “It was really cool to hear… what’s universal with Jewish schools throughout the country regardless of background or orientation, and what’s unique or different about each of those institutions.”
Working at AJA proved to be especially unique. After teaching English for several years, Mr. Rojek took on a role as an administrator in addition to teaching. “Usually, you have to be all in as a teacher or all in as an administrator,” Mr. Rojek explained. However, he enjoys “having a foot in both worlds” instead of choosing one path. He said that “being a teacher keeps me grounded as a teacher and realistic as an administrator. I know exactly what teachers are going through because I’m teaching classes at the same school.” As an administrator, he enjoys the leadership element — such as spearheading initiatives and helping teachers. He said, “Just like I enjoy watching students grow… it’s really rewarding to watch teachers grow and to refine their craft and get stronger and better over time.”
Having dynamic roles causes Mr. Rojek to constantly adapt. He stated, “I feel almost like I’ve worked at five different schools because my role has grown and shifted and changed over time.” Furthermore, the school he first applied to has gone through many modifications, some as major as merging with another school. Yet Mr. Rojek appreciates the need to reinvent himself: “For me, that’s fuel; it helps keep me motivated.”