BY: LIAM ENGLISH AND HANNAH GALARNEAU
In Shenendehowa High School, it is nigh impossible to immaculately encounter Jenny Pfaffenbach.
The buzz around her teaching and student interaction styles is palpable, and any freshman entering the high school on track to take her class will be introduced to the concept of how excited they should be to meet her long before they enter the door of her classroom.
High School East history teacher Jenny Pfaffenbach garners praise from students who’ve never even had her including senior Hunter Galpin who said he “regrets taking Cult Lit.”
She earns respect from the dance team especially after participating in the team’s Spirit Rally dance. Team member Kate Horan said that even though Pfaffenbach only attended one practice she “knew the dance perfectly.”
In early 2015, Pfaffenbach was featured in the Daily Gazette after being asked by three separate basketball players to attend a game, to which they were asked to bring a teacher who had touched their lives.
When you enter Pfaffenbach’s classroom, however, the pressure of meeting someone with such praise behind their name is quickly quelled. Her room is personalized to such a degree that it is hard to recognize it was once like any other bland, uninteresting room at the high school.
A U.S. Army flag hangs from the ceiling just above the radiator, so as to always be waving with a laid back elegance reflective of Pfaffenbach herself. The lights are off, as she projects her lessons in powerpoint form on the board, but the classroom is illuminated by strings of fairy lights, providing a soft glow for note taking.
Cultural masks and student-made artwork hang from the walls, along with posters and maps, entirely obscuring the cream-colored blandness beneath and instantly acclimating you to her excited way of thinking.
Pfaffenbach stands before all of this, every seat occupied by young students visibly excited to learn, a blue streak in the front of her stylishly short hair and a cool smile on her face.
When we entered the classroom, we were enthusiastically welcomed by her, and sat at the back of the room next to a senior already there, choosing to revisit one of her unique lessons in his free time.
She quickly returned to her teaching, discussing the Haitian revolution and France’s Western oppression. Instead of simply asking her students to recount some textbook list of events, however, she implored them to think of the world with the map flipped 90 degrees. This way, she elaborated, the European continent literally looms over the Western world, with France almost directly above Haiti, pressing down on it from above. This sideways view of things is emblematic of how she continues the entire class, always veering off into tangents and humorous anecdotes, but, like a well-trained comedian, bringing it all together into a cohesive and enlightening finale that cannot help but engage students.
Pfaffenbach wants to hear from these pupils; she applauds those that volunteer answers, not in any way to patronize, but because she is genuinely enthralled by varied outlooks and fresh takes. She loves to learn, and it is evident that this adoration for education is the cardinal concept she wishes to teach.
When we sat down with Pfaffenbach, she emphasized the role of teaching in her life.
“I’m a third generation teacher, which I think is a really important thing to know about me,” she said. Pfaffenbach is the granddaughter of a teacher from a one-room schoolhouse farm community and daughter of an inner-city science teacher who taught during the Philadelphia race riots in the 60s.
While her grandfather – a coal miner with a 6th-grade education – and grandmother were fairly necessitous, her mother and father were distinctly wealthy. The first member of his family to go to college, Pfaffenbach’s father opened an orthodontist practice and was met with overwhelming success.
Pfaffenbach’s mother stopped teaching to raise her and her siblings, a sacrifice, Pfaffenbach says, she doesn’t take lightly.
Her parent’s success was utilized to craft an environment wholly conducive to learning. She grew up with Thoreau quotes hanging, along with her mother’s college degrees, in her kitchen.
Pfaffenbach said she grew up frequenting museums, discussing history with her parents, and being read to from a young age. This access to information was, “always presented as a privilege,” she said, and never impressed upon her.
Pfaffenbach was taught to work for what she wanted, employed, like her siblings, from the age of 15 or 16 (she recalls having to ride her bike to get to work), but when it came time to go to college, the check was written. Part of her parents’ ‘always saving’ mentality led them to impress that they, “…would pay for [her] college, and [she] would pay for [her] children’s college, and they would not take out loans.”
Her father’s entrepreneurial story inculcated the idea in Pfaffenbach and her siblings that they needed to strive for immediately employable careers after college
Ultimately, Pfaffenbach decided to attend Tufts University where after sitting through just one political science class realized that she was destined for an alternate career path.
This sparked the beginning of Pfaffenbach’s career as a history teacher.
“Knowing that I loved history, I went through and took a lot of physcology classes at Tufts and I ended up double majoring,” she said.
Pfaffenbach landed her first teaching internship at Emma Willard High School, an all girls boarding school in Troy, where she taught two classes. After teaching there for one year, Pfaffenbach received a scholarship to Harvard University. After earning her master’s degree, she moved to Westport, Connecticut where she taught briefly before she and her husband moved to the Capital District. She has been teaching at Shenendehowa ever since.
Driving around Clifton Park one might drive past Pfaffenbach and her husband training for their latest marathon or triathlon. Almost two years ago, Pfaffenbach completed her first iron man all while training not only herself but also while preparing her students to take the AP World Exam.
We were both students in her class that year. Never did Pfaffenbach relay any symptoms of fatigue or stress. She had explained to us her morning routine which consisted of waking up at 4 a.m. to run around 10 miles followed by multiple laps up and down the pool at the YMCA.
Most recently, Pfaffenbach completed a 50 mile race where she had to navigate through the woods for almost 8 hours.