Jennifer Henrichsen is Island Pacific School’s Assistant Head and math teacher. Well, that’s her official title, but as with any of our staff, you will find out in this interview that her role is varied and far reaching.

Jen has worked on and off at IPS for almost 20 years, so it seemed a good point in time to interview her about her career with our school. We sat down together on a sunny day last November to chat.

As with so many conversations we have on this island, the discussion naturally started with the question of how she came to Bowen — and what brought her here.

Why did you come to Bowen?

My husband Michael’s parents retired here and they had a little cottage. They said to Michael that if he wanted to do his masters at UBC we could move into the cottage. So we moved into the cottage, got married, I found the job at IPS and stayed! We lived in the cottage on Windjammer on and off until we built our house in Sealeigh Park in 2011.

Our wedding was the last party in the library before it became a library. I rented it out for my wedding for $7 an hour! It was empty, bare linoleum floors. You could rent it out for like boy scout meetings and such…but our wedding was the last event held there in 2000. Docs made the whole dinner and they wheeled it over on carts…yes, it was a good wedding! Then it got transformed into the library.

I started at IPS from 2000-2003, so just over three years at that time, left from 2004 – 2011, so seven years, then I was back in 2011 to present.

What did you do in those seven years while you were away?

I had a couple of babies and followed my husband’s career, he’s a geologist. We went to New Brunswick for a year, then Argentina for a year. I was an at home mum so pretty excited to be travelling but still “at home”. The kids were little when we travelled. Viggo went to a kindergarten in Argentina and I volunteered there so I could learn how to speak Spanish. I knew the total basics and so I went and offered my services. They wanted to practice their English and I wanted to do something. So little Freja, at 6 months old, got put on a blanket in the corner and while the kids played with her, the teacher and I did kindergarten. Viggo was three and played with all the other kids as he learned Spanish.

We spent a year in New Brunswick, a year in Argentina, six months back on Bowen and then three years in Ghana.

“Of course, you can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can’t take the teacher out of the person!”

When we moved to Ghana I said, “what can I do here?”. Another woman who worked for my husband’s company was involved with an orphanage and took me there one day and I said “I have three years so let’s see what I can do”. Michael’s contract was for three years. I taught street sellers, the “market mammas” they called them. I taught with them with a Canadian organization for the first six months or so.

But in Ghana I realized I can be more useful, my kids were in school for half of each day and there were nannies everywhere. So I found the Royal Seed Home in Ghana and I met Naomi Amoah. Once I found Naomi, that was it!

Naomi was a 32 year old Ghanaian woman with no education, and when I met her she was trying to feed and raise money for about 100 Ghanaian kids in her care. Her father didn’t educate her, but when her dad died, she inherited the family property and she and her mother started educating the girls to be seamstresses and hairdressers, which is what you do in Ghana. Once those girls got their education, a lot of them had babies, some got pregnant out of wedlock, so they went to the city and left their babies with Naomi. It was ‘thanks for educating me, now I’ve got my certificate, I’m going to the city’”. All of a sudden Naomi had five babies, then she had 10, then 15, then the police started dropping off babies that had been abandoned! There were little social services – Naomi is an amazing woman, incredibly resourceful. They lived pretty far away from where we were in the capital.

We had fundraisers and we got companies to sponsor computers, I taught science, did experiments and I started the pen pal program.

Tell me about the pen pal program you started with Royal Seed Home?

Tanya Krumpak was a teacher here at IPS for a long time. One day she and I said “okay, let’s make this happen”. I was sending packages of letters and helping the kids write them, but amazingly, since I left, Naomi, who is somewhat illiterate, has kept it going.

It’s been over 10 years of pen pal letters going back and forth and without my supervision for the last seven or eight years.

“It’s so awesome because it’s the whole global citizen experience, it fits into International Baccalaureate (IB), it fits into my world view and it fits into IB’s world view. It’s these things that I think are hugely important for kids to have connections with people and to actually know that they have the power to do something. I would say that for me, community building is my biggest goal for these kids, so they have support, but they also are contributing and knowing how they do that.”

Three years ago, we asked the grade 9’s what they wanted to do to help people. In the beginning they said they wanted to go to the downtown eastside and give out sandwiches. I said “that’s a good start, but you give a man a fish and he eats for a day, you give him a rod and he eats for a lifetime”. So I said “how are you going to make a difference really more than just a day and a full belly?”

We decided to approach Covenant House, and we had our first Sleepout Student Edition. They have done the “Executive Edition” for some years, but they were just starting their youth program. Jessica Slater, (Bowen Island Community School Principal Scott Slater’s wife), works there. I called and said, “I’m calling from IPS on Bowen Island”, and she said “I live on Bowen Island!”

Jessica came in and we organized the whole project, where the grade nine class has an immersive experience downtown. They get their last food on the ferry at noon and they are at Covenant House downtown and volunteer their time to sort clothes, which is all they can do because of privacy issues. The work for three hours or so.  I then give them a toonie for dinner and they have to find $2 worth of food, or pickup whatever they find on the ground, but they can’t busk or beg. There are groups of three kids with one teacher and we walk around — it’s February in the rain. Everybody knows where the cheapest food is and it’s actually at Costco. You can get a jumbo hotdog and a refillable drink for under $2. It’s amazing because when we debriefed this I asked “who did you see down there?”. They talked about a First Nations family feeding their whole family for less than $2, drinking pop. You can tell there are a fair amount of down and out people at the Costco concession. 

Some pooled their money, got a loaf of bread and a thing of Nutella and they just ate Nutella sandwiches all night. $2 is all the money they had. By the time they walk back up the hill to IPS and set up their beds behind the school, they’re cold, they’re wet, they’re hungry and they’re tired. Then we have a fire and we debrief. We sleep out on the gravel and then the next morning they reflect on their experience in a  quiet moment before I feed them a pancake breakfast. 

To a certain degree it’s like being downtown, this is the thing that we talk about with Jessica. There’s a huge percentage of kids couch surfing, they’ve been kicked out of their own house, they’re still trying to get through school, they’re the uncounted homeless. In the youth department of course there’s a lot of girls that are uncounted because they are not allowed on the street because their pimp has them. It’s all sort of hard knocks. I don’t think our kids are super sheltered, but to a certain degree they are. I think our parents are quite aware of how privileged they are and there’s a lot of talk within homes.

“It’s not a scare tactic — “let’s drive down to the downtown eastside” —  it’s an empathy tactic. “What does it look like to grow up in foster care? What does it look like when you have nowhere to go and your stepdad has kicked you out of the house?” No kid wants to live on the street— it’ either an addiction problem or a mental health problem and they simply have no support and no choices.”

We talk about the kids that might be on the street beforehand, I want the empathy to be there already as to why people would be down there. So when the Covenant House representative comes to Bowen and they talk to the students on a Wednesday, we sit and talk and brainstorm. We look at crisis lines and we talk about where to find help if you need help. Where do you go? Covenant House is a place to go if you need help. We just talk about how thin the line is between privilege and all of a sudden that’s gone. There are other shelters on the North Shore, but Covenant House is well funded because they are all over the world, all over North America.

Tell me about our community service program at IPS

Covenant House is a Grade 9 equivalent of community service. Our grade 6 & 7’s go to the Community Centre, they work in a garden but by 14 they should kind of get an idea of what’s happening in the world. It was really cool that the kids started that, we worked it through and it’s a really rich experience. The theme is community building! Being part of your community and making a difference in that community. I’m proud of that program!

You hold so much of the history and traditions of IPS

Well, you don’t know, if you’re new, who made a tradition and how it started. Between Pam and Adrian and I we hold so much of this. Pam started two years before me, but then she left for a bit longer. We had kids…River and Viggo are the same age. She left for eight or nine years and I left for seven years. She raised River, did a bunch of stuff with IDLC. I came back in 2011 and she came back in 2013. I came back when Ted came back. So I’ve only worked under Ted.

Was that intentional?

Intentional maybe for both of us as we like each other. He hired me when I was fresh out of teacher’s college, 29 or 30. I had moved to Bowen and had applied to schools on the North Shore. I was subbing on the North Shore and then I’m like “oh look, there’s a little school on Bowen!”. So I walked in and I talked to Ted.

How did you start your career in teaching?

As a wildlife biologist I spent a lot of time when I was working as a biologist, in the bush, with small groups of people, but in the bush. Which I loved, but I also found that I am more social. I need people around to feed my energy. I’ve always worked at camps, I’ve worked as a programmer for provincial parks, so it was kind of a natural progression from loving nature and knowing the sciences, to sharing the sciences with the kids. A lot of my friends have either gone into science education or the parks – national parks, provincial parks. I was a nature interpreter. It was a lot of fun. And camps, I grew up in camps, that whole programming thing.

“IPS is like a big camp, with some academics thrown in!”

I have a wildlife biology degree and then I got my teaching degree, I was the science teacher, but science and math get lumped together, so I was the science and math teacher for those three years.

Ted and I had a similar background in camps, the canoe trips. He used to go on two month canoe trips!

He was pivotal in wanting an alternate education for his kids. Is this why he founded IPS?

It was before he even had kids, he came to this realization that he felt gypped, that his education wasn’t what it should have been.

“Ted, as my first big mentor, as a teacher, gave me the tools and the language for what I had been percolating.”

Growing up as a camp counselor in parks…it was the education part of being outdoors that I loved. Then I lived in Calgary, did my teaching degree, met Michael in Calgary, and then we moved here and got married.

Michael was doing his Masters at UBC – I was his sugar mama! While he was doing his Masters, I was making the big bucks at IPS! Somehow the tides have turned…funny, life stages…

It’s interesting how you found this small school that was very aligned to your ideas…and how you connected with Ted

“Well, it was honestly perfect when I met Ted. In my head I was ripe to hear him, and he needed someone to run things and I had camp experience, I had leadership in camps and parks and I had math and science. I could teach both subjects. I’d just done a big paper in inquiry, it was exactly how the philosophy was at IPS. That was our first conversation – about inquiry.”

How did the science piece get taken away?

Pam was doing all the science and some of the math and the year that I arrived she moved up to Odyssey. Odyssey happened for one year, it was a grade 10 program, and I filled her shoes as the science and math teacher for grades 6, 7 and 8. You can put this in here and kick Ted a little bit! My first year that I was here, I was signed on not as full time, but 1.25! So I was doing full time plus…all the excursions, all the expeditions, driving the bus and teaching 6 courses. It was insane.

How did you do it all?

I worked every Sunday, Ted and I were both at the school for 5 hours on Sundays.

I can see why Ted would go and find a career that actually paid something, by all accounts I can see how this was his life –  he just lived here.

This was also Ted’s choice. He was a workaholic. I love him, I love him, I love everything about him, except that. Control freak…workaholic. He would try to delegate, but then would do it himself anyway. He was so organized, he kept us organized. Every box was checked, except maybe the budget sometimes!  To run a school like that and work 80 hours a workweek, his health failed…and all sorts of stuff. You have to have balance, you need balance. He talked about having balance, and we’d say “yes you do!”. Barb and I would be, like “why don’t you go for a walk Ted!”.

I touched base with him after I’d been here for six months to have a catch up. I asked him if, six months out, looking back, what would he have done differently? He said “I wouldn’t have spent as much time there. I would have found more balance in my life. In some ways that’s the thing that’s hurt the school the most, I didn’t prepare them for me to walk away…”.

(Jen and I talked a bit about CAIS at this point, the oversight and guidance that they provide . She talked about things started to change after we joined, there was discussion about how we started thinking bigger picture around that time, becoming an IB school and so on. Jen was the Assistant Head and was being brought into and groomed for the running of the school under no false pretence. She knew, Ted knew and the board asked her to take Ted’s position when he left. But she didn’t want to when it happened. She didn’t want to work that many hours and she likes teaching kids and doesn’t like doing budgets, however it was important to have an Assistant Head to bridge the new Head.)

I’m happy where I am, I didn’t want to be Head. I feel I have enough say in how how the school is being run, and can offer enough of myself that I get what I need. I get energy from the kids, I don’t get energy from budgets. It feeds my soul teaching so I’ll never remove myself from this role. There’s a term for it that when you move up through the ranks and you move away from why you actually wanted the job anyway. What is that called?

What lights your fire? What brings that spark to your eyes, why do you love working at IPS?

“What gives me energy? Kids give me energy. And teaching, I’ve got a whole class of engaged kids doing something that they find really worthwhile and opens their eyes.”

You asked earlier how I transitioned into math…Pam and I were both teaching math and science. I was teaching senior math/science and she was teaching junior math/science and we said “it’s probably going to be smarter if we teach one subject all the way through, because then we know where they’re at all the way along.” That’s how she picked science and I picked math. That’s how the divide happened. And then I picked home room too.

For me teaching math, which I never expected that I would like because I’m not a math person, I’m a science person! It’s the logic, the logic that underlies all math, and when kids get visible “aha!” moments, that’s just the best thing! And having the freedom to have these projects that we can do that are engaging and then we can make the projects what we feel they should be.

I imagine that’s very specific to our size of school? We are able to be extremely nimble…and yet we are still guided by the IB program and CAIS’s regulations and you have that structure behind you, but it’s nothing like working for a large public school…

Of course, and you’ve got 32 papers to mark for each class and tests, so of course you’re going to do multiple choice.

My grade 6’s just got to run a concession, they got to shop online at Costco, figure out what they wanted to buy, so every single kid is working with a different set of numbers. I have to go and do all the calculations again when I mark it. When you give them choice, you get better results because they get to choose something. It’s not a generic project. So it increases the workload tenfold when you’re giving a choice, because you’re not looking at a set right answer, there’s a whole bunch of right answers.

Give me an example of another project?

The grade 8’s are just starting something that I call Travelling Math. They are putting their use of ratios and rates into going on a trip somewhere. They have to research the country, look at a map and figure out the scale ratio. Take a ruler and measure how far it is to their destination airport, how long it’s going to take with the speed of a jet and then they have to switch modes of transportation and have a car or a boat or whatever, and go somewhere else and then they have to switch modes of transportation and go somewhere else.

They then have to do exchange rates and buy something that’s iconic for the place that they’re going to. They have to use two different maps – usually a world map and a regional map. So then they have different scales so they have to work that out .

The last question that I ask them is: “you can do all this with an app on your phone, so why would I make you do this?” Why would you do this? There are times your computer doesn’t work and you’ve got to know the math behind this! If you’re trying to do exchange rates in your head…travelling math is more IBish because it’s a global picture.

How has IPS changed over the time you’ve been here?

It’s changed from being very Bowen centric and it’s independent on its own. We’re this little anomaly and over the 10 years, it’s been from 2000 to 2004, then 2011 to now for me. In 2000 we had maybe one student who commuted, then three students the next year who commuted. Now it’s 50/50. That’s a huge change in the dynamic and who’s involved.

“The other huge change is going from an unknown Bowen centric school to be part of IB, to be part of CAIS, to be part of ISABC and to be accredited by them for what we do. To be involved on world stages, Science Fair, World’s Scholar’s Cup — we used to be just on Bowen Island with just our view of how we do stuff, and now we’re playing on the same stage as other schools. That’s a huge difference.”

When Ted was just starting out we were very insular and now we’re much more…we have put IPS on the map. When Ted left, we became IB. I started doing science fairs and taking kids to UBC in 2000. For me that was a big deal… I felt “who cares what we do here on Bowen Island, let’s get it out!” When we won a whole bunch of awards that year, they were like “Island Pacific School, who are you?!” They had no idea.

What was it like for Ted to come back after leaving the first time?

Ted called me in Ghana and said “Jen, so Michael (Simmonds) is leaving and you can come in and Tanya can move up to Head of School and you can come in and fill her shoes…”. I said “you know that my husband and children are here don’t you? Not going to happen, I’ll be back in September!”

What do you see happening in the next five years in the classroom, in the school? What goals do you have, what do we need to achieve? Are we there?

I think we’re getting there for stability on numbers and the stability on numbers allows us to do the programs that we want. I do think the small by design needs to hold. If we were going to go bigger I think the model would change.

Could we go bigger by expanding grades?

It would change the flavour of the school, it would change it for the better – maybe. There are kids that want that. There are a lot of kids that by 14/15 want a bigger school with all the things.  If you could have a bigger school you could offer sports. That philosophy that is IPS could certainly work in a high school, but it kind of depends. I mean Ted’s always talked about having an IPS high school downtown, like at Emily Carr all the buildings down there on Granville, here’s your 10/11/12 option. And it’s set up somewhat like IPS, but a high school version of it with much more independence.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that middle schools face today?

“The thing is there aren’t middle schools! To me, that’s it – what is the biggest challenge for BC education? They need to concentrate on middle schools because this is where you set them up. You set them up for their bigger years of university. It’s a crucial age, a crucial time in their development when they need to have as many mentors as close as possible. I think in our education system middle schools are more important than people realize. I don’t know the history of it, but in Ontario there are always middle schools. That’s where I grew up. We all went to middle school. There are only a few middle schools in BC, but at this age which is a time of huge development, it’s critical to set them up with the challenges that they need, to set them up with the engineered experiences, that actually help them be responsible, confident human beings, committed to a better world.”

NB: Below is an update of the Royal Seed Home penpal story:

IPS students have a long history of pen pal connection with the Royal Seed Home in Ghana. Five years ago, thanks to the generosity of Tri4Ghana donors, 11 Ghanaian children who lived at the Royal Seed Orphanage were able to begin their high school education. These 11 students graduated in 2017! They have now entered the workforce with skills and job opportunities thanks to their education. Three of the students returned to the Royal Seed Orphanage (RSO), but this time as teachers earning a salary.

Five additional students started high school thanks in part to funds from Tri4Ghana raised in 2014. They needed $3,500 to complete their final term and graduate! The IPS community stepped up to the challenge and raised an additional $12,585 in the 2017-18 TriAgain4Ghana initiative!

Plus a Covenant House story update:

In 2018, IPS Gr 9 students broke records and raised $13,305 for the Vancouver Covenant House in support of homeless youth.

These initiatives were both possible due in no small part to Jen’s encouragement, enthusiasm, support and shared passion with our middle school students in local and global service.

Julia McCaig
Director of Development & Alumni Relations
julia@go.islandpacific.org