Mr Jesse R Elzinga reflects on his career so far, how Sevenoaks School has overcome the challenges of 2020 and what he looks forward to in the year ahead

Why did you choose a career in teaching?

I have always enjoyed working with young people. As a teenager, I started volunteering during the school holidays to help run summer camps for children, and in university I started to teach at summer schools. I am fortunate that I found my vocation in teaching, and I still love being in the classroom with young people, watching them perform in sport, drama or music, or just enjoying their company at lunchtime. They are full of optimism and hope – I often tell them that their generation will make the world a better place than previous ones, and I do believe that.

Can you tell us about an inspirational teacher from your school days?

I was most inspired by my athletics and cross-country coach at school; he was a top runner himself, competing in the US Olympic Marathon trials. I knew that his coaching was informed by the latest developments at an elite level, and he was much faster than any of us. He was also a great English teacher, who loved literature and was an absolute pedant when it came to grammar: I still think of him often, be it on one of my daily runs, or when proofreading a document! 

Do you have a favourite children’s character from a book or film?

My favourite character in film is Robin Williams in his role as the inspirational teacher in Dead Poets Society. I watched that film as a teenager and was so inspired – it might be the moment when I first realised teaching would be for me. The best teachers pass on their love for a subject and instil a sense of self-belief in their students; sometimes quirky antics can help in this process, like standing on a desk.

What do you think makes Sevenoaks special?

Sevenoaks is a vibrant and buzzing community. The students are bright, purposeful and ambitious, but we are also down to earth and unstuffy, unlike some other independent schools. We are known as forward-thinking and progressive; for example, we introduced voluntary service projects for students in the 1960s, and these are embedded in our curriculum so that all students do some service or charitable work before they depart. We have been coeducational for almost 50 years, and we’ve taught the IB Diploma Programme for over 40 years, and as a flagship IB school we attract top students from around the world, helping all of our students to develop a global mindset. 

What’s been your proudest achievement so far?

Keeping calm and carrying on in the midst of the global pandemic is an achievement enough! The virus has disrupted all of our lives, and it has been difficult for schools as well. Keeping the community safe and well, whilst carrying on a first-rate education, is a significant challenge for any Head across the world right now – and an achievement of which they can be proud.

How have you overcome the challenges 2020 has thrown at you and the school? What has being the headteacher of Sevenoaks taught you?

Given that schools were physically closed for months in 2020, there has been a renewed sense of appreciation for the daily routines of school life. I have encouraged all students and staff to make the most of every day, every lesson and every activity that they have in real life. To quote my favourite teacher from Dead Poets Society, ‘carpe diem – seize the day!’ Being part of a school like Sevenoaks is a tremendous privilege, and the months away during the lockdowns make everyone here appreciate it even more.

What are you looking forward to this coming year?

Relationships bring so much meaning and joy to life. I have missed interaction with others, including friends and family outside of school. Restrictions in school have meant significantly limited opportunities to spend quality time with staff, students and parents. Most of all, however, I look forward to introducing my baby daughter to her grandparents. My wife and I welcomed our third daughter into the world in late March last year, born at home in the first week of lockdown. Due to the pandemic, my parents in the USA have been unable to meet her. In short, I want to hug my loved ones – bring on the vaccine!

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