Our new Director of Upper School Joel Sohn shares his thoughts on equity and inclusion, why he became an educator, and his plans for building community at UPrep.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
A Q&A with an educator committed to equity and inclusion
By Nancy Schatz Alton, Writer/Editor
Before Joel Sohn applied to UPrep, he watched videos on our website with his daughter, Tuesday. “We liked that the students seemed like teens who enjoy learning and want to have fun too, and she encouraged me to apply,” says Joel. After moving across the country with his wife, Sil, and Tuesday, who will be a sophomore at UPrep, Joel started his position as director of the Upper School in July.
Joel served as director of community and equity at Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia. He also taught in the school’s English Department, where he designed interdisciplinary courses and coached cross-country and track and field. As a member of the school’s senior leadership team, he worked extensively on strategic planning to institute equitable programs and practices for students and faculty. Previously, Joel taught at The Thacher School in California and Archbishop McCarthy in Florida. At Thacher, Joel was recognized as an NAIS Teacher of the Future for his technology use and integration of project-based learning. While Joel’s previous experience is impressive, he is also admired for his warmth, sense of humor, ability to connect with students, and steadfast commitment to equity and inclusion.
During a Zoom meet-up, Joel shared why he’s excited about the move to both University Prep and Seattle, along with his thoughts on diversity and community, why he loves working in education, and how he plans to build community.
What drew you to the UPrep community?
I first noticed University Prep when researching outdoor programs at Thacher; I appreciate that trips are intentionally planned to help build relationships. More recently, UPrep has been on my radar because of its strategic plan to create equitable hiring practices. I applaud UPrep’s institutional commitment to creating a system to help prevent bias in the hiring process through thoughtful, effective, and measured policies and practices. During interviews with students, I was blown away by their thoughtful questions—and that they felt free to disagree and explain their points of view. When I saw the students acting goofy while walking the halls with other students and staff, I realized UPrep is a healthy, resilient community where kids are free to actually be themselves
Why does your family value UPrep’s commitment to diversity?
This makes me think of the windows-and-mirrors metaphor: Kids need to see people who look like themselves—mirrors—and they need windows to look out to learn about people who don’t look like them. For kids who are historically underrepresented, their mirrors are few. If a student only sees one person who looks like them, be it a friend or teacher, that’s not an equitable environment. We know when students see an adult that looks like them and that adult gives them a nod or look of understanding, it actually helps them get through their days with more success.
For Tuesday, who identifies as Asian, we wanted her to be at a school like UPrep that has many role models for her. It’s important to have women in positions of power and to have people of color as teachers and in leadership positions, and that’s true here.
What valuable experience do you bring to your new role?
My lived experience has been diverse. I was adopted from Korea and raised partly in Mobile, Alabama, by a white family. We moved every two to three years to different states on both coasts and throughout the South. Tuesday always teases me about how I say “Y’all,” but that’s from how I grew up. I was always negotiating spaces and giving people the benefit of the doubt as to why they are asking me certain questions. I know there is a lot of gray and nuance in everything, and my upbringing has built in me a kind of emotional intelligence. I try to listen and understand perspectives because I was always trying to learn from others.
I also have worked in every type of school: public, private, independent, day schools, and boarding schools. I’ve taught students from elementary school to college age. All of these experiences inform how I approach my work and my conversations with people.
Why did you become an educator and what do you love about being an educator?
I went to college with the intention to be a musician and play trumpet and be in a band for the rest of my life. I also studied architecture as an undergraduate and discovered that wasn’t my passion. I fell into teaching during a fellowship at graduate school that included teaching creative writing to undergrads. Through my teaching experiences, I believe people learn best through play and experimentation. I have a certain level of curiosity about the way people work, the way that community works, and the way teaching and learning work. I’ve found students to be the best teachers because you have to relinquish control in a way that takes a lot of courage. You really start growing as a teacher when the students guide you toward the best ways for them to learn.
How do you hope to build community at UPrep?
I’ve always believed that relationships come first for any community to thrive, and that those relationships are founded upon a shared sense of responsibility toward the collective good. When I was visiting the campus, I said that change is inevitable, but how we change together is the test of community strength. I want to walk alongside everyone at UPrep in order to best understand each person’s perspective and beliefs and motivation for being their best selves. Then, with that understanding, come to a shared vision of what UPrep can be to best live up to its mission in these uncertain times.
Tell me about your family and why you are all excited about living in Seattle.
Seattle has always been on our radar as a family. Historically, Seattle has been more devoted to publicly talking about issues of justice, with its commitment to recognizing its history of land oppression and marginalization. Seattle City Hall recognizes that we took this land from its Indigenous people. We also like that we will be an eight-hour flight away from Korea, because we have family there. My wife, Sil, went to college in Minnesota and she’s almost always worked in higher education research institutions, including roles at the University of Minnesota and Georgetown University. Tuesday is really excited about attending UPrep, to be in a place where she can explore different areas of interest, including music and science. All three of us are really into food, and we are all incredibly excited about the abundance of food options in the Seattle area.
To learn more about Joel, watch this video, where he shares a quote he relies on, and more!
This article originally appeared in the 2020 summer issue of the UPrep Magazine. Read more stories within its pages in the online version.
Director of Upper School Joel Sohn was recently interviewed for Education Week about defining diversity. Click here to watch the interview and hear his thoughts on the importance of focusing on the many factors that make a person and a school population unique.