Finding the art and science in education
Aspen High School’s Kali Zohar retires after 29-year teaching career
Kali Zohar loves the light bulb moments.
“My favorite part of the job is seeing the light bulb go off on a student’s face when they understand something they previously didn’t,” the retiring Aspen High School teacher said. “It’s always so much fun to watch.”
She’s spent 29 years in education, all but one of them at Aspen School District. The bulk of that time took place in the science classroom teaching biology and chemistry; for the past six years, she has focused on helping incoming ninth-graders transition and adjust to high school through freshmen seminar and health courses.
“I’m going to miss the high school building being my home base,” Zohar said. “I spent most of my adult life here at Aspen High School … and the people in it, of course, have been a big part of my life.”
Retiring in 2021 has been the plan for years, she said; she wanted to ensure her youngest daughter was settled in college before she sold her home in Aspen and moved on. Zohar is ready to head west to spend more time with family in southern California, she said — but that doesn’t mean she isn’t grateful for the time she spent here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Most people think of Aspen as a glitzy town known for its ski slopes and parties,” she said. “But for 28 years I got to immerse myself in the underbelly of Aspen, which consists of a wide range of people in different socioeconomic strata, people from different parts of the country and the world, people who have opinions that are very different than those opinions that I grew up with on the East Coast and I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up in this crazy town.”
Former students may know Kali Zohar by some of her earlier aliases due to a few name changes over the years: “Really, my name is Kali Karen Zohar Jaworski Pennini Zohar,” she joked.
“I can tell when I had a student based on what they name me by,” she said.
As she wraps up the school year (June 9 marked the last day of classes at the high school), Zohar said she’ll miss the home base she has grown to know so well. And the building will be a bit quieter without her, to be sure. Zohar has a musical reputation, so to speak.
“I have been known to stand on desks and sing to students,” she said. (Sarah Benson, who student-taught under Zohar during the 2001-2002 school year and has worked in the science department at the high school for more than a decade, corroborated that claim.)
“Education is really both an art and a science,” Zohar said. “It has to be ground in the science, but it has to be steeped in the art of human connection.”
It wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, she said. As a single parent raising her kids and working a full-time job, “it’s hard to do everything well,” she said.
“I’m certainly far from perfect and I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I’m grateful to be living in a community that values teachers and values public education and really puts kids first,” she said. “Even though I’ve had the challenges many other single parents have had, I’ve been blessed to live in a community that provides a lot of support for people like me.”
She’ll miss those community connections the most, she said — the ones formed with parents, students, colleagues and even students-turned-colleagues like Benson.
Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series on Aspen School District’s retiring teachers. New features will run every Friday in The Aspen Times through the month of June.
“I’m the teacher who I am today because of her — she’s amazing. … I feel so lucky and so privileged that I was able to learn my craft through her,” Benson said.
Zohar encouraged Benson to jump right into the deep end when she started student teaching.
“She threw me to the wolves,” Benson said. “It really was teaching me how to teach by letting me do it.”
Teaching independent thinking is part of the educational process — but so is keeping things fun, Zohar emphasized.
“In this increasingly complex and data-driven world, it’s becoming more challenging to make sense of all the information around us that is coming into our brains,” Zohar said. “To me, that indicates that there is an increasing need for properly vetting sources, critically analyzing opinions and really learning to think for yourself. … But I don’t want to discount the humanistic aspect of teaching and learning.”
It speaks, perhaps, to the hardiness and problem-solving skills that Zohar aims to impart on her students.
“I hope that students can look back on all the challenges they face, whether it be academic, social, emotional, and I hope that they feel like they have been able to work through their issues and direct themselves to a good place in their own lives,” Zohar said.
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