Painting the town: Emma Zahren-Newman reflects on teaching, community conservation

Zahren-Newman paints in Williamsburg. COURTESY IMAGE // EMMA ZAHREN-NEWMAN

The College of William and Mary’s slogan of “those who come here, belong here” certainly rang true for alumna Emma Zahren-Newman ’17 M.A.Ed. ’18. For almost a decade, Zahren-Newman has served the Williamsburg community as an elementary school teacher, conservation and diversity advocate and local artist, while also working at local businesses Culture Cafe and Silver Hand Meadery.

In 2020, Zahren-Newman started Real Kids Play LLC, a business promoting creative, playful, standards-based and screen-time-limited learning for young students. 

While at the College, Zahren-Newman majored in two-dimensional studio art and art history, with a minor in psychology. She studied abroad in Havana, Cuba, took part in the debate team and honor council and waitressed at Culture Cafe, where she felt herself starting to love the larger Williamsburg community. 

“My minor was in psychology,” Zahren-Newman said. “Specifically, I took a lot of child development classes. I’m the oldest of nine, so I was really interested in kids. Growing up, I started my own camp and I was always the camp counselor and so it just was like a natural fit.”

With her cultivated interest in child psychology and development, Zahren-Newman stayed in Williamsburg for the five year masters program at the William and Mary School of Education. In this program, she taught third graders at Matoaka Elementary School in Williamsburg. It was during this interactive experience that she decided to make Williamsburg her home. 

“I did my student teaching at Matoaka Elementary School with the third grade team, and I was very gung ho set on going back to New Jersey and teaching in Newark or something,” Zahren-Newman said. “But then I just totally fell in love with the teachers I was working with, and the whole program, the whole school. And, again, like with working at Culture Cafe, I just really realized that staying in Williamsburg sounded awesome.”

For the next four years, Zahren-Newman worked as a third grade teacher at Matoaka, where she welcomed student teachers from the William and Mary School of Education into her classroom. 

Zahren-Newman also became the multicultural engagement advocate for Matoaka Elementary in the district. In this role, she represented Matoaka Elementary for the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools district committee regarding multicultural attention in public education. The program brought a focus to Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month to elementary students through biographical teaching, reading challenges, trivia games and display cases. Native American Heritage Month is especially important at Matoaka Elementary School, whose namesake is a famous Powhatan woman. 

“Matoaka is Pocahontas’s real name. Pocahontas is just the nickname, but her real name was Matoaka. So we always did something around that to shed light on the history and cultural diversity of our area,” Zahren-Newman said. 

Zahren-Newman spoke about the importance of culturally responsive teaching, something she learned from Professor Barko-Alva, an Assistant Professor of ESL/Bilingual Education at the William and Mary School of Education. 

Culturally inclusive education is starting to become a hot topic in the public school community across the United States as far-right lawmakers crack down on more progressive approaches. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin passed multiple executive actions on his first day in office regarding public education. One ordered “ending the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, in public education” and another allows parents to decide whether or not their child needs to wear a mask in public schools.

Furthermore, in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican state legislature passed a series of laws reforming public education in the state, including the “Stop WOKE Act” and the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. These statutes, the former of which has recently had key portions blocked by a federal judge, limit workplace discussions around race and white privilege and classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Zahren-Newman touched on her thoughts regarding the politicization of public education in America, mentioning the political discourse over critical race theory in Virginia and LGBTQ+ education in Florida.

“That is very scary to me. I think it’s difficult to be a teacher because you have 20-something little humans who are raised by 20-something very different families. So you’re already tip-toeing a line when it comes to parents,” Zahren-Newman said. “And the last place that that stress needs to come from is some political person in the state government or at the state level.” 

She also believes there needs to be a greater effort to uplift and appreciate teachers around the country, and that this effort can start with politicians stepping back and trusting teachers to do their job. 

“I think that our elected officials have a responsibility to be like moral beacons a little bit,” Zahren-Newman said. “Like, this is how people should act or this is how people should treat others. And I wish that they would take that same respect and consideration with people who are literally raising our children, like the future of tomorrow, and respecting their professional opinions, respecting the fact that they can pull together a viable and appropriate lesson plan and trusting that they can respond to the needs of the students and prepare them for for a world that is is complicated. You’ve got to have difficult conversations. But, trusting that teachers can have those conversations in an appropriate way, I think, it would be huge if our elected officials sort of led the charge on this.”

Zahren-Newman also became more invested in environmental advocacy and conservation during her work at Matoaka Elementary, where she received a grant to build an aquaponic system. She then took her efforts to a county level when she joined the James City County Clean County Commission. 

“What inspired me to join them was that it seemed like citizens really cared and were able to make a difference,” Zahren-Newman said. “They had passed an ordinance in James City County to make it illegal to litter, and fineable. I thought that was really neat, that concerned citizens actually had a voice in making laws and ordinances that mattered to them.”

Zahren-Newman’s passion for the environment fused with her artistic prowess as she collaborated with the City of Williamsburg to paint a mural on the outer wall of Silver Hand Meadery. The mural depicts different flowers that people can plant and protect to help pollinators thrive. Recently unveiled on Aug. 20, the mural is open for the public to view and learn from. 

Like a bee leaving a familiar pollinator garden for a new and exciting one, Zahren-Newman is leaving Williamsburg and Matoaka Elementary for her new job in the Washington D.C. area at the Department of Energy Loan Programs Office. She will help fund sustainable energy projects, scratching her conservation itch, while still running Real Kids Play LLC, scratching her education itch.


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