Pernille Ripp

My day jobs are being a seventh-grade teacher, an author and speaker on education topics and a mom.

I was born and raised in Denmark and came to Madison when I was 18. My mom had gotten a job at UW, I had just graduated from gymnasium (junior college in Denmark) and my mom made me a deal: Stay for a year and if I didn’t like it, I could go back.

I started at UW, but found myself sitting in huge lecture halls, feeling incredibly disconnected and completely uprooted. I decided to work instead and tried retail, which looked fun but definitely wasn’t.

I switched to bartending after a few years and there I met, Brandon, the man who’s now my husband. One night he asked me what I planned to do with my life. I thought? “What do you mean?” The tips at the bar were good, I didn’t have a lot of expenses and life was ok. But his question got me thinking. I’d always known I wanted to work with kids, but I wasn’t sure how—maybe a lawyer or a social worker.

I come from a long line of educators but that wasn’t what I envisioned for myself. But I ended up at Madison College—which I just loved, community colleges are not appreciated as they should be—and eventually transferred to Edgewood College to study education. Once I had my first classroom practicum I knew: Yep, this is exactly what I want to do.

I graduated at 28—which is fairly old for a new teacher—and taught 4th grade in Middleton. I was a decent teacher and if you’d walked into my classroom, you would have thought I knew what I was doing.

But two years in, I started to question things. I saw I was using grades as a punishment and that homework was just this big beast. It seemed like everything I was doing was about control: You must fall in line, or else. And it’s interesting to look back now and see how many kids just complied—that’s just how school was, the kids didn’t question my authority for the most part and my punishment and rewards systems meant the kids knew who the “good” kids and the “bad” kids were.

That year, and I once again found myself with a student who constantly passed every boundary I put up. I tried every one of my meager tricks and couldn’t connect with him despite my best intentions. On the last day of school, he was suspended. I remember watching him walk out of school with his dad and thinking, “What am I doing?”

I’d had this vision of creating a student-centered classroom and that’s not what I’d done. I’d followed these implicit, passed on rules of what it meant to be a “good” teacher. I decided I was tired of crushing the dreams of nine-year-olds.

I talked to my husband and told him I was quitting teaching, but he instead said, “You can’t change the students, but you can change the way you teach.”

It was such a “duh” moment, but that was the difference for me.

I spent that whole summer finding educators on Twitter who were pushing back on grades and working to create student-centered classrooms where kids felt they had a voice and space and the ability to control and influence their own education. A place where they could feel safe no matter what kind of day they were having or what kind of journey they were on.

With my principal’s blessing, I threw away all the things I thought I had to do to be a good teacher: punishment, rewards systems, homework and using grades as tools of compliance. My husband suggested I start writing a blog. I called it “Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension” and shared it on Twitter. I had about seven followers and remember hearing from people who were excited about my journey and thinking “Who are you and why do you care???”

The blog became the space to think out loud and to be held accountable. I focused on being really honest—not just blogging about the great things but talking about what it really meant to be a teacher, mom and just a person. A couple of years in, a conference organizer reached out and asked if I could speak more about my experiences and about what I’d been blogging about and I got invited to speak at conferences around the world.  It has snowballed from there.

Based on my blog’s success, I ended up writing an e-book for a small publisher, but they sold it to a larger education publisher, and that led to me writing four more books all centered on bettering our practices as educators. For the past six years, this has been my world: speaking around the world, writing books, and meeting other educators.  The opportunities to speak and write and meet new people have been amazing but I never want to leave teaching.

My 7th-grade students don’t care about the accolades, they care about how I treat them and what we do together, and that keeps my feet planted solidly on the ground. I’ve learned so much from my students I couldn’t have learned any other way. I don’t want to share ideas about what MIGHT work, I want to share things I’ve done with my students (Pernille now teaches 7th grade in Oregon, Wis.).

I ask my students to let me know the good, the bad and the ugly. Being able to tell an adult what they’re doing doesn’t work for you, takes an incredible amount of trust. Students need to believe I won’t hold this over them and punish them rest of the year, so that’s what we do: We build community and grow together.

As we’re navigating education during COVID-19, the inequities of the school system have become even more apparent to all. Not just things like whether kids have access to wi-fi and devices, but the resources at their schools, the equity of their home lives. Even whether they feel safe at their schools, some students don’t.  I think we need to pay attention that some educators of color are saying that students are feeling safe for the first time in their education because they’re being educated at home.

We’re also seeing firsthand that there’s so much missing without the community feeling of school. At my own home, we have enough computers, good wi-fi and two educator parents trying to help our kids, but it’s still not school. We can’t replicate what my kids’ amazing teachers do every day.

My kids proudly go to Madison public schools and I have such faith in the Madison public school system and the incredible teachers there. But I am really hoping these crazy times help us sort out school funding issues for all schools and recognize the incredible work staff does for all kids.

My most memorable caffeine is always tea—I don’t drink coffee. To me, tea is just a trail of comfort and I have so many memories of my mom sitting at a table, drinking a cup of tea. When my kids beg for a cup of tea, it reminds me of my mom preparing tea for me and all the rituals that went with that. The simple moments of sharing a carefully made cup of black tea with lots of milk. Tea is a huge cornerstone of my family and my extended family. And we’re very stringent on which types of tea. It has to be a good black cup of tea, no fruity stuff.

My current caffeine of choice is a black tea imported from England called Typhoo. I’m not sure exactly why we landed on this one—and I’m not sure I could pick it out of a line-up if you made me try! Perhaps, we drink it because my sister is married to a British citizen and we may have discovered it because of him.

My favorite place for caffeine is anywhere. The nice thing about tea is that wherever it comes with you becomes a good moment. When I’m done speaking on the road—and am just exhausted and tired of hearing myself talk—I get to the airport, change out of my fancy clothes and get whatever kind of tea I can scrounge up, with a piece of chocolate. I sit in silence and it’s the best feeling ever.

Here in Madison, I really like Colectivo’s on the Square.

The person I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with is my friend Sara. She lives in Thailand and is an incredible educator and writer, but more importantly just an amazing human being. While we met online, we finally crossed paths at a conference and sitting down for a cup of tea, just the two of us, was what tipped us from colleagues to friends. I haven’t seen her in almost two years and virtual just isn’t enough.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Making sure every child feels seen, valued and safe at school. There are so many kids who don’t because of the assumptions people make about them—and those become their identity. It’s going to take all of us to solve that one.