2012-09-27 / Schools

Combating student apathy

By Stephanie Sumell


KUNG FU—Instructor Monica Kern, right,fires up Cassidy Ng, 9, of Thousand Oaks as she prepares to break a wooden board during her village-style training at Gus Gates Kung Fu and Fitness in Westlake Village on Sept. 15. Kern also teaches at Colina Middle School in T.O. 
JENNIFER MEDINA/Acorn Newspapers KUNG FU—Instructor Monica Kern, right,fires up Cassidy Ng, 9, of Thousand Oaks as she prepares to break a wooden board during her village-style training at Gus Gates Kung Fu and Fitness in Westlake Village on Sept. 15. Kern also teaches at Colina Middle School in T.O. JENNIFER MEDINA/Acorn Newspapers When Colina Middle School teacher and martial artist Monica Kern takes her 20-mile walk each Sunday, she leaves her radio at home.

“I’m listening to my own thoughts,” Kern said. “I try to figure out how to be a better wife, mother, friend and teacher.”

The 47-year-old Westlake Village resident and mother of two is committed to improving herself and others, one step at a time.

Inspired by the words “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the seventh-grade social studies teacher and Associated Student Body adviser has fronted dozens of student projects to spread goodwill and help the less fortunate.


FINDING STRENGTH—Monica Kern speaks to students about village-style training at the Gus Gates Kung Fu and Fitness Center. 
JENNIFER MEDINA/Acorn Newspapers FINDING STRENGTH—Monica Kern speaks to students about village-style training at the Gus Gates Kung Fu and Fitness Center. JENNIFER MEDINA/Acorn Newspapers Last year, her ASB class held a garage sale that raised more than $2,000 for student scholarships, school events and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, a nonprofit pediatric medical center.

The class, who worked with many philanthropic organizations, also held a successful food drive for Manna, the Conejo Valley’s food bank.

“The entire school did it,” Kern said. “We filled the entire truck with food.”

This year, her ASB class is exploring different philanthropic opportunities, considering working several Saturdays at a homeless shelter and raising money to buy and fill a sports shed for the children of Many Mansions, a nonprofit corporation that provides affordable housing to residents with limited income.

“This isn’t just a job,” Kern said. “How can I not give of myself when I work in such an amazing place?”

Eastern influences

Kris Olson, Colina’s history department chair, called Kern a “bundle of energy.”

“She doesn’t go into things halfheartedly,” he said. “She’s constantly moving, constantly thinking and constantly trying to make the things she’s doing better. . . . She cares so deeply for her students.”

Kern said her approach is rooted in her martial arts training. She has a black sash in Shaolin kung fu combat training, having trained in the fighting style for eight years.

Made up of practical defense techniques, this form of kung fu involves the use of classical war weapons and requires a high degree of discipline and patience.

Olson said Kern’s passion for the sport is evident.

“ Yellow, white, green, black—she’s got her belts hanging up in the classroom,” he said. “She inspires students with her personal story.”

In addition to encouraging good stewardship and hard work, Kern is a strong teacher, Olson said

Assistant Principal Kim Stephenson said Kern’s contributions to the school are invaluable.

“She’s just a powerhouse,” she said. “She’s the kind of teacher that will give to others almost to a fault.”

Self-discipline

But nearly 12 years ago, that future powerhouse was overwhelmed by her negative body image and self-doubt.

“I’ve always been very insecure and self-conscious,” said Kern, who moved to Westlake Village with her husband, Howard, and two daughters in 1999. “I was looking for a place to fit in and belong.”

In an attempt to find an exercise studio, Kern stumbled across Gus Gates Kung Fu and Fitness, a martial arts center on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

Kern signed up for a class— a decision that would radically change her life.

“You find this warrior spirit inside yourself that you never knew existed,” she said. “It’s like you find your inner strength of who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do in life.”

Calling her bruises “badges of honor,” Kern said her combat training helps her in every aspect of her life.

“ There’s a saying, ‘ Get kicked down 11 times, stand up 12,’” she said. “Every time I find myself down, I find this courage and strength to stand up again.”

Passion for teaching

Now a teacher at the studio, the Illinois native said she feels comfortable in her own skin.

“Kung fu has given me the confidence and foresight to pursue those things I am interested in,” Kern said. “It’s interesting how a girl from a small town in the Midwest can earn her black sash in a hand-to-hand villagestyle fighting system.”

Sandra Fisher, a teacher at the studio, said Kern is part of the studio’s family.

“She’s very caring,” Fisher said. “If anything is going on, she texts me and asks if everything is okay.”

Studio owner Gus Gates called Kern “the hardest working woman in the kung fu business.”

“She’s stern but loving,” he said. “She helps (students) reach their highest potential. . . .

“When they want to give up, she tells them to at least try first. She’ll say, ‘Let me show you how to do this and you tell me if this is something you can do.”

Teaching, whether martial arts or history, can be challenging.

“When a student is struggling, in the classroom or on the kung fu floor, you want to help them immediately,” Kern said. “They’re working so hard, you kind of just want to rescue them.”

But a good teacher helps students help themselves, Kern said.

“They’ve got to feel that pain and frustration. From there, they get the strength to figure it out and keep going.

“When a kid realizes their own inner strength, they feel they can conquer the world and do anything.”

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