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Q&A: Peter Stiepleman

New superintendent of Columbia Public Schools recommends never acting out chaos in a classroom.

April 24, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Peter Stiepleman started out in the insurance game, but once he read a picture book to a classroom in Berkeley, Ca., he traded in his cubicle for night school. Chosen in March as the superintendent for Columbia Public Schools, Stiepleman began his career in Bay Area elementary schools. He moved to Columbia after his wife accepted a job at MU, and he has been with CPS ever since. Bilingual in Spanish with a zeal for social studies and international travel, Stiepleman worked as a teacher and principal for CPS until his promotion.

Board of Education President Christine King says that the role of the superintendent requires someone who understands the shift in public education. “It’s more like a growing and innovative corporation that needs to compete in the future market,” King says. “Peter does that very well.”

Vox talked to Stiepleman about his interests outside the office.

If you weren’t in education, what would your dream job be?

I would be a diplomat. I spent a year in Madrid, and I worked in the U.S. embassy. I really enjoyed it, and I think that’s where my love of travel and interacting with different people came from.

What is a teaching memory that stuck with you?

We went to the Bay Area for spring break this year, and we were driving my three boys past the first schools I had taught at. I wanted to stop by this one house of a student I had taught my first year whose name was Herardo. He said he wanted to be a lawyer because he wanted to support his pretty rough neighborhood. His family had not come to the United States legally, and he didn’t have as many opportunities here as someone who was. He was still living at his house with his parents, and he was 25 at this point. Just to hear about his dreams, and his continued work ethic was really inspiring.

What is your passion aside from work?

My wife and I love to travel. We think the greatest gift to our three children is taking an annual trip somewhere, sometimes in the U.S. but often outside of the country. It’s a way to have them think about themselves not just in their local community, but also part of the global community. We’ve gone anywhere from Nicaragua to Greece to Turkey to Argentina to Iceland. We think it’s a great way for our kids to see themselves as part of something bigger.

What’s your embarrassing teaching moment?

When I was a first-year teacher, I had gone to a workshop about TPR, which means total physical response. As you’re teaching vocabulary, you’re supposed to teach brick-and-mortar words, which are really important words for kids to develop as they learn text so they don’t get tripped up on meaning. One way to do this is to have the kids actually act it out. So, the school I was teaching at in my first years had this program, and I thought to myself, “This is going to be brilliant; I’m going to have them act out the words.” Words like “creep” or “crouch” went well, but the next word was “chaos.” So, we read the definition, and I told the class to act it out, and they destroyed my classroom. Kids were just trashing it; they were under the desks and knocking things over and pulling posters off the walls.

What’s your favorite place in Columbia?

Uprise Bakery is typically where I can be found. I harass them from time to time on Friday nights to see if they have wings; I love their wings.

Do you have any mementos that you’ve kept on your desk through the years?

Wherever I go, before I enter or leave an office, the first thing that goes up is a poster of Anne Frank. It says, “In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” That has always been a motivator for me about looking for the right moment to try to exert an influence over a classroom or a kid’s life.

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