December 13, 2023

Profiles in Education: Kristina Hayda — Science Teacher, Environmentalist, World Traveler

By Donald Gilpin

Kristina Hayda

Eating juicy tropical pineapples, climbing mountains with hot springs, carving bamboo with Indigenous tribes, and learning to speak Mandarin Chinese do not sound like part of the job description for a high school science teacher. Nor does traveling through a typhoon and experiencing an early morning earthquake.

But for Kristina Hayda, Princeton High School (PHS) biology, anatomy and physiology, and environmental science teacher, a month last summer in Taiwan on a Fulbright grant provided “one of the most invigorating experiences” of her life and inspired a three-school, international collaboration that continues.

“This Fulbright was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend that all educators seek out opportunities like this one at least once in their careers,” Hayda wrote in an email. “Nothing can replicate journeying abroad with people who you may not have even met otherwise.”

The collaboration that Hayda is currently co-leading includes her PHS biology students, a West Windsor-Plainsboro dual language immersion class, and students of the Datong Elementary School in Taiwan. This interdisciplinary, cross-cultural partnership “is helping all of the students to make meaning of not only the content and skills that are typical parts of our curricula, but also to gain a more global perspective.”

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals shape the heart of the collaboration, said Hayda, as students pursue projects promoting sustainability. Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Science Supervisor Joy Barnes-Johnson emphasized the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals and Hayda’s achievements at PHS.

“Her interests in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals is a topic that is critical to the work we are doing as teachers to facilitate broad conversations and deeper understandings about climate and environmental science,” said Barnes-Johnson. She added, “It is particularly refreshing to see how she plans to apply her Fulbright to build bridges with students from around the world.”

Now in her eighth year at PHS, Hayda was “seeking new challenges and adventures outside the walls of the school” when she applied for a Fulbright grant, and she found what she was looking for.

She traveled with a diverse group of elementary through college educators and experienced many different facets of Taiwanese culture in many different ways. The group was based in the capital Taipei and then traveled around the whole country via high-speed rail, other public transportation, and “a charter bus for weekend excursions and a week of intensive travel.”

The days were filled with memorable moments and amazing opportunities, she added, with some particular highlights. “There is Daan Park, Taipei’s version of Central Park,” she said. “It’s packed, even at night, with people of all ages, exercising and socializing. I wish we could have that here.”

And Hayda especially enjoyed the food. “Even the National Park had fresh food at a reasonable price,” she noted. “I’ve grown up harvesting and cooking mushrooms with my family, but the mushroom soup that I had at the National Park was one of the best mushroom dishes that I have ever enjoyed in my life.”

She continued, “The nature was stunning, and the people are so kind, but I would fly back for this soup alone — that and the pineapples, so varied, delicious, and juicy!”

Another highlight for Hayda was her colleagues, “the other teachers, administrators, and professors I traveled with and learned with.” She added, “It’s always a risk to put a group of strangers together — reality TV, anyone? But every individual brought a key component to the experience. I couldn’t imagine it any other way, from the stories of other travels to the language learning support to cheering on the more shy or less adventurous among us to try new foods and/or attempt a new language.”

The group visited a number of schools, and Hayda described one of the schools from a tea-growing region, where all of the students had an experimental project-based learning curriculum in which all grades, five to nine, worked on projects centered around tea culture.  “Several of the schools that we visited welcomed us with a traditional tea ceremony,” she reported.

She continued, “Overall, schools and education are more similar to ours than different, with the same focus on student-centered, phenomena-driven, real-world experiences and learning.”

Among the differences between U.S and Taiwanese schools that stood out to Hayda were the greater diversity in the U.S. population; the incorporation everywhere in Taiwan of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from classrooms at all levels to public plazas to museums and landmarks and more; and the bilingual mandate by 2030 for all education to take place in Chinese and English.

She noted the debates in the U.S. over multilingual and multicultural education.  “I’m happy and proud to be part of a district with a dual-language immersion program,” she said. “I hope to see its continued expansion.”

Hayda already knew the Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Spanish languages at varying fluency levels before embarking on a study of Chinese in preparation for her Fulbright experience. She studied Chinese with a Duolingo app, talked with PHS students during office hours, and participated in Zoom meetings. Her Chinese language immersion while in Taiwan included formal classes in Mandarin Chinese from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

“But I learned the most from other teachers,” she said. “I have increased empathy for our English language learners in the classroom. It’s exhausting to be surrounded by your non-comfort language all the time.”

Hayda describes herself as “far from fluent in Chinese, but I can recognize some characters and I am much better at listening comprehension than other means of communication.”

Back at PHS, Hayda described her Science Department colleagues as “awesome — constantly challenging each other to do better, building upon each other.” And she praised the PHS students “with their wonderful and challenging questions — the very heart of any learning” as well as the “supportive administration that allows teachers to teach in ways that are passionate to us, while still following best practices.”

Not surprisingly, looking ahead to the future, Hayda — scientist, educator, and traveler — is not likely to be quietly settling in to life in New Jersey. As she grows and develops as a teacher, she’s hoping to do another Fulbright someday. “I’d potentially like to lead a Fulbright, maybe to Ukraine when the war ends to help support family there, as well as the rebuilding efforts.”

And after that, “I plan to continue to travel more,” she added, “only three continents to go!”