Natalie and Gene Kolczynski with daughter Emily Seaman
Natalie ('08) and Gene ('74) Kolczynski with daughter Emily Seaman ('04)

RENTON, Wash.—When the teachers in the Kolczynski family talk with students about jobs, they can draw on their own experiences to explain the importance of following one’s passion. And the detours a career path can take.

Emily Kolczynksi Seaman made a beeline for an education degree and landed a classroom job immediately. For her dad, Gene, teaching was Plan A—but first he spent three decades working at Plan B.  Her mom, Natalie, was a nurse who never imagined herself teaching.

All three work in Renton public schools. All hold degrees from Washington State University and are die-hard Cougars.

“Emily’s the best teacher in the family,” said Gene. “Natalie is the most meticulous and thorough teacher, and I’m the funny one.”

Science isn’t dumb after all

Every school year, Emily tells her Nelsen Middle School students—“my kids”—that she used to hate science.

“I thought it was dumb and the way we learned it was dumb,” she said.

Yet, after earning her WSU College of Education degree in 2004, she accepted a job as science teacher at McKnight Middle School. She credits her change of heart to Associate Professor Lynda Paznokas. The nationally respected science educator, now retired, was known for her field trips and exciting classroom lessons.

Emily Seaman“She was so amazing,” said Emily, “When I started teaching, I thought ‘Oh, no, all I know is those tricks from Dr. Paznokas—that’s all I’ve got.’ But that was all I needed.”

Emily lets her students know that it’s OK to ask questions. She also gets them thinking about their futures. That’s especially true in her newest course, an elective for sixth- through eighth-graders at Nelsen Middle School. It focuses on skills necessary for careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The kids are very engaged,” she said. “They’re doing some high-level stuff they don’t know that they’re doing. I think you have to trick middle-schoolers.”

An unexpected second career

Like her dad, Emily minored in drama at WSU and puts her theatrical skills to good use in the classroom.

“You have to be able to entertain and engage kids today,” said her mother. “Emily and Gene both excel at that. I have to work a little harder. But it feels so good when I know I get them excited.”

Natalie Kolczynski

Besides being an entertainer, Natalie added, a teacher needs to be “part parent, part psychologist, part counselor, part nurse.” The nurse part comes easily to her. That was her career before she stayed home to raise her daughters. When they were out of college, she began work on a social sciences bachelor’s degree through WSU’s Distance Degree Programs (now WSU Online).

She graduated summa cum laude in 2008 and landed a job in the Renton School District administration office. One day her boss surprised her by asking if she’d be interested in replacing a teacher who was retiring. She surprised herself by agreeing.

She earned a Career and Technical Education certificate and plunged into classroom instruction. She now coordinates the Careers in the Community program at Valley Medical Center and teaches at Renton and Lindbergh high schools. When she needs a professional shot in the arm, she pops in on Emily’s classes.

“Students have so much fun in her classroom, and they learn so much,” Natalie said.

Back to Plan A

Gene, who teaches marketing at Lindbergh High School, studied physical education at WSU. He planned to be a teacher and coach. But when he graduated in 1974, there was a shortage of school jobs.

Gene Kolczynski

“I worked my way through college selling books door to door, and I got a job offer with that company as a sales manager. So I took that and—boom!—I was off the teaching path,” he said. “Natalie and I started a printing company, and we did that for 23 years. Then the industry shifted, and we had to decide whether to rebuild or do what we wanted to do.”

Natalie encouraged Gene to follow his dream and become a teacher. Five years ago, he did it. And found it exhausting.

“I ran a nearly million dollar business, and it wasn’t nearly as challenging as teaching,” said Gene.  Still, the profession has been everything he’d hoped for. “I love it. On the last day of school in June, I say I can’t wait for school to start.”

Cougar tribe

As a kid, Emily was a happy contrarian as a Cougar fan growing up in Issaquah, where the University of Washington Huskies dominate. Her folks had to drag her to check out other colleges before she happily settled into the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house in Pullman. She is married to a fellow Coug, mechanical engineer Christopher Seaman (’07).

Emily’s sister, Angela Kolczynski, earned a communications degree from WSU in 2006. She works as an aide to King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, though her dad jokes that Angela might still be lured “to the dark side.”

Or, as her Natalie put it: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a fourth teacher in the family.”