Katherine Koelle’s Journey to Berkeley City College
By Louis Do
BCC English Professor Katie Koelle.
If you were to see Katherine “Katie” Koelle, one of BCC’s exalted English professors, you would agree that her profession suits her personality. Koelle is a pleasant woman of middle age whose even-tempered demeanor is apparent, which makes the fact that she was once a reserve officer in the Oakland Police Department even more astonishing.
“Many people know that I am a teacher,” Koelle said. “I must look like a teacher for some reason. I don’t look like a police officer, so people are surprised.”
Koelle grew up in Swarthmore, a small college town in Pennsylvania. After college, in 1978, she moved across the country to the Bay Area, with the intention of becoming an elementary teacher, but changed course to become an English instructor instead. During this period, she held odd jobs such as being a server, teaching junior high, and finally as a secretary in the Oakland PD’s Assault Section.
“I was interested in the work, but I knew I didn’t want to be a police officer for my career, so the alternative was to take reserve officer training, which was an abbreviated police academy.”
Koelle reflected on the differences of the police department she served in during the 1980s, compared to the police one would see now in the news.
“We had really incredible training. I know that the police have a bad rap now, but it was a good department when I was there,” she said. The recruits during the time were trained in weaponless defense, methods of subduing a suspect, and only resorting to using a police baton or gun as a last resort. Koelle and her fellow recruits were taught that, “Your best weapon is your mouth. You talked somebody down.”
Koelle and her fellow reservists were successful in practicing weaponless defense, but it was not an easy feat or a time without fear. It was not something that could be practiced, but was about using their skills to deescalate conflicts while on patrol.
“You had to be careful for your life and the lives of people around you.”
Two moments of California history that Koelle was able to witness and serve in were the Bay Area earthquake in 1989, and the Rodney King Riots in 1992.
“It was really great to be able to go out and help on those nights, but it was scary, especially during the Rodney King Riots, because you didn’t know what was going to happen. I was lucky.”
Koelle still remembers her firearms training with clarity. Shooting was not a skill that came naturally to her, and she had great difficulty until an instructor gave her some advice.
“You can’t compare yourself to these guys who grew up shooting guns. You’ve never done it before. You can’t expect to be as good as these guys.”
Koelle was not the best shooter in her class, but she did well enough afterwards because the pressure to perform was lifted from her mind.
Her police reservist training served to influence the way Koelle approached education when she started teaching at BCC in 1990. The training helped shape her definition of self-confidence, and allowed her to be more sympathetic to students in her class who have difficulties with writing.
“If you haven’t written a lot, or if you are not comfortable with writing, you can’t be mad at yourself because the person next to you who has been writing and reading for years is really good and you’re not. You just have to compare yourself to yourself.”
Instructor Koelle’s story shows another side to a professor. Students are often so engrossed in their assignments, that they forget professors have past stories, which can even shape their methodology for teaching today.