PJA teacher gets into character

PHOTO:  Every day PJA toddler teacher Drew Calhoun wears a different costume – and while his expression and posture change too, what doesn’t change is the care he gives his students. Drew says, “A large part of my intention is to show them that the people who are capable of loving them and caring for them can look many different ways.”


Portland Jewish Academy toddler teacher Drew Calhoun dresses up in costume every day.

After two years at PJA, Drew will be moving to Sweden this summer his partner, Lauren, who was accepted to graduate school at Lund University.

Following is a Q&A with Drew on his costume habit and how it influences those around him.


Why do you wear a costume every day?

I often get comments on my clothes because I like to wear fun and sometimes outlandish things, so in my mind I sort of always dress up. Most days, whatever I wear has some sort of secret theme in my head – a character, or someone who I think would wear the outfit. The responses I receive from my students, and from my coworkers, make it worth the extra effort in the morning. I have continued to do it (despite the occasional hair-pulling-out-in-the-morning) because it’s always an instant boost of emotional energy to my own day and (purportedly) to those around me. I do it because I want everyone to see that they can bring joy with things they already have. It is a blessing to come to work each day and see my coworkers light up when they see me.

What does your wardrobe look like/how much money do you spend on the costumes?

My partner (Lauren) and I share a lot of clothes. I’d say at least a third of the clothes you see in my costumes are hers.  I’d say three-fourths of the clothes you see are thrifted, and the rest are borrowed. My partner and I like to go to estate sales and thrift stores a few times a month because we are bargain hunters and love to find unique clothes. I don’t buy any clothes first-hand except for undergarments and occasionally shoes.

What has been the best reaction to one of your costumes?

I’d say I have two common reactions that are very hard to choose between. Occasionally while I’m walking in the hallways, I’ll end up getting swarmed by 3- year-olds humming with curiosity, and I get to do a little impromptu lesson in the hallway.  I see it as a moment that I can encourage curiosity and discovery through inquiry. When I get to see the power of that curiosity, and the joy they get from receiving new information, all I want to do is come up with new costumes to share with them.

The second common reaction is from my coworkers. One day I dressed up as George Michael (a costume clearly targeted more at the teachers than the students) and played “Careless Whisper” when I walked into classrooms, and the teachers laughed for several minutes. I got to make eye contact with teachers in the morning who looked exhausted but when they saw me and realized what I was wearing, their faces filled up with color.

What is the most unusual costume you’ve worn?

PJA’s 2018 Auction had the theme “Sail Away with PJA!” and my partner and I thought “well, most people will probably dress up as sailors … so let’s be boats!”  We made giant boat hats out of foam pipe-insulation and fabric, and had our bodies as “under the water” hot gluing little coral reefs that we cut out of fabric, and plastic sea creatures that we sliced lengthwise all over our blue clothes. We actually ended up winning the costume contest! It was very fun, and we felt very honored and flattered.

How do your young students react when they see you dressed up?

For my pre-verbal students, sometimes it takes them a second to realize it’s me, though usually once I talk or smile at them they recognize me immediately. A large part of my intention is to show them that the people who are capable of loving them and caring for them can look many different ways.

What does your costume-wearing say about your philosophy as an educator?

My focus of teaching emotional skills in younger children takes the form of redirection with intention, modeling behaviors and calculated reactions. Play gives us the space to enact different scenarios and grapple with the emotions they stir in us in a controlled and safe way that is conducive to growth. When we play with our students, we build trust because we go on an emotional journey with them. That relationship is what allows us to give them the tools to speak up about their needs and feelings, and to trust us when we say “trust yourself, you can solve this problem, you are powerful, you are thoughtful, you are kind.”

Do you plan to continue wearing costumes daily in your future endeavors?

Honestly, I have no idea. Again, I tend to think of what I wear every day as a costume because I think a lot about the message that it is sending, so in that way, absolutely. As an educator, one of my internal ‘creeds for success’ is “use every tool at your disposal,” and clothing is my tool. The costumes at PJA were born out of a desire to energize my coworkers, engage with students, and bring diversity in the small way that I could. PJA’s slogan is “Think for yourself, work for the world.” And I see the costumes as a reflection of that.

In terms of my next endeavor, Lauren and I are moving to Sweden this summer because she was just accepted to graduate school at Lund University!

What do you think is your impact on the world as an educator?

Above all else, I hope I inspire the adults around me to take their role as mentors to young minds seriously. That might seem like an odd goal from someone wearing goofy costumes every day to make people laugh, but that goofiness is in many ways a response to the world I see around me, and the messages I see it sending to children.

Lately, to me, the world feels like it is on fire, and like we need every child in the world right now. If children are to have any hope of solving the many looming crises, they need to learn to be as creative, thoughtful and compassionate as they possibly can at any moment. I’m simply doing the best I can to model that for my students.

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