Former JDS teacher returns as a published author


Jessica Nassau

Armstrong answers students’ follow-up questions after her presentation. “It was even more impressive to meet her in person than have her stand on the stage,” junior Gabi Simon (left) said.

Ellie Fischman, Managing Editor, Copy

Eight years after leaving CESJDS, former English teacher Kate Armstrong returned with a new story to teach: one of the importance of perseverance. After writing four unpublished novels, Armstrong’s fifth, “Nightbirds,” was released this week by Penguin Books. 

Armstrong swept into the theater on Monday, Feb. 27 in an extravagant 1920s dress that she sewed herself, a nod to her invention of Gatsby Day when she was a JDS teacher. This is a beloved tradition where juniors dress up as figures from the Jazz Age to celebrate reading “The Great Gatsby.”

In a presentation littered with jokes, squirrel memes and shoutouts to her former colleagues, Armstrong explained how her journey to publication included many rejections and failures. She left students with the message that failure is a part of the path to mastery.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to meet and hear from a successful author who understood where we were in life and understood who we are because she used to be a teacher here,” junior Gabi Simon said. “[This helped] her get through to us her messages about persistence and hard work. Those were very valuable.”

Armstrong’s writing journey began as a child. She said that she always enjoyed writing stories and that she wrote her first novel in college after she received an assignment to write the first chapter of a book. Though she didn’t intend for the book to be published, she took it as a learning experience. 

Over the course of the next ten years, Armstrong went on to write a second novel and attempted to publish her third, though she could not find a literary agent to represent her at that point. Armstrong did find an agent to represent her after she wrote her fourth novel, but she and her agent were not successful in finding a publishing house for the book.

“Nightbirds” is Armstrong’s fifth novel and she cites the obstacles she faced along the way as a source of growth and empowerment.

“I am actually really glad it took me longer and that I experienced … some failures and some pushback because that’s part of putting your work into the world,” Armstrong said. “You’re going to be told no a lot. That’s just publishing; you’re going to be told no way more than you’re ever told yes. You have to learn how to weather that.”

Before becoming a full time author, Armstrong juggled her writing with teaching and editing jobs. She worked at JDS from 2011 to 2015, then moved to Australia and worked as an editor for both American and Australian publishing houses. While this fulfilled Armstrong’s love of literature, she found that she still missed teaching. 

“Working at JDS was the most fun job I’ve ever had, the most exhausting job I’ve ever had and the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Armstrong said. “But I loved it. I was constantly inspired by the kinds of things kids were writing and talking about.”

To satiate this love of teaching, Armstrong started a podcast called “The Exploress.” This podcast provides a deep dive into the lives of women throughout historical time periods. It is available wherever you listen to podcasts and, notably, JDS English teacher Nancy Wassner performs voices for the show.

Armstrong has kept in touch with many of her former colleagues at JDS. Dean of Experiential, Leadership and Service Learning and math teacher Tori Ball was friends with Armstrong even before they started working at JDS, and Ball was actually the reason that Armstrong chose to work at JDS in the first place.

As Armstrong’s friend, Ball was along for the ride throughout the ups and downs of Armstrong’s writing career. Though it is inspiring for Ball to watch Armstrong succeed, she said that it was hard to watch her friend endure rejections along the way.

“I felt so bad that [she] was doing something where there was so much space to be crushed and destroyed…” Ball said. “It’s a testament to the fact that it’s really hard to do certain things, but it doesn’t mean that you should give up on them.”

Above all, Ball is proud of Armstrong and enjoys watching all of her hard work result in success. It was meaningful for both Ball and Armstrong for Armstrong to return after eight years, this time as a published author.

“I walked out on stage and I felt like I’d been transported back in time,” Armstrong said. “Even though I didn’t know any of the kids, it felt like, yes, I remember who I was here. I remember what this was like and it felt connected to me.”