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Teaching in COVID

Name: Rachel DeHaan-Johnson

Favorite Book: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Pronouns: she/her

Age: 24


Bio: Rachel has kindly agreed to be my guinea pig for this project which may be in part because she is my sister, and I am visiting her and her husband, Ben Johnson, for the week. She moved from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee almost a year ago and has been teaching here at a school called St. Augustine Preparatory Academy on the south side. She has had a tricky first year teaching as the Coronavirus has forced her school, as well as almost every school, to transition to online learning. She remarked that this has been a crazy year for teachers everywhere. While this period of virtual learning has been difficult, she enjoys working with her coworkers and building relationships with her students. She feels that as she does not know many people in her city, the classroom has become part of her family. Other than teaching, Rachel loves being outdoors, drinking coffee, eating broccoli, reading good books, and training her mongrel pug Brad.


K: What is it that first piqued your interest in teaching?

R: I was in college, and I was studying environmental science, and something wasn’t clicking with me about where that would take me afterward. And I had to take a random class for Developing a Christian Mind credit at Calvin, and the only one that was available as a semester class that fit in my schedule was called Educational Policy.

It didn’t sound that exciting, but the professor was amazing. He was a political science prof. We talked about the inequality in education, and the flaws in education policy, and how policy can change lives.

It was something I had never thought about, never looked at. It was halfway through that semester and I joined an Education 101 class that was meeting at night for half a semester.

And I just fell in love. It was super random, something about that class piqued my interest, stirred something in me. I realized I loved teaching.

I visited some classrooms and discovered I loved kids. It was something I hadn’t grown up with or thought about before. I don't know it just stuck.

K: When are you happy that you're a teacher and when are you not happy that you’re a teacher?

R: It's hard cause I think these past two months have been really draining. I'm happy when I'm a teacher when I feel like I’m making a difference in whatever way that is for my kids.

And that’s easy-ish when you’re in the classroom. I feel like in a day of teaching there are a million happy moments, and a million really hard moments, and right now it feels like, I don’t know, it’s just not satisfying.

I don’t finish a day of work right now and feel like, “Yes, I taught someone something.” I don’t know it sucks, it’s really terrible. So, if I’m a little bit jaded right now it’s just cause I’m tired and I don’t love my job as much as I normally do.

I’m happiest when I feel like my classroom is a place where kids are really thinking, and really working hard. And it's hardest when I feel like I don’t have the right words for my kids, or I didn’t handle a situation perfectly, or a lesson that didn’t click.

I mean there are just a million ups and downs every single day.

K: As a teacher what has changed with COVID? How have you been handling the switch to online learning?

R: I mean, literally everything about what we do changed in two days. It was a lot. We had very little time to prepare, but I think we did a good job. We're really blessed in my school to have access to technology for each kid, so we were able to get that out to them.

And we have really good participation. When you look at the city and you look at the country, we have really amazing participation from our kids and families. It’s really easy to focus on the three families that aren’t participating, but that’s actually really amazing.

We had to figure out how to give kids experience and exposure with content that we didn’t get to yet this year. Which we leave a lot of the hardest stuff for the end of the year, so it’s really hard. We have to figure out what assessment looks like when you can’t control very much.

And we have to think about how to keep kid’s souls fed and provide them with the community that a lot of my students really rely on for consistency and safety. So, we’re finding ways to not only teach but also keep the community alive.

And I feel like it’s been really hard and, it’s been a learning process, and every week it feels like we’re changing up how we're doing it. But ultimately now that we're almost done, I feel like I’ve been really amazed at how flexible kids are and how adaptive they can be when it comes down to it.

And you really see how important schools are when you don’t have them because kids miss them. And my students are surprised at how much they miss school because they don’t have it.

They miss it a lot.

K: What have you seen that your students miss the most?

R: They miss each other. They miss their friends. They miss their teachers. I think they miss learning but they don’t know that, but they miss the community. I think they miss having somewhere to go. They’re bored. They miss having something to do. They definitely miss the teachers that love them, and they miss talking to their friends. They miss it all.

A lot of my kids might not have a ton of attention at home, a lot of them have really amazing support systems, but some of them don’t. And I think that a lot of them maybe aren’t able to articulate it, but they miss that feeling of community and safety that they get from going to school every single day.

K: How have you been trying to promote that community within your classroom?

R: We do a morning meeting every day on google meets. It’s hard, but I’ve gotten better at the video chatting aspect of things. And I think that has been really valuable giving them a time to hang out with each other.

I’ve sent them postcards. I've done a couple read alouds and things and fun challenges to keep them engaged and happy and encourage them to stay curious.

It’s not the same and it’s really hard.

K: How do you see teachers being respected in America?

R: Teachers don’t get the respect that I think their profession deserves. I think people kind of tend to not see us as professionals, and not see us as people that are super intelligent, informed. They don’t know the nitty-gritty of what teaching actually is, and how much goes into just one day of teaching.

I do think in my circle’s teachers are respected very well. I'm fortunate to be around people that have respect for teachers, but obviously, from a larger structural standpoint we’re not paid very well, education isn’t very well funded in the United States.

And that just reflects, I think how we don’t believe that education is the thing that could change everything else. Which I think it is. If we raise up kids as they’re growing up, and we give them opportunities, and we make sure everyone is given equal access to everything I think it could change a lot of other problems that we have.

I feel like I am fairly respected, and people tend to think it’s cool that I’m a teacher so I don’t have a ton of “Oh why would you do that?”

I mean when I first decided to go into education, people were, I think, a little disappointed because there is some stigma that: “Well that’s not what the smartest people would do.”

I feel like more and more as I have gotten into it, I’ve been able to tell people that I love more about it. I think they’ve been able to gain more of a respect for the profession because they know me and I’ve been able to share that with them.

K: What is something you want to tell people about the power of education? Why does education matter?

R: It just so clearly unlocks doors for kids. I mean, it matters because it helps kids understand that they matter.

If we pour into our kids equally and give them access to equal opportunities, of course, our world is going to be better. We’re going to have people that are going to be better equipped to be good people in society.

Schools are not just places where kids learn to read and do math, it’s where they learn how to be people, how to care for each other, how to listen to each other, how to respect each other.

If we can lift teachers up and give them the things, they need to do their jobs, you can just open up more space for them to help kids work on things besides just learning to read.

Because I know when I started teaching, I had these grand ideals about what my classroom would be like, and what kind of conversations I'd get to have with my kids. And then the reality of so much of what I actually do is: my kids don’t know how to read so I have to help them learn how to read. I have a lot of kids that are below grade level, and so much of the day is just trying to help them get where they need to be.

The way that the system is built right now, it is so important that we help them get proficiency so our school can continue to be funded. It’s so built around success and numbers.

And it’s kind of disheartening because a lot of the things I think teachers get into education for, are pushed aside a little bit when you actually get into it because of what is valued more by people outside of education.

I feel like I'm a first-year teacher and the rose-tinted glasses are off.


I've gotten the chance to watch my sister interact with her students this past week, and I can see so clearly that she is impacting their lives. I have so much respect for what she does, especially right now in this incredibly uncertain time. Even when she's not physically with her students, she cares so deeply about their well being. Her students are brilliant and so is she.

So reach out to your teachers, they deserve to be celebrated now more than ever.

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