Finding More Questions: An Interview with Rachel Althof ☆

Rachel Althof, Zankel Fellow and Instructor of Student Teaching

Rachel Althof, Zankel Fellow and Instructor of Student Teaching

Recently, I had a conversation with Rachel Althof about her Zankel Fellowship and what she hopes to accomplish in her doctoral studies.  Rachel is an Instructor of Student Teaching and INSTEP coordinator for the Department of Art and Art Education.

NG: How did you get involved as a Reading Buddy?

RA: I received an email about the Zankel Fellowship and applied.  The Reading Buddy program is where I was placed.  There are a few programs that I think I would have enjoyed, but I was happy that they positioned me in that one.  It’s been really exciting, especially coming from teaching in city schools and remembering what it’s like and how hard it is.

In the Reading Buddy program we talk about institutional change and ask a lot of questions.  For example, rather than just helping the four kids that I tutor, how can I create that spark so that it becomes something bigger, something contagious, something generative?  Working over time is key ­– the consistency.  I worked all year to build my relationship with my four students.  I showed up every morning and at first the kids were like, “you’re here every day?”  And then if I would miss a day they would be like “where were you?!” (Laughs.) I planted seeds and as far as what happens with them… We’ll see, I guess.

At the end of the year we worked together to create a digital portfolio for each child.  It was exciting for them to play around in iMovie and to use the recorder to narrate their own movie.  They got really into it.  It was nice for all of us to reflect on the year in a fun and engaging way; to look at their work and see the progress that we had made. It’s a wonderful way to document the work that we do.

So they all took their movies home and one of the girls came back and I asked her if she had shown her movie to anyone at home.  She said, “Yeah.  My mom cried.  We watch it a lot.”  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.  The way she said it to me…  Most kids don’t give you a lot of detail or talk for a very long time about their lives.   The fact that she told me that her mom cried watching it lets me know that not only am I affecting what that child is doing, I’m affecting stuff in her family.  Her mother doesn’t speak English, so I know that it’s been really hard for her to connect with the school.   She connected with the movie in a meaningful way.

NG: How did you get interested in Arts Education?

RA: In undergrad I was a drawing and painting major and I was going to double major in art education.  Two things happened that made me decide to only major in art education instead of getting my bachelor’s in fine arts.

First, I was working for an environmental group and canvassing to raise funds for a rural school district about 45 miles outside of Columbus, Ohio.  I had to raise a certain number of funds every week so the organization could sustain itself.  Some people just looked at the numbers and then went out to fundraise, but I realized that I didn’t care about the numbers.  I cared more about teaching people about a big issue that no one knew about.  It hit me as I was leaving someone’s house: I need to go into education.  It all kind of made sense to me.

The second thing was that I was really unhappy with the fine arts program.  What I liked about art was the process, the sharing of ideas, the creative thinking… which is also education.  So this epiphany started to really make sense.  Ok, this is who I am and this is what I need to do.  I feel like it led me in.  I just became really aware of the fact that’s who I am that’s what I should be doing.

I think people just do what they do and they try to do it well.  The most important thing is to find the natural inclinations.  That’s what happened to me.  It wasn’t an argument that I made against being a professional artist, it was more that education was pulling me in.  Now that I’ve come to terms with that I see how artists can give back in a different way.

NG: Where were you teaching before coming to TC?

RA: I worked in two struggling schools in the Columbus area for my first two years, and then I worked for three years in a prestigious independent school in the same city.  I could not have had more different experiences, in that particular city, as far as money and privilege is concerned.

For the first two years I was in pretty rough urban schools.  I was dealing with kids who weren’t being fed at home, who were being abused.  This was middle school and we had girls who worked street corners.  I mean, really difficult and challenging situations.  It demands a lot of emotional strength to work with children who are in even more difficult situations at home. You always have to be the strong one who maintains her composure.

The administration was constantly in panic mode about budget issues, trying to figure out the numbers game to make it look like progress was being made in their schools.   What they would do is take some of the high-achieving kids from the high-achieving schools and bus them over to the low-achieving schools to try to keep the test scores averages up so they could keep all of the buildings open.  They shuffled teachers around quite a bit too, and I was moved after two months into my second year.  It was one of the reasons I had to leave.  It wasn’t what was good for kids and it wasn’t what was good for me.  It was really disheartening.  I think the administration lost touch with what was actually happening in the schools.

I decided that I couldn’t handle the way that the administration made decisions, so I went to a progressive independent school.  All of a sudden I was working for administrators who were serving teachers.  It’s not fantasy.  It actually happens.  And the parents were willing to help.  They weren’t distrustful of schools and they had high expectations.  I thought, “Oh yeah.  This is kind of like what I expected…”  It was also a demanding job, but for different reasons.

NG: How do you feel about the switch from a public to private school?

RA: It’s a shame that city schools are thought of as starter schools – teachers get some experience and then work their way up.  At the same time, everything is stacked against you and it doesn’t help anybody if you’re there and you’re burned out.

I always promised myself that I was going to go into teaching for the right reasons, and if I felt myself starting to burn out I would address it.  I remember teachers from when I was a student who didn’t care about students… I did NOT want to be that teacher. I was committed to staying in city schools, and I thought I had at least a good five to ten years.  It seems to be quite a challenge to work in city schools and do really good work for 30 years.

Working in a struggling school can take up your whole life if you really care.  I mean, my weekends…  They were for recovering.  I would think about my students who had told me that something might happen that weekend, knowing that they were home and that home wasn’t exactly a safe place.  When you actually care it takes an incredible amount out of you.

You have to have a whole community of people that actually cares.  Even just one person who really doesn’t care – someone who is teaching for some other reason rather than children learning – puts a burden on everyone else.  An administration that doesn’t care creates an even greater burden.

NG: Where do you want to focus your doctoral studies at TC?

RA: I’m very interested in working with pre-service teachers for my doctoral work.  I think good teacher programs take very abstract questions about teaching and make them specific.  For example, how do you know bullying when you see it?  How do you stop it? How do you prepare teachers to figure that out?  Especially in high school there is a certain contentiousness that is important for students’ development.  They playfully chide one another and a school that doesn’t understand that is going to lose their students.  But you can’t promote it and there’s a point where it becomes bullying and dangerous.  So, without inhibiting the freedom of expression of students, how do you stop bullying?

It’s like what Maxine Greene talks about: through the exploration of difficult questions you actually can build a pre-service teacher program.  How do you teach teachers to work within the humanity of teaching?  It’s such an abstract idea, but I think it can be done.

NG: You took Education and the Aesthetic Experience with Maxine this past Spring semester.  What did you think?

RA: I’m always hesitant as a class begins, even if I like a person as a scholar or a philosopher or a writer, because philosophizing is not the same as teaching.  Sure, I like their work, but how do they teach?  What is class going to be like?

Maxine effortlessly translates her ideas into great teaching.  She is brilliant with the use of questions.  I don’t even care so much about the answers.  I care more about the exploration of answers, which is really just finding more questions.