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Alumni Provide Insight On Being Educators During COVID-19

From the Office Of Development & Alumni Relations

COVID-19 has drastically changed our country, affecting every single one of us in some way or another. Our interview with Jereme Matthews ’98, an associate principal at Byron P. Steele High School, and his wife, Courtney (Erickson) Matthews ’99, an English teacher at Steele, provides a unique insight into how public educators have been impacted.

What made you want to become a teacher and work in education? What grades do you teach?

Jereme: Deep down I always knew that I wanted to teach and coach, but I tried to avoid it like the plague. I earned my degrees in mathematics and finance with the intent to work in finance or as an actuary. Texas Lutheran allowed me an opportunity to gain an internship in the P&C Department at USAA in 1998. It was during my time with this internship that solidified my awareness that education was my true calling. I have now worked in education since 1999 as a high school teacher, coach, and administrator.

Courtney: I don't know what drove me (I didn't play "teacher" or anything as a kid), but I took education classes in high school and it just felt right. I also had some amazing teachers my junior and senior year (shout-out to Mrs. Griffin and Mr. Degen). I originally wanted to major in history, but as I took my English classes at Texas Lutheran, I discovered that I had a knack for English. My first few years I taught sophomores and then moved to seniors. After TLU I got my master's degree in literature, so when our school started the dual credit program, I started teaching British Literature, which I love! I also run student council at our school, so I get to work with students on activities and programs. Doing this allows me to engage kids in community service, fellowship, and creativity.

How did TLU prepare you for your careers?

Jereme: The rigor in the courses and the personal relationships I had with my professors showed me how to effectively execute a learning environment with high expectations, and the flexibility to adjust the learning to the uniqueness of varying situations. The fact that I was also exposed to so many different classes to satisfy my degrees at a liberal arts school created a more well-rounded version of myself, which allowed me to connect with my students at a deeper level.

Courtney: When my students ask me about my college experience, specifically at Texas Lutheran, I always tell them how amazing it was to have a community like TLU. It was a combination of several different factors: small class sizes, challenging courses, high expectations. When I think back to my classes and my professors, I appreciate the difficulty (how many students can say they took a class with four other students sitting around the table- there's no place to hide!) and I appreciated the connection between the students and the professors. They pushed us to our fullest potential while engaging our minds, but they were also accessible and helpful when we needed it. I hope my students say the same about me!

What was the transition like when COVID first hit, going from full-time in the classroom to full-time remote learning?

Jereme: Difficult, to say the least. It was hard on everyone, especially the teachers. From an administrative standpoint, the struggle I faced was behind the scenes in figuring out how to most appropriately make the necessary logistical and instructional adjustments. The teachers, however, had to navigate uncharted waters from an instructional standpoint, all while witnessing firsthand how difficult this scenario was for so many of our students. This difficulty was not necessarily the academic side of things, rather it was watching the students endure the emotional and social struggles which accompanied this sudden change.

Courtney: It was a quick turnaround! We had to quickly and efficiently master online learning platforms and find a way to challenge our students and keep them engaged. The students responded beautifully and we ended the year anticlimactically. I was especially sad for my seniors, and to be honest, for myself. When you teach seniors, you meet them in August and say goodbye in May. It's always bittersweet. This past year was especially so, for obvious reasons! Goodbye over Zoom doesn't quite have the same feel. They missed out on so many "special and specific to seniors" events. My heart broke for them. But I will say, we both, students and teachers, rose to the occasion presented to us. It's a testament to our drive to teach and their ability to learn and adapt.

How are you expecting the fall semester to go? Are your schools allowing remote-learning or only in person teaching?

Jereme: We began school on August 13 and will conduct learning in a remote only setting until September 4. The students who chose face-to-face instruction will return to classes on September 8, while the others will remain in a remote environment until the 1st nine weeks ends. It is at this point in which they will decide what learning placement they want again.

Courtney: Our district is doing remote learning for the first three weeks and then have the option to go face-to-face after that. I do think it was a great decision because it allowed us to "perfect" the online learning structure and get students used to the idea of remote-learning. It doesn't mean they have to like it, even though there are a few students who do love it. Most students (I think) want to be in the classroom. Believe me, the teachers want them there! We all know school isn't just academics- schools provide that and so much more. For many, school is security. School provides a place for students to be themselves, a place to speak and be heard, a place to feel safe and a place to thrive. We are going to have to do our best to provide that for our at-home learners as well. Expectations? I don't really know what to say about my expectations. I'm trying not to have any!

Do you have any advice for parents that are now a part of the remote-learning process?

Jereme: Be involved. Students will have higher academic expectations than they did in the spring of 2020. Parents need to be "in the weeds" with their kids making sure they are observing the online instruction and completing their assignments.

Courtney: We have a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old--we get it. This is tough and unexpected and frustrating. When school districts and teachers are pleading with parents and the community to give us grace, we mean it. This is heartbreaking. Academics, sports, extracurriculars, the social element, everything that is connected to school (everything we were comfortable with) has been flipped and thrown and tossed and shaken and we're barely standing upright. But we're standing. soon we'll be walking. Then running. We got this. As a community, we can do it. It's not going to look the same- who knows if it ever will? If there's anyone who can rise to the challenge, it's our youth. I've been in education now for 21 years and I've worked with them in the classroom and through student activities. Our kids can adapt and adjust better than adults. We need to give them the chance to prove it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Jereme: There has never been a more important time to show grace and patience to all those who work in education. We are in this business because we love the kids and want to do our best to prepare them for the next phase in their lives. Having said that, knowing exactly "how" to prepare them under these circumstances will take some time and creativity. Rest assured, however, the teachers will get it done. Their resilience, commitment, and passion will take over and the students will once again be moving forward as a result.

Courtney: The education field is not for the faint at heart. It never has been. We have always seen students at their strongest, proudest, most vulnerable, most broken, sweetest, happiest, and most brilliant times. We're still seeing it now, through different lenses and in different ways, but we're still seeing all of it. Teachers are working hard to maintain as much normalcy as possible, and we'll continue to push ourselves so we can push our students.