When a Rochester public school graduate comes home to teach

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This is not what I had envisioned for my first year as an elementary school teacher. Having begun my teaching career at Rochester Prep during a global pandemic, I see my first graders only via computer.

Teaching remotely, or even in a hybrid model, is far from ideal. But I am fortunate to be back in a familiar environment during a difficult time. I first came to Rochester Prep as a fifth-grade student. I felt a sense of family and connection to my teachers from my first day at Rochester Prep. And it’s exactly that feeling that made me want to come back to teach at the school.

Keana Courtois

Rochester Prep also helped me develop a sense of identity. I had my first Black teachers as a fifth grader at Rochester Prep. I recall my principal at the time—Ms. Shells—coming into every classroom when Barack Obama was elected president. I remember her telling us that we were living through part of history, and we were capable of being anything we wanted to be. I want to make a difference in my students’ lives the way my teachers made a difference in mine.

My teachers at Rochester Prep also provided me with a wide variety of experiences that I otherwise would not have had. In eighth grade, we took a class trip to visit Harvard University. I had never really thought about college before that. Visiting Harvard made me realize I wanted to go to college. Having the experience of visiting colleges and having homerooms named after colleges really allowed me and my classmates to understand that college was made for us, and we could have opportunities if we worked hard.

I know how much a school can really change a child. I don’t think I would have gone to college and made it through if it weren’t for my Rochester Prep teachers. My teachers, school leaders, and the whole Rochester Prep staff community continue to be supportive and encouraging to me to this day.

Even in a time of remote learning, I can still build relationships with my students like I had with teachers at Rochester Prep. When kids know you care about them, they will learn from you.

When I connect with my students online, I see how much fun they are having and how excited they are to be back in school in some way. I can be super goofy to keep my students engaged. I want school to be fun, and if that means I have to do impressions, talk in different voices or dance in front of my computer, that’s what I’ll do. I like the students to see my personality. I like the classroom to feel like a family—even if we’re not all together for a while.

I want to be that person who can have a conversation with a student who’s having a rough day and remind them that they matter, and education can open doors for them.

For now, teaching without having students with me in person is definitely hard. But I know my role goes far beyond where I am physically. The purpose of a teacher is to be a caring, loving advocate for students. And that goes far beyond the classroom. 

Keana Courtois grew up in Rochester where she was a member of the founding class of Rochester Prep Middle School – Brooks Campus. She graduated from Grace College with a degree in elementary education and is currently in her first year of teaching first grade at Rochester Prep Elementary School – Jay Street. 

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