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From the Caribbean to Colorado: One teacher’s journey into the family business

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

After college in Michigan, Amy Rehberg headed to a Caribbean island to work in the hospitality industry. It was there, while serving frozen yogurt to tourists, that she decided to become a teacher.

When she learned that a local friend — a skilled mechanic — couldn’t read, she became his tutor. She soon found she loved it.

Rehberg, who now teaches English language learners at Horizon High School in Thornton, talked with Chalkbeat about her Caribbean revelation, why teachers need a thick skin, and how she and a colleague created a program for first-generation college-bound students.

Rehberg was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amy Rehberg is a teacher at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 district.

Amy Rehberg is a teacher at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 district.

Why did you become a teacher?
My parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sister-in-law all are or were teachers. So, when I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate, teaching was not my major. I wanted to do something different than the “family business” but had no idea what that might be. I majored in English and after I graduated, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands with two friends. The plan was to wait tables and bartend in order to earn enough money to travel around the world. It was during this time that I decided to become a teacher.

One of my jobs on the island was working at a roadside stand that sold frozen yogurt and cold drinks to tourists. In between customers, I would sit on the deck and read. I had a friend — a local on the island — who would stop by and chat with me and ask about what I was reading. Over time, he confessed that he couldn’t read. This man was very intelligent and could fix any mechanical device on the island, but he was embarrassed about his reading skills and wondered if I could help him.

“Sure,” I said. He knew his letter sounds and could recognize most elementary level words and had a rather sophisticated oral language lexicon. We would work together every time he would stop by the yogurt stand. It was my light bulb moment — it was really satisfying work that didn’t feel like work. I decided to leave the island and move to Colorado. Once I was here, I enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to earn my Secondary Teaching Certificate. This was 27 years ago.

What does your classroom look like?
A little like a circus. It’s colorful and full of people taking risks, making connections, and using language.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My sense of humor. If I couldn’t laugh, I would cry. First, because so many students have really hard lives, and educators do so much more than just teach a subject. Second, the public is so critical of teachers and public schools in general that it takes a thick skin to keep coming back.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My students are always changing, and their language gaps are different, so recycling lessons isn’t the best approach. However, in my upper levels I teach about how we use language to show and not just tell. Students learn about figurative language and sensory description.

After opportunities to practice recognizing and writing similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc., I bring out my collection of interesting photos, National Geographic magazine pictures, and other interesting pictures. The gist of the lesson is that the students pick a picture and write an example of each kind of figurative language in order to describe the picture in a colorful way. After they have written their sentences, they write a poem by stringing some of these examples together and adding some sensory details and camouflaging the direct description with more symbolic images. The students then read their poems to the class while we try to guess which picture is being described.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I find another way to get there. Slower and louder is not a solution.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I stand there and wait. I never have to wait very long. The kids police each other.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First, I’m a pretty straightforward person, and I really like my job. So, I stand at my door, and I say hi to kids. I notice if they get a new haircut or shoes or a phone, and I comment on it. Then, as time goes on, they see a pattern in the way I ask them specific questions about their other classes. I offer time to work on assignments or projects – I help them and I have supplies. They see former students coming in to use the computers or the table to eat lunch. They see students asking me questions about everything under the sun, and they see me finding the answers. So then, within this community, when it’s time to talk about language function and practice grammar in context, they are willing to listen.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Several years ago, I was invited to a student’s home to meet with a college recruiter and help his family navigate the information. The family’s first language was Spanish, and their son was bilingual. I spoke a little Spanish, and the recruiter spoke none. I sat with the family, listened, and asked questions I knew they wanted answers to, and paraphrased other questions.

That experience enlightened me to the idea that we had a population of students that was not getting access to college information. My colleague, Brad Turano, and I brainstormed an idea for a program at our school that would give first-generation college applicants and students of color the information and exposure needed to apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Our administration liked the idea and funded it. The Adelante Leadership Program has been going strong at Horizon High School for seven years.

We take field trips to college campuses, invite recruiters and other guest speakers to talk about careers, and educational paths to those careers. We practice leadership skills, team-building, problem-solving, and critical thinking. We also teach financial literacy and independent living skills. Students are enrolled for the second semester of their junior year and the first semester of their senior year. When they leave us, students have applied to at least four colleges and for numerous scholarships, they have completed the federal financial aid form, and are prepared to take the next steps toward their life goals.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty. I watched “Big Little Lies” on HBO last summer and have since been reading all her novels.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor and friend, Wendy Engelmann, told me early on: “We teach kids, not subjects.” Of course we use content subjects and standards to guide how we teach kids, but the root of teaching is in relationships.