Alana Coats Rankin’05 never thought she would be teaching to tiny black squares as a high school English teacher, but over the past year, that’s exactly what she had to do.
“Many of my students have a lot of chaos in their homes, and it’s a high-poverty school district, so they don’t have cameras on,” says Coats Rankin, who teaches in Washington state. “But, they can see me,” she notes.
She has drawn on her Beloit education to meet this challenge.
“At Beloit, I remember reading about teaching as a performing art—as a practice to become engaging and as a performance,” she says. “That’s never been truer than this year. It’s mentally and emotionally, even physically draining, more so than in person because I cannot see their reactions.”
Even amid the added challenges of this teaching environment, and while often working from her dining room table with her husband, Greg Rankin’08, and toddler, Autumn, nearby, Coats Rankin jumped at the chance to help Kathy Greene, her former Beloit College advisor and Education Professor Emerita.
Greene had retired from Beloit in 2017 and moved to Colorado, then decided to teach an education course as a visiting professor at a Colorado college. Greene called Coats Rankin to ask if a cohort of her current students could observe a class virtually.
“With Covid, we couldn’t go into any local classrooms,” Greene explains. “Then I got to thinking: We don’t have to rely on local teachers. They don’t even have to be in the state.”
Greene says suddenly the possibility of an entire nation of Beloit-educated teachers opened up to her. She thought, “Why don’t I tap into this vast resource?”
From her Colorado base, she contacted a group of her past Beloit students. Many stepped up to help.
Coates Rankin and Nora Polaski’17 each made introductory videos for Greene’s class about their respective classrooms, schools, and communities. They and Barack Ben-Amots’14, Ken Davis’86, and Kelsey Horvath’17 hosted virtual visits to their classrooms and met with Greene’s class to answer questions afterward. Thomas Hartley’10, Tom Owenby’01, Scott Schleich’93, and Tim Vedra’92 each carved out time to meet virtually with Greene’s students to chat and answer questions.
Coats Rankin, who as a Beloit student completed half of her student-teaching in Wisconsin public schools and the other half in New Zealand, says her classroom experience at Beloit was essential to her own teacher education, so she wanted to give back what she could.
Because her students were not shown on screen, the observation was particularly unique.
“In this environment, Kathy’s students can see my style and how my students interact — and mainly my students interact [with me] through the chat; they don’t often unmute,” she says.
Greene’s class also virtually observed life and lessons at Flying Pig Farm Educational Research Center in Manitou Springs, Colo.
Barak Ben-Amots’14 formed the learning center with fellow Beloiters Elsa Kendall’14 and Steve Oliveri, a former manager of Beloit’s C-Haus. The farm’s hands-on learning integrates everything from animal care to grant writing into lessons for school students, veterans, and retirees.
“Kathy’s students observed a seed-planting activity,” says Ben-Amots. “There was a limited level of interaction because it was observation and virtual, but we were thrilled to have them there and to show what’s possible when we take an emotional and honest approach to teaching children about growing food.”
At Beloit, Ben-Amots was a student in Greene’s First-Year Initiatives class, which focused on building a dream school. Years later, he invited his former teacher to be on the Flying Pig Farm’s board of directors. But he is the first to admit he never planned on being a teacher.
“On the drive to Beloit College, I was saying so proudly to my mom that I would study anything in college except education. And then I was in Kathy’s FYI course and made it about two days before I changed my mind,” he says. “At Beloit, the emphasis was on trying to develop a multilayered and nuanced perspective to understanding how and why institutions work.”
Greene expects this to be the last class she teaches as a visiting professor, so working with the teachers she taught as students at Beloit brings her career full circle.
“I’m having the time of my life,” says Greene. “The teaching program at Beloit is much less training and more of an education to wrap minds and hearts around what needs to happen in classrooms, and with people. The alumni teachers who participated are real examples of this. It has been great to see these generous educators emphasize themes of caring, empathy, and community in their teaching. This should not be a surprise, given that these are values espoused by Beloit College.”