Alumni Spotlight: Gaelan Johnson C’12, G’14, High School English Teacher

Gaelan graduated from Drew with a B.A. in English and Spanish in May of 2012. Her specialization was Caribbean Literature. She graduated with her Master of Arts in Teaching English from Drew in May of 2014. Her areas of expertise include Shakespeare, Gender and Globalization, and International Adolescent Literature. She began teaching at West Morris Central High School in Chester, NJ September of 2014 after having completed her student teaching there. She is about to begin her 7th year of teaching high school English. She mostly teaches Senior International Baccalaureate Literature courses but has also taught Film Studies, Theory of Knowledge, Humanities, Public Speaking, and several other courses. She advises the Film Club and Book Club where she teaches. She is married to fellow Drew alumnus Brent Rivers who currently teaches English and Theater Arts at Sparta High School. They met during Gaelan’s first semester at Drew when they were both cast in a production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. When not teaching, Gaelan enjoys baking, reading, watching movies, and traveling.

GAELAN AT DREW

Gaelan, raised in NJ, was introduced to Drew when she took a field trip in high school to see As You Like It at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. “I fell in love with the campus.  I loved the size of it, that it was close to home, but more than anything else after talking to professors and students, I knew Drew offered a true liberal arts education and that was something I wanted.”  When she first came to Drew she knew she wanted to study literature and Spanish (double major.) She was happy that these majors allowed her to focus in post-colonial history, and was able to take courses in Pan African history and theatre. She chose English as a major became she realized the courses in that major allowed her to learn more about herself and the world. “English encompasses everything – history, science, philosophy, etc. Also, I believe communication is the most important skill anyone can have.”

Gaelan always loved and thrived in school and thought she might want to be a college professor but after she wrote her honors thesis, she realized she liked teaching more than research and writing.   “Some of my professors guided me and said if the teaching is the part you like the most, then teaching in high school is the better avenue for you.”

She had many mentors who have now left Drew, but one mentor still at Drew was Spanish Professor Raul Rosales. “These professors encouraged me to seek out my own path.”

Gaelan was very active on campus. She was a tutor for English and Spanish, sang in the Pan African choir, was in several Theater productions, was a peer mentor for incoming freshmen, took a Drew International Seminar to Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, studied abroad in Barcelona for a summer, worked as a professor’s assistant, and was an editor for the Drew Review.

After graduating from the College of Liberal Arts, she took a year off and worked as a tutor and taught dance but decided to come back to Drew to pursue her Master of Teaching because her undergrad experience was so rich and had offered so many opportunities to follow her passions, Drew was incredibly generous in their scholarship money, and lastly, her husband, also a Drew alum had graduated with an M.A.T. and found a job right after graduating.  These were all factors in her decision to come back.

GAELAN AND TEACHING

Who was your favorite teacher(s) growing up and why?

One of my absolute favorite teachers growing up was my 4th grade teacher. One of the things I loved about him was that though I was always a good student, I was not good at sports. One day we were playing kick ball during recess and he wrote me a beautiful handwritten card (I still have it) where he told me how proud he was of me that I was brave enough to play and catch the ball.  So it’s the idea of mentors celebrating the things that students do that they aren’t really good at it. I always really appreciated that and he pushed me to do things that made me feel, I wasn’t so good at.  That is really special and important.  I felt the same with a lot of my professors at Drew as well.  They really challenged me. I was a better reader and speaker than writer but they encouraged me to write a thesis.  Prof. Frank Occhiogrosso, pushed me to publish in The Drew Review (a double bind peer reviewed paper that published undergrad research papers.)  Being encouraged to step outside my comfort zone was something I experienced at Drew.

Can you tell me about the M.A.T. program?  What did you like about it? How did it prepare you to be a better teacher?

There was a lot of opportunity to teach and collaborate with each other. The professors were also great!  Once again, my professors pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone. They knew I wanted to teach high school, but they pushed me to try teaching middle school. To this day that experience has helped me as I teach high school students. I know firsthand where these students come from. That’s true for Drew too. There is a huge focus on global understanding, community understanding and the way things connect.  I felt that way in my M.A.T. program.

Did you have a favorite class in the M.A.T. program and why was it your favorite?

I took a course that focused on teaching World literature to students. That is exactly what I do in my career now and actually some of the books we worked with in that course have been used in my classes.  This course informed my teaching in a huge way.  One of the books I read then and teach now, The God of Small Things, is one of my students’ favorite books.

Where did you do your student teaching? 

I did my student teaching where I went to high school which is now where I teach at West Morris Central High school in Chester (Washington Township.)  I student taught with a teacher that I had in high school, a teacher that I adored, and when he retired, I took his position.  I teach mostly seniors. I like that it is a globally minded curriculum.  I also teach a course called “Theory of Knowledge.”  It’s about unpacking our understanding of different areas of knowledge and how they all connect.

What are some of the challenges of teaching high school seniors?

I think it’s engagement, especially later in the year when those college acceptance letters roll in.  I think in general it’s their intrinsic motivation. You need to remind students that if they are interested in going to college, they have to learn now.  It’s challenging, but the greatest benefit is that they’re adults.  I love that they can challenge me. They are very much engaged with the world and bring a lot to the table.

How do you incorporate culturally responsive anchor standards in your classroom?

A lot of it deals with teaching a variety of diverse texts, bringing in a lot of non-fiction, and making that personal connection.  The number one thing we can do is provide a safe space within the classroom where students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts. Of course, we can always do better. I teach in an upper middle class district with a majority of white students and I am aware that our minority students and students from culturally diverse backgrounds need to feel comfortable in that environment. Drew gave me a strong foundation by teaching me about different cultures.

How was your experience with remote teaching once Covid-19 closed the schools?

Given my population of seniors who are college bound and have access to chrome books since their first year, my school was in the easiest position to do distance learning.  I think some of my students really thrived in the digital platform because I had more contact with them virtually than I had when I was at the school. Other than that positive outcome, it was tough.  I didn’t think I was as good a teacher in a virtual environment. I was always trying to come up with engaging things to do with them. Some students didn’t turn their cameras on so you have no way of knowing if they are engaged.  Ultimately, they are still producing work and still reading.  I’m not complaining given the demographics of our students. I can’t imagine trying to teach students who don’t have access to the internet and you have to print and mail out packets, etc.

What do you feel is one of the biggest misconceptions about teachers?

I think a lot of people think teachers couldn’t do something else.  A lot of my students feel that way.  They are surprised at the depth of knowledge that their teachers have.  That’s particularly true of STEM teachers.  Students don’t realize that teachers are experts in their content area.  People also say it’s nice to have the summer off, when teachers are not getting paid.  Also, they don’t know how much time teachers put in outside of the classroom in planning and grading.

You received NJ’s 2014 Distinguished Student Teacher award for the teaching unit you developed as part of your methods coursework: Ji-li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl, which pulls from studies of Maoist propaganda posters and the poetry of Chinese dissidents. Congratulations! Can you talk about this teaching unit?

My professor encouraged me to develop something on this text. I thought it was culturally inclusive and a learning experience for myself.  It was a unit plan on integrating different skills while using the text as an anchor.

What do you love about teaching?

When I accepted a position in the English department at West Morris Central High School, New Jersey, I knew I’d chosen the right career. Literature encompasses the human experience. I knew this was it. This is where I was supposed to be.

What do you think is the key to your success in general?

Just being open-minded and intellectually humble.  Going into courses with students that are 16, 17, and 18, I understand that they can teach me as much as I can teach them.  Being confident while also being vulnerable is the most important thing in any field but especially in teaching.

What do you think is the most important characteristic for success?

Empathy. I define less about the money I make than about helping others.

What advice would you give a Drew undergrad who is interested in teaching?

I would say, if you are interested in teaching, try tutoring or run a study group to really attempt to guide people in that aspect.  I’ve been teaching dance since high school.  That really made me realize that I loved to teach. The satisfaction I get from knowing that I helped someone get a concept they were not getting before is rewarding.  See if teaching feels good to you.

What career other than your own would you like to attempt?

I would very much like to be a baker or do something within culinary arts.  I especially love making pies and bread.

Where would you love to travel if you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow?

I love Spain. I did my summer abroad there.  I would also really love to go to Japan, especially Tokyo.

Any fun facts or hobbies you would like to share?

I baked for 75 days straight at the beginning of quarantine.  I was posting these baked goods on social media and sharing them with my students. I wore a different hat every day and brought some levity to the lockdown.

 

 

 

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