Alumni Spotlight: Jessica LaGrave, C’09, High School English Teacher

Jessica LaGrave graduated from Drew University majoring in 20th Century English Literature in May of 2009. The following year she continued her education at Drew and graduated with a Masters in Teaching. Upon graduation, Jessica taught British Literature and ninth grade composition for her first year at Gill St. Bernard’s in Peapack, Gladstone where she also piloted the Girls Lacrosse program. Over the last decade, she has taught a variety of English Language Arts courses at Morristown High School in New Jersey including Philosophy and Composition, American Studies, and Advanced Placement Language and Composition. In addition to teaching, Jessica is an adviser of multiple clubs including the yearbook, school newspaper, and student government.

JESSICA AT DREW

Jessica was born in NJ and attended lacrosse programs over the summer at Drew. She loved the beautiful campus and was excited to apply to major in English. By sophomore year she knew she wanted to pursue Education and the Dean recommended she apply for the Master of Education at Drew and she absolutely loved the program.  She has fond memories of English Professor Neil Levi who was tough on her but in a good way.  “He helped me grow a lot.”  She also loved taking courses with Holocaust Professor Emerita Ann Saltzman who she felt was “incredible.”  Jessica played field hockey and lacrosse but only for the first year.  She became a commuter her sophomore year and was too busy working off campus to play sports. She has great memories of Drew, but her favorite memory was being part of the English Department including all that she was able to experience there.

What attracted you to education?

I loved my English classes growing up.  They were always my favorite. What I realize I loved about them was the way you could talk about all kinds of ideas that come from the text allowing for rich and dense conversation.  There were a lot of existential and philosophical conversations where we discussed universal themes and that help me grow as a person.   I  wanted to know how I could continue to do that with my life, so I started taking education classes and I loved everything about them.  There was so much autonomy and I loved discussing how to execute lessons.  Teaching involved craft, art, and creativity and I knew I would always be challenged. Honestly, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

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

I loved my 3rd grade teacher because she was kind and warm and used to read to us. My middle school English teacher was very knowledgeable.  Also, my Latin teacher in high school, who was also my lacrosse coach, was an important person in my life.

Did you have a favorite class in the M.A.T. program that has influenced your teaching?

An important course was the one where we talked about diversity and explored multicultural texts. We also learned about special education even though not all of us would become special education teachers specifically. I felt that my classes at Drew in the M.A.T. program was mostly students who looked like me, so it was powerful for myself and others to learn and understand about our privileges and to learn how to teach to the students in front of us based on their own experiences and not just ours.

Where did you do your student teaching?

I did my student teaching at Morris Knolls High School in Denville.

Where do you teach now?

I teach 9th grade honors and AP Language and Composition at Morristown High School.

What do you do to teach tolerance and social justice in your classroom?

I am currently in the process of writing the AP Language and Composition curriculum and the entire theme is centered around social justice.  In the course we open up with social injustice and inequity and then we move into the treatment of the working class and economics.  From there we learn about racial injustice and the treatment of otherness, then gender and its construction, then education and finally health and the environment.  Students will finalize the year with a unit on introspective work and reflection.  It’s important to address the broader experiences of individuals and look at the systems in place that structurally maintain them.

Do you utilize restorative justice in your classroom?

We use restorative circles at MHS and have for 3 or 4 years now.  The aim of restorative justice is to tackle why the behavior happened and allow the opportunity for a resolution because the relationships in the classroom are very important not only for personal growth but for academic learning.  It’s important that the teacher not just say, ‘based on your behavior, here is your discipline.’ It’s important to have a conversation to better understand why the student responded in the way he/she did. We follow that up with a resolution.  Sometimes there are still consequences attached, depending on the severity of the offense.  Sometimes the conversation itself and coming up with an action plan on how to do better, is the consequence.  You don’t want to just label the student as “bad.” There are no bad kids, just bad responses to things that happen.  It’s important to remember that teachers are not always right, either.  Sometimes, as teachers, we need to understand how something we did was perceived and the ways that impacts our students, even if it was not our intention.  This allows for a building of a relationship.  It implements social emotional learning as well as academics.

How did you adjust to remote teaching once Covid-19 closed the schools?

It was really hard.  This past year already had its obstacles because it was my first year teaching AP, so when we went remote not only did the delivery of our lessons change but the exam itself for APs this year shifted.  I created a lot of videos and used Google Meet, but it wasn’t always easy to get your students online for your Live Google Meet class sessions.  Our accountability wasn’t in place for the students in the same ways it would have been if we were in the building.  We all thought we were coming back after 2 weeks, so when that obviously did not happen we needed to find a new path that still allowed for flexibility and compassion but intensified in rigor.  There were students who continued to show up and we had frequent meetings to discuss how things were going.  Then the murder of George Floyd happened, and so that was a huge part of what we addressed. We started having ‘Flexible Fridays’ to allow for clubs and sports to continue meeting, and it was also a great time to give students the extra help and time they needed. For this year, the plan right now is for students to come back September 8th at half-capacity.  Students who opt for in-person instruction will come to school 2 to 3 times a week with a rotating  A/B schedule.  I’ll be in school Monday through Friday with all virtual students streaming in live while I simultaneously teach my students in person.

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

One misconception is that we’re martyrs and that we don’t have our own lives outside of school.  We care about our students, and we want to always do the best possible thing by our communities.  But we also have lives and personal interests, too.  And I think it’s important for those who are aspiring to become educators to know that they do not have to make their entire lives about their students.

What do you think is the key to your success as a teacher?

I think constant reading and listening to others and most importantly checking in with my students and taking what they say and adjusting what I do based on what they need.

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

Talk to other people who are teachers.  Listen to podcasts about teaching.  It’s important to engage in honest conversations about what it’s like before you make that decision.

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

That is a very hard question, because I really do love what I do.  But I guess it would be fun to own a food truck.

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

Seattle, Washington to see my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  Many trips were canceled to get together during this pandemic, and I miss them dearly.

Any fun facts or hobbies you would like to share?

I enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking.  I also have a love/hate relationship with yardwork.

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