So how did Penn State graduate Jonathan Stephens end up teaching chemistry at Lynn Camp High School?
The answer to that question is a group that sends teachers to rural and low-income communities in an effort to combat educational inequality.
Teach for America, which falls under the AmeriCorps umbrella, is similar to the Peace Corps only instead of sending volunteers to aid less served communities overseas, the organization keeps volunteers in this country, Stephens said.
“Teach for America is really going out to various communities, who are kind of struggling with acquiring teachers and filling jobs,” Stephens noted. “I think it is effective and it brings in people from other places and different perspectives.”
Usually these areas are urban areas, but the program also sends teachers to underserved rural areas where they work for two year periods.
Stephens studied plant sciences and agriculture at Penn State, and was initially going to go straight to graduate school, but decided to check out Teach for America.
About half continue teaching at those schools once their two-year placements have ended.
Stephens recently completed his second year as a chemistry teacher at Lynn Camp High School, where he is also the head archery coach and an assistant baseball coach.
He plans to stay, and recently purchased a house in Corbin, which will put him here for a while, or at least the next 15 years until his mortgage is paid off, he laughingly.
“It is really good. I like Lynn Camp. I like the small town feel. I really get to know students. Co-workers and administration are all very welcoming. If I need anything at all they are there for me,” Stephens said.
Stephens noted that Kentucky was his first choice of places to teach as part of the Teach for America program.
Unique chemistry challenges
COVID-19 and non-traditional instruction for students has made the job for teachers a little more difficult, but this is especially true for chemistry teachers.
Stephens noted that when it comes to teaching chemistry, students are best helped by in person lab experience and a teacher pointing to diagrams to explain the process, which isn’t really possible with COVID-19.
“It is challenging,” Stephens said.
He has been limited to “kitchen chemistry,” where students could do their own experiments with common household items found in their kitchen.
He admits that he was a “little bit bummed” that he didn’t get to demonstrate chemical reactions to his students at the end of the school year.
For students with Internet access, Stephens noted that he can record videos and demonstrations.
Stephens said that remote learning during COVID-19 has produced difficulties for his students in two ways.
One key factor is Internet access.
Stephens estimated that about 30 percent of students throughout the district have only limited Internet access with spotty connections or cellphones with limited data. He is fortunate to have mostly upperclassmen the vast majority of whom have Internet access.
“One of the things that Teach for America pushes, they call it the broadband gap, which is definitely real. A lot of students and families can’t afford the Internet or it just doesn’t expand out to them,” Stephens said.
Like other teachers during COVID-19, Stephens has copied information into paper packets for his students, who had limited or no Internet access.
Initially when the school district was running buses doing meal routes, students could request to have school work delivered via a bus.
After that ended, Stephens noted that some of his students were still limited by transportation issues in getting themselves, parents or guardians to school to pick up the packets of information, or whose schedules made it difficult or impossible to get to the school during regular business hours to pick-up the information.
“The net covers almost all the students in terms of getting them assignments and things of that nature,” Stephens said.
Assignments completed on paper also presented other challenges.
For instance, when the instructor doesn’t get the completed assignments until two or three weeks later, it is difficult for them to give feedback to students on whether they are grasping concepts correctly.
This forced Stephens to revamp some of the assignments by providing questions and answer keys in some cases so students could determine if they were grasping the concepts correctly.
“It has just been very interesting in that regard,” he added.
Students busy working
Another factor making non-traditional instruction more difficult is that several of Stephens’ students work at essential jobs, and many took on additional hours during COVID-19 so they don’t have as much time for class.
“A big thing I have been fighting with is students with access to the Internet, but more often it is just time for them to do their work and their assignments because more often they are working so much,” Stephens said.
Stephens said that while he would love to know all the reasons for this, he tries to respect student’s privacy and not ask.
“I would guess it’s a combination of other folks in the household out of their jobs for the moment and that limits the income so students can kind of just pitch in working somewhere with food that is still open versus mom and dad or grandma’s job, which was temporarily cut,” Stephens said.
“It kind blows my mind a student messaged me and said, ‘I am the only one at home right now who has a job.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Stephens said adding the student noted that they were trying the best that they could to get their work done.
Other students work a ton of hours and do the best that they can to get school work done.
Stephens said that he has seen proposals for the next school year, some of which call for students to attend in-person classes at least part of the time, which he thinks would be beneficial for many students.
“Totally remote instruction is challenging because it offers that window for students to work all the time, which is totally valid and I don’t blame them at all for taking that option to make that money for whatever reason,” he added.