Northview — Audrey McKenzie’s fourth-grade classroom at East Oakview Elementary is just a little more than 20 miles from her high school alma mater, but her route there took her nearly 2,000 miles. And the journey has made her a better teacher, she said.
After having taught school for nearly three years in the Caribbean, McKenzie is back in her hometown, leading a classroom of students from diverse backgrounds — which she hopes will serve them well in becoming citizens of the world.
A 2013 graduate of East Kentwood High School, McKenzie identified early what she enjoyed: “I always loved to read and write. Those were my favorite subjects. And I have always loved other cultures and languages, and working with people who speak different languages.”
She earned an elementary education degree from Hope College in 2017 with a focus on language arts, and an endorsement in English as a second language.
While there, she knew she wanted to teach abroad. “I didn’t necessarily know where, but I had grown up traveling and wanted to have that experience outside of the U.S.,” she said.
McKenzie’s research focused on the Caribbean and Central America. She was considering schools in Honduras when she met with a teacher visiting Hope’s campus who was the middle school principal at Santiago Christian School in the Dominican Republic.
‘No matter where I teach, that’s the most important thing, to recognize differences and to accept them.’— Audrey McKenzie, Northview fourth-grade teacher
Once she heard about the school’s diverse demographics and education philosophy, “That’s the only place I applied,” McKenzie said. “I knew it was somewhere I wanted to be.”
Her first year there, in the fall of 2017, she taught fifth-grade language arts and math. She advanced every year after that, and last year was leading math classes for grades 5-7.
McKenzie said she always imagined she would teach language arts and never wanted to teach math, but “it ended up being my favorite thing. When I was student teaching I had the most fun teaching math. You can be super creative.”
She decided in October of 2019 that she would leave the Dominican Republic. “I knew I wanted to move back to the states and get established while I was still in my 20s,” she recalled.
And while she was set to finish the year and say her goodbyes at the end of the school year in June, the coronavirus changed that. About 10 p.m. one evening in March, she learned the country’s borders would close amid global shutdowns aimed at curbing the virus’ spread. She hastily packed a few things and was at the airport a few hours later.
Back at home with her parents, McKenzie finished the year teaching her Caribbean students via computer; like so many other schools, hers had gone virtual weeks earlier. When the year was finished, it was virtual hugs over Zoom.
“That was not the plan at all,” she said. “I’m hoping to go back there one day to see everyone. I had really considered it my home.”
Next Chapter: Northview
McKenzie admits she didn’t know much about the district, but knew a few people who worked there. When she learned Northview was hiring, she said, “what really drew me was their diversity and the importance they put on academics and the arts, the specials programs, the extracurricular activities, social-emotional health. School is so much more than academics, and Northview understands that.”
As in her previous post where classrooms were cultural melting pots of Dominican, Haitian, Korean and American students, the student population at Northview also is diverse. “It’s something Northview is proud of, which I love,” McKenzie said.
She said she enjoys leading her fourth-graders in discussions about the importance of respecting and accepting differences of all kinds.
“We talk about, even if people are different from you or come from another place, it’s still our job to get to know them and to love and accept them,” she added. “No matter where I teach, that’s the most important thing, to recognize differences and to accept them. We will always be with people who are different from us.”