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A veteran teacher adapts to new reality: ‘nothing compares to this’

From segregated childhood school to all-virtual teaching

Helen Gillespie-Metcalf has seen a lot as both a teacher and a student.

She has been a teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools since 1980, first as a sub and then full time since 1982. She began at Shawmut Hills and then moved to Mulick Park Elementary where she has spent the last two decades.

This year she is teaching fifth grade at the K-5 school, so she has, as she calls them, “the seniors.”

And now and then, the seniors will get a chance to hear a little about her life when she was their age. How in the late 1960s, in her hometown of Athens, Tennessee, she went to a segregated school through third grade and then in fourth grade moved to an integrated school.

She says with a wry chuckle: “I tell my kids at Mulick, yes, I lived that life.”

But this year she and her seniors are living a life that Helen said also might seem unbelievable 50 years from now.

Of school in a time of COVID-19, she says simply: “There’s nothing that compares to this. We’ve had different hurdles over the years, but this not only affects schools, it affects so many lives in so many different ways.”

Still, Gillespie-Metcalf is resolute.

“We have to make the best of it and keep going forward,” she says. “We have tools available to us and our district offers support. We have a support system that is phenomenal. So, we’re getting through it.”

Helen Gillespie-Metcalf has been teaching for 40 years and still loves it

Deep-rooted Determination

She comes by that determination honestly.

She moved to Grand Rapids when she was 10 and graduated from Central High School in 1975, before returning to her hometown of Athens to attend Tennessee Wesleyan University.

There she started out in social work and, she said, one day just decided to switch to education. She admits that a mother’s side of the family filled with teachers, including an aunt she is named for who taught for 40 years, probably influenced her change of plans.

On her father’s side is a long history of working the land, and in Helen those two sides come together in her vocation as a teacher.

She’s had to learn to use a host of new tools since school buildings closed in March, things like Seesaw, Google Meets and more, and she has had to adjust to new ways of doing old things.

“You spend hours and hours,” she says, “but it’s gratifying. You want to meet those needs. It’s just that determination. This is what you love to do so you just do it. You don’t give up. It’s not if, it’s how.”

A typical day now includes synchronous instruction from 9 a.m. to noon on Monday through Thursday, and then asynchronous instruction after lunch on Seesaw where, she says, students should have a couple of hours of work. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays she meets with small groups from 1-2:30 p.m. on Google Meets, about 25 minutes per group.

‘This is what you love to do so you just do it. You don’t give up. It’s not if, it’s how.’

— Helen Gillespie-Metcalf, fifth-grade teacher

That schedule will change come mid-January, when the district’s pre-K-8 students will move to hybrid instruction, involving both in-class and online learning. But that will present its own challenges for Gillespie-Metcalf and other GRPS teachers.

‘All In This Together’

Through it all, she adds, the Mulick Park staff gathers virtually to support each other and their students. A group text includes some 20 teachers at the school who share encouragement, ideas for how to best do virtual instruction and more.

“It’s not about competition,” she says. “We are all in this together as teachers, and it is just a family environment. People will share info and say, ‘Hey this works, check this out, have you tried this.’ It’s really encouraging.”

Although she began in the classroom for the first several weeks of the school year (“for the kids’ psyche and mine it was nice to see the classroom,” she says), more recently she has been teaching from her home, either in her husband’s office or at the dining room table.

She has perhaps had a little easier time than others, she says, because she has been at Mulick Park so long she’s now at the point where she is teaching the next generation. 

But attendance for a few of her students is a worry, and “the relationship thing” too. She also hurts for her fifth-grade students who are missing out on some in-person stuff that people might not ordinarily consider.

“They’re missing being safeties, hall monitors, helping out in the lunchroom,” she says. “That’s a big deal and a big part of getting them prepared for middle school.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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