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New high school teachers rise to challenges of pandemic year

Comstock Park — Four new high-school teachers have so far led in-person, hybrid and virtual classes, having accepted the challenges of teaching in the midst of a pandemic. 

English teachers Kylie Kukowski and Erin Slaughter, art teacher Ian Martzke, and physical education teacher and football coach Charlie Hess underwent several virtual interviews with the district in the spring and summer and were hired to fill vacancies. 

Kylie Kukowski

In her first few years of teaching, Kukowski endured with her students a polar vortex, a shortened in-person year last year and full-blown pandemic this year. She taught two years at an alternative high school in Kelloggsville before being hired to teach ninth- and twelfth-grade English and an academic strategy class at Comstock Park.

“Once it(the pandemic) is done, this is going to seem pretty easy,” she said. “I am looking forward to spending more time with coworkers and getting to know them, hopefully, in a normal school year.” 

Kukowski said she typically front-loads her teaching and instruction at the beginning of the week, allowing time later in the week to work through questions and problems. She has online experience overseeing lab classes from her time in Kelloggsville .

Being flexible and adaptable is important, she said. 

“You can picture what you think the year is going to look like – ultimately you have no idea. The more open-minded and flexible you are, the better the year is going to be.”

She graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe with a major in secondary education, and a concentration in English and Spanish. She is working on a master’s degree in English as a Second Language at Cornerstone University. 

She said she likes the community’s diversity and involvement of teachers. “I had family who attended Comstock. I was looking for a good fit and Comstock is kind of that home for me.”

Erin Slaughter

Erin Slaughter 

Slaughter graduated from Alma College with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and business, and minors in English and environmental science. The Hastings High School graduate took a year-long substitute position in Crested Butte, Colorado before moving back to Michigan.

Slaughter said she has missed getting to know fellow teachers since the coronavirus pandemic interrupted traditional school. Fewer face-to-face interactions with students also make her job more difficult, she said.

“Building relationships with students is hard to do virtually,” said Slaughter, who teaches seventh-, eighth- and tenth-grade English. “It’s been a good learning experience, but I hope it doesn’t continue.”  

Bottom line, though:“I’m loving my school, loving my students.” 

She worries about the social and emotional well-being of students who she knows would rather be back in school. “They have rolled with it seamlessly,” she said about the varying learning modes. 

She said growing up with the internet and her experience as a technology business teacher has helped her make the transition to teaching virtually, and that she finds lots of inspiration and ideas from teacher blogs, web sites and Instagram.

“Mostly, I was making all of my assignments online before we went virtual,” Slaughter said. “I’m very much a planner, type-A personality and have struggled with not knowing what the future holds. But so far, she said, “I think I’m doing all right.”

Slaughter said she was drawn to Comstock Park because of its smaller overall population and relatively small class sizes. 

Charlie Hess

Charlie Hess

Hess played football at Northern Michigan University and graduated with a degree in physical therapy. While working in physical therapy and coaching football at Grandville, he decided to switch career paths. “It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a PE teacher.”

He earned a teaching certificate from Grand Valley State University, and taught in Kelloggsville for two years before he was laid off last spring.

He has family in Comstock Park, and describes the community as close-knit with a small-town feel near a bigger city.

Hess said he quickly grasped the technology for online classes. He teaches three at the high school and sixth- and eighth-grade phys. ed. at the middle school. He also coaches the defensive line for the football team.

Teaching physical education virtually can be a challenge, said Hess.

“I can’t invite everybody over to play badminton. It’s more about the sports, the rules, the game play—just the knowledge.”

He said getting in contact with a handful of students has been difficult. Some show up sporadically to online classes, requiring emails and other attempts to communicate. 

Ian Martzke

Ian Martzke

Martzke teaches two sculpture classes, one craft class, an introduction to drawing and painting class and one non-art-related virtual class. With a quick switch just before winter break from in-person teaching to all virtual, he had to get creative with assigned art projects. 

He said one class is doing a video-editing project, creating a scene from a movie or television show out of materials students have at home. And while learning about framing, editing and creating a narrative, “they’re also being put into a position to solve problems in a creative way,” Martzke said. 

For another, students who had just learned about Andy Goldsworthy — a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist — were tasked to use materials found in nature to create design elements. 

Martzke earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Kendall College of Art & Design, and started work in optometry while giving private art lessons. 

He said he couldn’t envision staying in optometry for decades, so he earned a teaching certificate from Grand Valley State University. He said teaching art is different than other subjects because of the vast range of abilities and interest levels of students. Some are passionate about art, others chose the class as an elective, and some are put into the class.

“Not every kid is going on to be a professional artist. Kids are all over the map in terms of language barriers and ability levels,” Martzke said. “I’m finding a way to make it work for everybody. It’s challenging to make it interesting for everyone, but accessible as well.”

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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She is from Evansville, Indiana and St. Joseph, Mich. and a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School and Central Michigan University. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be reunited with some of her journalism colleagues and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools for the School News Network. Read Karen's full bio or email Karen.

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