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How Harambee’s New Teachers Are Hitting the COVID Curveball

You’re hired! But there’s a catch…


Picture the scene. You’ve worked most of your adult life earning your degree and professional credentials. As you take your first steps towards what you hope will be a rewarding career in education, a job opens up at an established inner-city school that achieves strong academic results and encourages students with the hope and love that’s intrinsic in your deeply held spiritual convictions.

You apply, interview, and even get to shadow other teachers at the school to get a good sense of what it might be like. When offered the job, you enthusiastically accept: I can’t wait to make a difference here, you think to yourself. You start envisioning your classroom layout in your head and engage in lesson planning.

Then just a few months before you’re set to start, Governor Dewine closes schools across the state due to a global pandemic, and you’re told that you’ll have to begin your teaching career through a webcam!

Heading into the 2020-21 school year, the administration at Harambee was already anticipating a major challenge as multiple veteran staff members retired or left to pursue other life and ministry goals. Then the unimaginable happened when COVID compounded this already stressful scenario.

What could we do? PRAY.

Now, over half way through the school year, we give praise and thanks to God for the men and women He brought to fill these essential roles that help us accomplish our mission to help inner-city youth overcome challenges and thrive in the body of Christ.

As these new team members quickly became family, many common threads began to reveal themselves among their shared experience, namely, what compelled them to start this work in the first place. Larry Williamson III, Fifth Grade



Mr. Williamson Doing Some Instruction on Zoom

“I was really compelled by the opportunity to impact students spiritually as well as intellectually,” says first year fifth grade teacher, Larry Williamson III. “Working at Harambee provided a great opportunity to work alongside amazing Christian people and impact students towards the kingdom of God.” Larry recently received his degree in Special Education with a specialization in mild to moderate disabilities from The Ohio State University. Though Harambee may not have been the learning environment Mr. Williamson planned to work in, he says his unique background in Special Education lends itself to learning and teaching to students’ specific learning styles, which is considerably more challenging over Zoom than in an in-person class.


Despite the limitations of teaching on Zoom, Larry is grateful for the opportunity he’s had to develop rewarding partnerships with parents as they work together towards their students’ success: “We have to work together as a team, possibly even more so than if we were in person.” Luke Smith, Music Teacher & After School Program Director

Although not a first year teacher, himself, our new Music teacher and After School Program Director, Luke Smith, was drawn to the opportunity to work at Harambee for similar reasons as Larry.

Mr. Smith, who previously worked teaching music in Columbus City Schools for six years, was eager to align his ministry and career goals by accepting the job at Harambee: “The idea of working at a school where there was open encouragement to share Christ with the students and help them develop their relationship with God appealed to me. What impressed me most about my initial conversations with Principal, Alex Steinman, was that he was clear that while he was proud of the academic progress of the students, he also felt like it was extremely important to help Harambee students become life-long followers of Jesus.” Before working in Columbus City Schools, Luke received his degree in Music Education from The Ohio State University and completed two years of grad school at Capital University's Kodály Institute.

As Harambee’s Music teacher, Luke especially encounters the limitations of virtual instruction, lamenting that “I have to trust that students are singing along while keeping their mics muted while I play and sing at my computer.” Thankfully, he has found success with younger students working more with puppets and visuals than normal, while engaging older students by working on exciting audio production projects.


Mr. Smith's At-Home Teaching Set Up

Emily Mossman, Fourth Grade

In the fourth grade, we were excited to welcome Emily Mossman, who received her degree in Early Childhood Education from OSU and worked previously for one year as a Title 1 reading teacher for Columbus City Schools. After mentoring Harambee alumni in her high school home church, she says, “I knew Harambee was a special school.” Though her favorite teaching methods, like partner and small group work, as well as hands-on activities, are understandably limited in virtual instruction, she celebrates that she has still been able to build an ethos of fun in her classroom while building relationships with students: “We are still able to laugh and learn about each other every day!”

Mrs. Mossman Helping Her Class Have Some Fun

Aja Peltomaa, First Grade

Like her fellow first-year teachers, our new first-grade teacher, Aja Peltomaa, has wrestled with the difficulties of building a class from the ground up over Zoom. Aja, who recently received her degree in Early Childhood Education from Otterbein University, knew the transition from full-time student, herself, to full-time teacher was going to be challenging. Adding Zoom teaching into the equation compounded these difficulties.

However, she also recognizes the unique opportunity that teaching in this season will afford her and her students and will undoubtedly set apart this year from those that follow: “There has been a cool shared suffering with the pandemic that I think has connected me more with my students and my classroom aide, Ida. Zooming all day for school is tiring for all of us. However, going through this together has given us a common experience that we can relate to. There is something about the class I have now that will stand out from any other class. Not just that this class is my first class ever, but that we all fought alongside one another and persevered through a really hard year.” In this way, Ms. Peltomaa is already helping students develop one of our core Harambee “Character Essentials” - GRIT. And we know that developing this now will be invaluable in their growth as students and followers of Jesus. Kyra Freeman, Classroom Aide

One last minute change to the lineup of new staff came in the hiring of our newest classroom aide, Kyra Freeman, last Fall. Fortunately, though new to the staff, Kyra was not new to the school, having already established many meaningful relationships with students as a volunteer. Kyra, who is currently a Junior at OSU studying Human Development & Family Science, hadn’t even planned on initially pursuing a career in Education. According to her, the change happened suddenly: “One afternoon I came into Harambee to volunteer, and I realized that I didn't want to be anywhere except Harambee! I switched my major the day after!” According to her, the challenges and joys of working at Harambee during a pandemic go hand in hand: “Though I haven't been able to get the same amount of face time with my coworkers, the time that I have had during Zoom meetings or on phone calls with them have resulted in some of the greatest times of joy over this year so far.”


Sharing Our Thankful Turkeys

In working with students, she especially has enjoyed getting to teach Bible class, saying, “It’s phenomenal! I love hearing the student's ideas, thoughts, and perspectives about God and the Bible, and they are always my favorite times of the week.”


What Comes Next: Transitioning to Hybrid Learning

Effective February 22, Harambee is up and running a modified hybrid-Learning Center format, which will open our building up to a reduced capacity of students, while others opt to continue learning from home.

Though this is exciting in many ways, it is yet another curveball these new staff members will have to adjust for. However, we are confident that with your prayers and God’s limitless strength, they are prepared to hit it out of the park.

So what are they looking forward to most about the day when in-person instruction will return to normal?

For Aja and Larry, it’s undoubtedly the face-to-face interaction and connecting personally with students every day. Emily looks forward to building community with her students, not to mention having the BEST class parties. Kyra is looking forward to playing Just Dance with students in the gym and eating and laughing together in the lunchroom. For Luke, it’s getting the After School Program up and running again and for the opportunity to finally sing together with students.

While these changes will continue to be gradual, we await them with confident hope that God is working all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8), both students and staff alike.



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