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RB4L Spotlight: Facing teaching like a student-athlete

Redbird women's basketball players

“Jill [Hutchison] used to always say to us that the sun’s going to come up tomorrow. We’re going to get back to work, and we’re going to fix what we can fix,” Ellen McGrew said. “I used to hate when she said that after a loss, but it’s something that has definitely stuck with me after all these years.”

As an Illinois State women’s basketball player from 1984-1989, McGrew never would have imagined that lessons learned from her former head coach Jill Hutchison and teammates would serve her well as she faces teaching during a worldwide pandemic. McGrew, a special education high school and middle school P.E. (physical education) and health teacher, works for Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio—the largest school district in the state. She equates teaching to teamwork and knows the importance of it in order to achieve a greater good.

“(Teaching) is kind of like being on a team. In education, you have to work together to accomplish something,” said McGrew. “I miss seeing my students, I miss seeing my peers—I just miss the communication. You know, you can’t see their expressions anymore and what they do and don’t understand. I miss that day-to-day interaction.”

As a Redbird, McGrew made lifelong connections through her time as a student-athlete. A two-time winner of the Laurie Mabry Award, McGrew was part of two teams that made NCAA Tournament appearances and was a senior on ISU’s 1989 squad, earning her Bachelor of Science in Teacher Education that year. The 1989 team made history and is still the only ISU team to ever win an NCAA Tournament game. McGrew’s connection with her students and peers is similar to that she felt with her Redbird teammates and coaches.

“(As an athlete) what it comes down to is the people and the relationships you built in the trenches—the wins, the losses, the 6 a.m. workouts, the road trips—you go through all the ups and downs with your teammates and coaches,” said McGrew. “It’s such an amazing time in your life, when you’re in the moment you don’t realize the impact that those people and times will have on the rest of your life.”

The importance of her student relationships is guiding her to find ways to connect with them in the new world of teaching remotely in the wake of closures due to COVID-19. McGrew last saw her students on Friday, March 13, before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced an order to close all K-12 school buildings across the state for three weeks. By the next week, the district had set up sites all around the city to continue feeding students breakfast and lunch. The next priority was targeting students who did not own any devices and providing them with a Chromebook so they could still communicate with their teachers.

“As you can imagine, the main issues our students are facing right now are access to technology and internet, as well as food insecurity,” said McGrew. “Working online is also a very self-generated experience. Making sure our students have the tools to be successful is just the beginning.”

As a P.E. teacher, McGrew faces additional barriers in trying to keep her students active while social distancing.

“The kids were used to doing some online programs for classes like math and reading, but trying to get them to log on to complete a workout has been a challenge,” said McGrew. “I’m no longer standing right there demonstrating and walking them through things. Now I’m depending on them reading a lesson plan and hoping they understand what I meant for their workout.”

Another former women’s basketball player and current high school English teacher Megan (McCracken) Delp is rising to the challenge of teaching remotely as well. Delp is learning by trial-and-error on how to best communicate with her students as the weeks go by. She prepares video lectures to share on Google Classroom and holds office hours through Zoom for her students at Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island. She says that she has noticed that distance-learning has taken a toll mentally on some students.

“One of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to develop relationships, and I take pride in myself that students feel comfortable talking to me,” said Delp. “A lot of my students have talked to me about increased anxiety, loneliness and feeling overwhelmed with their whole family at home.”

Delp played for the Redbirds from 2004-2007, helping Illinois State to a conference championship and a NCAA appearance in 2005. She remains in the top-ten in several shooting categories in the program’s record book and is ranked sixth all-time in career three-pointers with 148 three-point field goals made.

After graduating in 2007 from ISU with degrees in Communications and English, Delp pursued her masters in Sport Management at Western Illinois while serving as a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team. She then returned to Illinois State to work as a Director of Operations for the women’s basketball and volleyball teams, and then later as the Assistant Director of Corporate Sponsorships.

Delp feels the personal connections you make as a teacher and the long-lasting impact is what eventually drew her to her current role as an English teacher.

“I was feeling unfulfilled and missed having a connection with student-athletes. The opportunity presented itself to go back to teach at my former high school and in teaching I feel like I’ve truly found my passion.”

Similar to McGrew, she is turning to lessons learned as a student-athlete to get through these trying times.

“There’s a lot of adversity that you go through as a student-athlete—injury, losses, pressure, managing classes, missing out on many things because of that commitment—and with that, you just learn how to adapt,” says Delp.

When asked if she has any advice for current Redbird athletes, Delp said that her career path to teaching is something student-athletes can learn from. She urged them to not be afraid to take risks and try different things if certain opportunities no longer seem like possibilities in the current circumstances.

“The thing that has put me at ease is that we’re all in this together. Everyone in the country is facing adversity right now,” said Delp. “Just do the best you can with what you can.”