The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about huge changes to the lives of families throughout Dubuque, including isolation, uncertainty, and the need to adjust to learning and working online. When teacher Mariah Garner saw the impact it was having on her students at Jefferson School, she did what she always does when faced with a new and unfair environment: She poured herself into bringing about change.
Having grown up as an Army brat — both her parents served in the U.S. Army — Mariah understands the difficulties children can have adapting to new situations, So, she drew on her childhood experiences and teacher training to help her students and their families. She realized
the changes the pandemic was causing for her students would only amplify existing barriers to their education. “Our families have a lot of obstacles to tackle before academics, such as the ability to navigate technology, language barriers, and overall consistency in the home,” she says. When schools closed in March, she immediately thought about her background in special education, working with her co-teaching team and students’ families to ensure children’s emotional needs were met first. "I wanted everyone to know that we are in this together, and we can beat all odds!” she says. From there, she and her peers created a plan for distance learning, working to make sure even the families who face barriers to online education could still engage.
But Mariah isn’t just connecting with students in her classroom. With her friend and fellow Dubuque teacher Khalea Neal, she is developing an outreach program for students of color in teaching programs at local colleges. In creating the program, she is inspired by her own journey to Dubuque from Germany, where her parents were stationed. When she came to school at the University of Dubuque, she experienced culture shock — both as a returning expat and a young African American woman in a majority-white community. While she quickly adapted, she also noticed she was the only Black woman in her education classes and the public-school staff was not as racially diverse as its student population. After graduation, she decided to put down roots and start her career in Dubuque to bring about change. A diverse teaching staff, Mariah says, means that children of color in the district will benefit from seeing people from similar backgrounds in a positive light, contrary to negative portrayals in the media that can be discouraging to impressionable youth.
With the outreach initiative, she aims to nurture a diverse teacher population in Dubuque both for the benefit of the young educators themselves and the increasingly diverse student body. “Recent graduates of color looking to settle in Dubuque can find it hard to locate resources like grocers who sell culturally appropriate foods or stylists who know how to work with their hair,” Mariah says. “These might seem like simple things, but they are important to people who want to make this city their home.”
To Mariah, overcoming challenges related to the pandemic and building a diverse and inclusive school district go hand in hand. Both are complex issues, but she is confident that Dubuquers can find solutions — together. “With a positive attitude and resilience,” she says, “we can make it through anything.”