A TEACHER WHO SHOWS UP - NO MATTER WHAT
One might say teaching fell into Melanie Jacobson’s lap.
“I didn’t grow up saying, ‘Oh, I want to be a teacher.’ That was never on my list of things to do as an adult,” she said.
But in the summer of 2009, while working as a canvasser in Massachusetts, Jacobson was connected with a local school administrator who encouraged her to apply for a therapeutic day school as a special education teacher.
Since then, Jacobson has worked in education, moving to Oregon in 2016 where she worked at Multnomah Education Service District and then Portland Public Schools for several years.
In the fall of 2021, Melanie was hired on as a teacher at Lake Oswego’s Harmony Academy, Oregon’s only high school designed to help students with substance use recovery. Alongside her class sidekick, a pug named Duke, Jacobson teaches language arts and algebra.
“Melanie is a powerhouse of ideas and creative, expansive ways for Harmony students to connect to learning, to the community and to the wider world of recovery. She believes whole-heartedly in the recovery school model, and her humor and intellect are valued in this setting,” Harmony principal Sharon Dursi Martin said.
Jacobson’s approach to teaching centers on staying flexible and being comfortable switching gears from a lesson plan to keep students engaged with material. Although the content is important, it can be more crucial to foster a style of learning that students can grasp — which can have a positive impact on students’ self-esteem, she said.
“My main role in teaching has always been to give students a positive school experience, to give them a safe space to grow and have new experiences,” Jacobson said.
She also leads a cultural literacy class. In her lessons, students are encouraged to think past a “black and white” narrative on topics ranging from the Middle Passage to Islamic literature.
Beyond her curriculum, Jacobson teaches her students that there is a learning opportunity in everything and it is OK to make mistakes. She credits this thought process to not only her special education background, but being a person in recovery herself.
“I like being able to show students that whatever we might think of as a character defect is not inherently terrible. It doesn’t make us any less of a person,” she said. “It just means that we either need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we need to learn, or we need to scrap everything and start over — which is totally fine. We’re not pianos, it doesn’t have to be perfectly tuned.”
Building rapport with her students and being consistent are staples to Jacobson’s approach to creating safe learning environments in her classes.
Jacobson said that Harmony Academy doesn’t just present new beginnings for her students as they navigate substance use recovery. The school is also a new beginning for her and strengthened her love for teaching.
One of her favorite parts of this job is watching students succeed and being able to offer them support that she didn’t have in high school.
“Ultimately, it is my job to care about my students, not for my students — and to just be present. That means showing up no matter what —something I learned with my recovery. So, I’m practicing what was taught to me,” she said.