Teachers have had a rough time in the past few years, with a teachers’ strike in 2012, and almost 1,200 teachers and staff laid off in 2014 because of declining enrollment and school shutdowns. While some held on to their jobs, other teachers chose to think outside of the classroom box to utilize their education degrees.

(Photo Courtesy of Meghan Jane "MJ" Stegemann)

(Photo Courtesy of Meghan Jane “MJ” Stegemann)

Meghan Jane “MJ” Stegemann, Associate Director of Tutoring and Summer Day at Chicago Lights, is a primary example of a teacher who chose an alternate way to connect to students.

“Don’t pigeonhole yourself into being a classroom teacher,” said Stegemann. “There are lots of other ways to use that degree you worked so hard for. Working in museums, creating curriculum for exhibits, working at a nonprofit like I do, overseeing educational programs.”

Before Stegemann was a teacher, she took on a wealth of knowledge from a diverse group of students. She earned a Secondary English Education and Language Arts degree from Indiana University (with a focus on African American and African Diaspora Studies). Then she went on to complete master’s courses, including teaching on a Native American reservation for six months.

During her studies, she decided she wanted other students from diverse backgrounds to have the same opportunities she did.

“I want to be able to offer the tiny bit that I can to those students who weren’t as blessed as I was to have a school that was well-funded and teachers who were excited to be there. I really dislike that based on where you live you might not get the same education as somebody else. I don’t think the quality of your education should be based on your ZIP code.”

While plenty of paperwork and data are par for the course as a teacher, Stegemann insists that there are two courses that education majors should take on more often: computer courses for the ever-changing world of technology and child development classes to become more familiar with how children learn. Stegemann also wants the “passionate bunch” of teachers to find new ways for students to grasp educational material.

Chicago Lights chooses out-of-the-box techniques to help students learn, including Multiplication Bingo and yoga.

“If you can get a kid playing a game and learning, it feels less like school and more like fun. That’s one of our number one priorities.”

Shamontiel L. Vaughn is a professional journalist who has work featured in AXS, Yahoo!, Chicago Defender and Chicago Tribune. She’s been an Examiner since 2009 and currently writes about 10 categories on Examiner.com.