Alumna Spotlight: Gretchen Gales

April 17, 2020

Gretchen Gales graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Creative Writing from VCU in December 2016. In 2018, she graduated from the School of Education with her Master’s in Teaching English. Gretchen is currently the executive editor of Quail Bell Magazine and a high school English teacher.

Thanks for catching up with us, Gretchen! What have you been up to since graduation? How was the transition from school to your current job?

Gretchen Gales stands outside in FallBy the time I graduated from graduate school, I was the only one to not have a full-time teaching job secured. Granted, I limited my search to the Central Virginia region, but it still stung. I decided that I would do a long-term sub job offered to me in my home county. I did my student teaching in a middle school and the position was for high school. I wasn’t sure that I could do it. Middle and high school are two different worlds. But then I started connecting with a lot of the students, learning their stories, asking about their interests and hobbies. Outside of teaching, I would slip up and say “my students” or “my classes,” even though they weren’t actually mine. 

Then one day, about two weeks in, I got a call from another high school in the county offering me a position as a teacher at another school. I accepted it. I had to start my first year of teaching one month into the school year and build relationships with students after the most critical point of the school year. I had to figure out a curriculum for an age group I only had one month of experience with. I’m lucky to have had a supportive department to help me, otherwise, I may have had a breakdown. But one of the biggest struggles was saying goodbye to my first group of seniors. I hate crying in public, but I had a packet of tissues stuffed in the sleeve of my Master’s program graduation gown, just in case.

Did you always know you wanted to study English? What made you decide to be an English major?

I have always enjoyed reading and writing stories — and was determined that one day I would publish a book — but never really considered that I could be an English major until I was a sophomore in high school. I was assigned Jane Eyre. I despised it at first, but everything changed once I got past the first 10 chapters. It was the first classic book I read without needing some assistance from internet resources. That’s when I told myself, “maybe I could make a career out of this.” I finally made a concrete decision after finding and reading a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray during a library book sale. One summer day and 50 cents later, I decided what I wanted to do. 

When I first met Dale Smith, I was at an informational session about the English major. I walked up to him after it was over and declared, “I’m going to be a best-selling author someday!” I had this mentality that if I told someone my goals, I would be more likely to achieve them...or at least hold myself accountable for them. My mom was with me and gave him a very sympathetic look and said, “I’m sure you hear that from a lot of students.” 

It’s both hilarious and horribly embarrassing to look back on. 

You still work for Quail Bell Magazine. How long have you worked with the magazine and how has your role changed over time? Do you have any favorite pieces or projects that have come out of working on the magazine?

I’ve been with the magazine since 2015. I started out as a contributing writer and worked my way up to the executive editor. So basically, I went from only writing content to being in charge of what kinds of content we publish as well as curating zines and book manuscripts. Our newly published third anthology, Her Plumage (2019), is a homecoming moment for me. I first discovered the magazine as an undergrad and fell in love with it after reading the two previous anthologies: The Nest and Airborne (Brandylane Publishers, 2013). Her Plumage is a collection of women’s writings from the magazine, including four pieces of my own that I felt best represented the theme of a woman’s experience. 

One I’m particularly proud of from my folio is an essay about Lady Gaga’s problematic collaboration with R. Kelly on her single “Do What U Want”. It’s a cultural critique/case study essay involving the long-standing public complicity of ignoring Kelly’s actions and the impact it had on his victims. I wanted it to be a rejection of “stan culture”, seeing as I’m a big fan of Gaga’s work. Too many people excuse the behavior of people strictly because of their personal attachment to an artist’s work instead of holding them accountable.

Did you always know you wanted to teach?

Not always. Growing up, I always liked helping people and animals. Up until I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I even got an award from my 4th-grade teacher that said “Future Veterinarian” on it. That changed when I realized that I would have to be good at math, the sciences that included math, and not being squeamish around blood. Even after I got over my fear of blood, I still couldn’t do the math that well. 

But what I did like doing was helping people learn and achieve their goals. I would be the teacher when I played school at daycare. I assigned book reports to my mom and gave her stickers if they were satisfactory. My best friend would call me every day in eighth grade for help with homework, sometimes just to ask how to spell a word. I thought older kids were too scary, so I thought I would enjoy being an elementary school teacher. In high school, I did an internship in an elementary school classroom and I loved it. But I got curious about secondary education and did an internship in a middle school classroom during my senior year. I loved that even more. 

When I finally got to student teaching, I had to learn how to apply the same energy and effort in teaching not one, but six blocks of teaching with a little more than 150 students. I learned why people said teaching was the most stressful job you could love. Ironically, I ended up teaching at the high school where the 8th graders (now sophomores) I taught for three short months attend. They complain that they threw me a goodbye party for nothing. 

You're teaching now in unprecedented times. How are you adjusting to remote teaching? What are some challenges you've faced?

It's tough. No one has a “potential pandemic plan” put together. Sure, we have emergency plans, but those apply to in-class situations, not this. I worry a lot for my students, as many are essential workers or need the support given in-class, both instructionally and emotionally. As teachers, we need to provide equitable instruction to our students, but if internet service and individualized instruction isn’t accessible to them, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve. 

One of the best parts of teaching is having interpersonal connections with your students. Thankfully, we had half of the year to develop them, but to have everything cut abruptly the way it did hurts a lot. Many of my students miss their friends. My seniors won’t be able to have some of their milestone moments like prom, their senior trip, maybe even their graduation ceremony. Everything is uncertain. 

With that said, I’ve been trying to do a lot of light-hearted, fun activities over video conferences combined with instructional materials. One day I demonstrated (poorly) how to make a bunny stamp out of a toilet paper roll. Another day I read entries from my middle school diaries. I’m hoping it provides a welcome distraction from everything else going on in the world.

After this, I hope more people see how essential the role public schools play in a child’s life and advocate for better funding to our schools. Every child deserves a chance at an education and that isn’t possible without support from everyone involved in the community.

Pandemic aside, how do you think majoring in English major prepared you for being a teacher?

Besides the obvious, being an English major is more than just sitting around and talking about books — even though we really like that. It’s about loving storytelling and communicating in so many different ways. When I design lessons for my students, I ask myself what they would relate to and would find important. Or I just ask them through informal surveys. Sometimes I miss the mark, but when a lesson does stick, you can tell by their responses. Students look for excuses to talk about themselves and the things going on in their lives, or the things that don’t have concrete answers. If you ask the average teen if they want to talk about the role that guilt plays in the human condition, they’ll look at you funny. If you ask if they want to talk about murder, you tend to lay the groundwork that will lead up to more sophisticated conversations.

Now that you don’t have a required reading list, what are you reading?

I have been trying to get more acquainted with current YA literature, especially ones featuring more diverse characters. The world of YA has changed so much since I was a teen, and there has been a push for more recent and relevant authors and stories in the classroom. I have a particular interest in the way YA books have evolved to include more protagonists with disabilities. After finally being diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome (TS) when I was 22, I realized I had never seen a character in anything I watched or read that was an accurate reflection of my own experience. While everyone’s experience is different, many people use disabled characters in their stories to drive a narrative in a stereotypical or inaccurate way. I became passionate about finding authentic depictions of disabilities in a variety of media.

I’m currently reading Forget Me Not, a middle-grade book from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl with TS. After that, I’ll be reading Motherless Brooklyn and Icy Sparks, two other books that have protagonists with TS. 

Thanks for catching up with us, Gretchen!

If you are a student or alum interested in being featured, please reach out to us at english@vcu.edu!