Alumna Mikaela Easterlin: Building Relationships and Trust at Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School

By Hannah Dugan

It’s Friday afternoon, the last period of the day, and the gym at Harriet Tubman Middle School is nothing short of organized chaos. Basketballs hit the

floor in a constant thunder as Shakira blasts from a large speaker. Some kids chat with their friends by the wall, others are locked in intense games of 1-on-1. Swirling at the center of it all is the school’s first and only physical education teacher, Mikaela Easterlin. It’d be easy to feel sorry for her, alone with 30 antsy seventh-graders with the weekend on their minds, if it weren’t so obvious she was having a blast.

This is Easterlin’s first time teaching, period. But watching her drift around the gym during class in her ’80s-esque-thrifted George Fox windbreaker, galactic sloth tee and backwards snapback, you wouldn’t guess it. She is both at home and in command.

“Yeah, Ms. E’s cool,” says one of her students. “She taught me how to do this.” He dribbles once, pulls up at the three-point line and lets one fly.

“That’s right,” Ms. E herself says as she walks past, stopping to give him a high five.

A Love of Athletics and Mentorship

Easterlin is an athlete through and through. A varsity player in basketball, lacrosse and soccer in high school, she played the former two as an undergraduate at George Fox University. When it came time to decide on a career path, two things were clear: her love of athletics and her love of mentorship.

Throughout high school and college, Easterlin had a penchant for taking younger kids under her wing and mentoring them. I would know; I was one of them.

For me, this looked like drives to practices with Taylor Swift blasting, coffee dates and a surprising amount of ridiculous singing and dancing in public. If you found it embarrassing you soon got tired of being embarrassed, or just forgot to be embarrassed altogether, and you just joined in. Which was, of course, her objective all along.

Easterlin’s mom recognized her daughter’s natural ability for leadership on and off the field. One day she suggested, “You should be a PE teacher because that’s the perfect combination of those two things.”

And that sealed the deal.

The Challenge of Racial Reconciliation in a Diverse Middle School

As Easterlin puts it, “Middle school is tough. I don’t know many people who had a good experience in middle school. I just really want to be there for them as well as teach them how to live a healthy life, enjoying sports and athletics.”

Five years later, with her master’s degree in hand, she was ready to do just that. But it was her calling to inner-city schools that led Easterlin to Harriet Tubman in particular. Harriet Tubman wasn’t a school when she applied for the PE teacher position there. She couldn’t visit or see a PE class in action beforehand. There was an interview with Natasha Butler, the principal.

“She was fantastic. We got along really well, and after that I really wanted the job,” Easterlin says.

When Harriet Tubman opened its doors for the first time this fall, Mikaela Easterlin was the school’s new PE teacher.

The inception of Harriet Tubman Middle School reads like a math problem: The student body is 50 percent black, 50 percent white. The students are taken from four Portland feeder schools that were K-8 and are now just K-5. Two of those feeder schools are from very high-income areas, and two are from very low-income areas. Each kid knows only a quarter of the school. Add the difficulties of middle school and mix. What do you get? “Lots of fights” is the answer, according to Easterlin.

“We have at least one fight every day,” she says. In fact, just a half-hour prior she had had to diffuse a potential fight in her class.

It’s no secret that Portland has a racist past; the black community has largely been pushed out by gentrification and a law forbidding realtors to sell houses to people of color. This was only 20 to 30 years ago.

“This school is like the last hurrah of bringing the black community back to Portland,” says Easterlin. “But because of that the whole community is watching us like a hawk. We’ve got to be careful and make sure we’re doing the best we can.” 

It’s a tall order any way you look at it. Only about 30 percent of the faculty at Harriet Tubman is white. These kids “don’t want another white lady yelling at them,” as Easterlin puts it. Getting more black role models, especially male ones, is a huge priority. The community has stepped in to make this happen, from parents monitoring hallways to the involvement of the Maurice Lucas Foundation, which offers, among other support, two full-ride scholarships to any college, eligible to kids who stick with the program and maintain good academic standing.

On top of that, a lot of the kids come from very troubled pasts. They come with a boatload of triggers that many adults aren’t even conscious of. It didn’t take long before Easterlin started wondering how many of these triggers she was unconsciously playing into.

Easterlin grew up in a decidedly nondiverse southwest Portland neighborhood and attended a nearly all-white high school and college. Stepping into the halls of her new school was something akin to culture shock.

“There’s this whole environment and community that I don’t understand. I’m learning how my whiteness affects people around me, and that’s a huge thing that I’ve never had to deal with before,” she says.

She’s had to apologize to a number of middle schoolers this year. One time she heard a girl calling another the n-word. The student got defensive when she tried to correct her language.

“She got all up in my face and was talking back, saying how that’s my philosophy, and her philosophy is that it’s a positive thing and she can say that; it means they’re friends and family,” Easterlin recalls.

Easterlin then called the girl’s mom, prefacing the discussion by letting her know she was a white person, that she didn’t entirely understand this, but nevertheless this was what she was feeling.

“Yeah, we use that all the time at home, and I really don’t think that’s a problem,” said the mom. “But I will let her know that she needs to be aware of what she’s saying at school.”

That got Easterlin thinking. “OK,” she thought, “so this is something that I need to change my frame of mind about.” She consulted one of her black colleagues about the matter.

“It’s none of your business,” the colleague told her. “If they say that word it is none of your business.”

Building Relationships … and Trust

Easterlin knows that, in order to build the relationships that she wants, she has to build trust. To build trust, she has to bridge the gap of understanding between the cultures in her classroom.

“I’m still on that journey, and I think I’ll continue that journey my whole life. It’s really been eye-opening,” she says.

They always say the first year of teaching is the hardest. But it’s safe to say that Easterlin’s learning curve has been steeper on every front than anything she was expecting.

She made her lesson plans from scratch. For the first four weeks she had no equipment. She can’t even discipline her students with detention because there is no detention yet. She is completely new to them, and they are all new to each other.

And she’s had accusations from kids who have insinuated that she is racist. “It really sucks to hear that,” she says. “It’s making me think, ‘Am I treating kids differently?’” 

While this thought is always in the back of her head, signs of the fruit of her labor have been cropping up of late. Students give her drawings, hugs, or come up to her to show her a new secret handshake. They follow instructions without her having to repeat them a million times.

And if she’s not seeing victories, she’s learned that often means it’s time to change her frame of mind. “There’s little victories that happen every day that sometimes I don’t realize are victories because they might not be up to my standards,” she says.

For instance, one of her students has Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Anything she asks for is met with a “no,” backtalk and cussing. After one such episode, Easterlin presented him with a form to fill out. It was an “express yourself” form.

“All right,” she told him. “Please just sit on the bleacher and fill this out. I just want you to take a minute and try and reflect.”

“I’m not upset, I don’t need to do this!” the student raged.

“Please, just write it down, fill it out.”


He grabbed the sheet and wrote down “nothing” as the answer to everything. Easterlin was upset; he wasn’t taking it seriously. But then she talked to another teacher about it.

“She was like, ‘You know what Mikaela, in this case, nothing is something. The fact that he was writing that down gave him two minutes to calm down. It took him out of the situation,’” Easterlin says.

“True,” she thought. He wrote it down. He didn’t just chuck it on the ground. He wrote “nothing.”

“And that is a win. That’s a little tiny victory. So nothing is something,” she laughs.

In the small gym the bell rings and the seventh-graders flood out of the doors and into the weekend. A few turn to shout goodbye to Ms. E, and two boys hang around to shoot hoops while she cleans up.

This wouldn’t have happened a few weeks ago.

In a few years maybe she’ll be teaching the less-intensive high school PE. Maybe she’ll move more into coaching. But Easterlin’s goal right now, right here, is to build relationships with her students and earn their trust.

“I really wanna earn it,” she says. “That’s my goal. And having them come back next year, step into my gym and know what my expectations are . . .”

She smiles blissfully at the thought.

“I’m excited for that.”

Lucatero Uses Position at Microsoft to Give Back

Arturo Lucatero recalls the day his world suddenly changed – when a session with his counselor at Tigard High School altered the direction of his life.

A recent emigrant from Mexico, Lucatero had long dreamed of working in the computer industry, specifically with Microsoft. The initial plan was to continue working at his fast food job, graduate from high school and attend community college part time before transferring to a four-year institution.

It was then that his counselor suggested he look into scholarships. “I’d never heard of George Fox at that point,” he says. “But I was told about this Act Six program they had, and I thought, ‘Why not apply?’ I had nothing to lose.”
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Lost and Found

How Mike Arzie’s time at George Fox altered his perceptions about Christianity and redirected the course of his life

By Isaac Bruns, junior English major

Stepping onto the stage in Bauman Auditorium, Mike Arzie found it difficult to believe he was returning to chapel at his alma mater. Confronted with an audience of distracted students and “a sea of glowing Apples” from open laptops, he vividly remembered the time he had spent in their seats.

“It never crossed my mind during chapel to think, ‘I’ll bet someday I’ll come back to do one of these,’” he says. But as he took the podium that day, he began to tell the story of how he had learned of salvation in that very room 21 years before.

Arzie is now in his 17th year of ministry at Southwest Bible Church, a sizeable church in Beaverton. As the student and children’s ministries pastor, he interacts with a number of George Fox students, but his connection to the university runs much deeper. After all, it was at George Fox that he began the two most important relationships of his life.
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Hostetler Challenges Individuals to ‘Better My Town’

Casey HostetlerAlumna Casey Hostetler doesn’t recall the exact moment the idea hit her. She just woke up one day last summer with a thought: What are practical things people can do to help make their hometowns a better place?

It was a simple concept, but profound in its potential. What would happen if – like the massively successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014 – this thing went viral? What kind of impact would it have in Yamhill County … Portland … Oregon … the nation?

Hostetler couldn’t wait to share her idea, dubbed the “Better My Town Challenge.” She started with coworkers at her place of employment, Hagan Hamilton Insurance in McMinnville, Ore., thinking it might make for a nice marketing campaign. She told friends, who suggested it might work but weren’t sure, before ultimately consulting with Nathan Knottingham, president and CEO of the McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Nathan and I talked for quite a while before finally saying, ‘Why not, let’s do this,’” says Hostetler, who earned both a degree in business management (2013) and an MBA (2014) from George Fox. “We obviously didn’t know what to expect because you just don’t know how people will respond. But I was encouraged by what I saw with the Ice Bucket Challenge. This was the same idea, just that you would be doing practical things rather than dumping a bucket of cold water on your head.”

The idea: Post a video on social media in which you state your name, who nominated you and what task you are performing to better your town. It could be anything from disinfecting doorknobs around town to donating food or clothing to a local charity. Conclude the message by nominating three people and encouraging them to keep the chain going by nominating three individuals each.
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Alumni Update: Elisabeth Tissell

DSCN1597-2Recently 2014 graduate Elisabeth Tissell shared with us details about her new position with AmeriCorps. A politics major, she will lean heavily on her Spanish minor serving as a case manager for bilingual families. Here are more details from Elisabeth:

“I recently accepted an AmeriCorps position in Alamosa, Colorado! I will be working as a case manager with four or five families as they transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Many of the families are bilingual, so I will be using Spanish regularly. I will also have the chance to teach life skill classes, attend relevant court hearings, conduct home visits and plan numerous projects. The position starts August 1, and is a two-year commitment.

I am nervous, but excited. This job will stretch me emotionally as I confront difficult situations and problems. Fortunately, the position comes with housing; I will be sharing a house with other AmeriCorps participants, and each house includes a shared vehicle. God is good – I don’t have to find a car, an apartment or ready companions!

I want to thank Spanish professors Debbie Berho and Viki Defferding for their guidance and support throughout my last few years. Thanks to them, I feel prepared for this job and the challenges I will face.”

Inspired to Serve

The university’s annual Serve Day makes a big difference in our local community, but one alumna has spread its impact all the way to South Africa. Rebecca Turba (’10), a teacher at Bridges of Hope Academy in South Africa, recently launched Bridges Service Day. Here’s an update from Rebecca’s newsletter:
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Alumna, student collaborate on poetry book

By Heather DeRosa, Class of 2014

Junior Erin Kays, a double major in studio art and graphic design, got the opportunity some artists only dream of this past summer – she became a published illustrator. And not just any published illustrator, but the illustrator for alumna Sarah Katreen Hoggatt’s book of poetry titled In The Wild Places. Hoggatt graduated from George Fox Evangelical Seminary with a master’s degree in 2006 and finished a certificate in spiritual formation and discipleship in 2007.
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Meet Your Homecoming King and Queen

By Heather DeRosa (’14), photo by Emily Jackson (’16)

Meet Joe Djanga and Tracy Berg, this year’s Homecoming king and queen. Joe is from Beaverton, Ore., and is an athletic training major. Tracy is a business major from Corvallis, Ore. Tracy will graduate this spring, and Joe will graduate once he finishes the athletic training program in a few years. Interesting fact: Tracy was a Homecoming princess her freshman year, and now homecoming queen her senior year. Tracy’s roommate described her experiences on homecoming court as bookends to her time at George Fox.
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