A Fresh Coat of Paint

Ingrid Rachal’s Schoolroom Odyssey
Ingrid Rachal, mentor teacher at Mary McLeod Bethune School, May, 29, 2019.

While still in her own formative years, Ingrid Rachal’s interests included gymnastics, theatre and becoming a flight attendant. Becoming an award-winning educator never crossed her mind.

But today, she’s just that:  she’s been a semi-finalist for state teacher of the year and a recipient of New Schools for New Orleans’ excellence in teaching award. Some group or another is always recognizing her outstanding results at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School for Literature and Technology, located in Gentilly.

Those results show up in state achievement tests. Last year, 72 percent of Rachal’s 8th grade English students scored mastery or above, a percentage that is “higher than the school, higher than the district,” Principal Mary Haynes-Smith said.  “She’s amazing.”

When Haynes-Smith recommended Rachal for the New Schools for New Orleans award, she called Rachal a “visionary.” Rachal told the award committee that she creates instructional approaches that allow for “freedom of expression and creativity.”

That creativity is inspired by an early love for the theatrical, an interest that drives lesson plans. To teach vocabulary, students are divided into groups to act out words. A word such as “incognito,” for example, inspired a disguise.

Like many educators, Rachal started teaching initially as a way to earn some money. She had given up a position with American Airlines after marriage. She had worked part-time in banking, but after a few years of mostly mothering, she decided she wanted a career.

She decided to teach as a substitute teacher while working out the future. On “day one” of substituting, the future took care of itself. “I loved working with the children,” Rachal said. “I just wanted to learn everything about teaching. It was awesome.”

She taught for nearly a year for $80 a day before the principal discovered she had a bachelor’s degree. After that, Rachal entered a teacher certification program where she earned certification to teach 6th through 12th grade English.

She taught in Jefferson Parish until the deaths of her mother and grandmother required taking a year off. As an only child, she needed to travel to her home state of Texas to settle family affairs and overcome her grief, she said.

The road back to teaching was rocky. She interviewed at McDonogh 35 High School, a position she didn’t want because she preferred teaching middle school. But when the principal told her she would only teach 9th grade, she gave in, only to find herself teaching 10th grade, and later 11th grade, too. “I was petrified,” she admitted.

A lover of vegan cooking, church and pastels, she was horrified when she beheld the graffiti covered classroom. Peach paint did wonders. “When I was finished, it was gorgeous,” she said.

Then, before she knew it, she was forced to give up the calm of peach. She was assigned middle school again and given another depressing classroom. “There was a hole in the wall,” she remembered.

This time, lime green paint helped. She settled in, but after only two years, she was told she was returning to high school English. That classroom was worse than the first two. “The cabinet doors were falling off,” she said. “I looked at it and cried. I prayed and cried.”

That very day Haines-Smith called, and after an 11-year odyssey, Rachal was teaching at Mary McLeod Bethune, her idea of a dream school, a “loving” environment with no painting required.