Nanaki Bawa

Seated at her desk, history and yearbook Michelle Menna meticulously edits a yearbook spread with her trustee black pen. Balancing her time between teaching AP U.S. history and yearbook, serving as the SCA sponsor, and leading history teachers as the department chair, Menna is often found typing away on her computer or standing in front of her enthusiastic students. The SCA has been an integral part of Menna’s life since 2014, when she first began planning elaborate school-wide events and sharing numerous meetings with administration; now, Menna has decided to take a step down from SCA to dedicate more time towards her personal life.

Humble Headship: History Teacher Michelle Menna Prepares to Step Down After 8 Years as SCA Sponsor

After countless nights spent planning elaborate school-wide events and sharing numerous meetings with administration, history and yearbook teacher Michelle Menna has decided to take a step down the position of SCA sponsor and dedicate more time towards her personal life in an attempt to establish a greater work-life balance.

January 31, 2023

After eight years, SCA sponsor Michelle Menna will no longer be guiding students in recording morning announcements, hosting 2,000 student glow-in-the-dark pep rallies, and planning bonfire tailgates: at the end of the 2022-23 school year, the history teacher, yearbook adviser, and SCA sponsor plans to step down from directing the bustle of student government.

Piloting the Program

In 2014, Menna joined Rock Ridge as a history teacher and quickly took on the duty of the SCA sponsor, ensuring that the school had a strong student voice. Previously serving as a yearbook adviser at Park View High School, Menna was a perfect candidate for SCA as she also teaches history. “Because history teachers are licensed to teach any social science, [Principal John Duellman] kind of wanted to keep government with people who teach government,” Menna said.

When she began, Menna took over an organization that lacked funding and participation from the student body, only having the “bare minimum” number of officers. Just a year after the school was built, Menna took over the organization in 2015 — the year of the first senior graduating class. “There were really no official traditions, not really a ton of school spirit, so over the years we worked really hard to grow as an organization to develop traditions and create a feeling of spirit and community,” Menna said.

Steadfast Students

Menna cites the opportunity to work with a dedicated group of students every day as one of the highlights of her role as SCA sponsor. Junior Class President Jag Maddipatla joined the SCA team with the goal of providing more representation for the student body. “The ability to bridge the gap between the student body and the administration [initially attracted me to get involved],” Maddipatla said. “I have been involved in SCA since middle school, and I wanted to continue my involvement, especially due to COVID-19 making things complicated.”

Perched on a table, Junior Class President Jag Maddipatla meticulously works on his assigned tasks during his joined SCA study hall. Maddipatla typically enjoys assisting with tasks behind the scenes including planning and preparing for various events. (Nanaki Bawa)

During the 2019-20 school year, after about four years of establishing official organization guidelines, programs, and processes, Menna felt the SCA was well-established and known among the student body, with great student participation and involvement — but then, COVID-19 hit. 

Pivoting during the pandemic was a challenge; however, the SCA adapted quickly, creating video announcements for their peers to view during their advisory periods to add a personal touch to the virtual year, with officers rotating recording and editing duties. This set precedent for future years and nearly three years later, the SCA continues to create daily announcements, covering school updates, clubs and activities, and current events. 

They also created an official TikTok account to increase communication to the student body. Then-spirit director and senior Courtney Rose Bergeron led the effort, posting their first TikTok on Sept. 21, 2020, informing students about the first ever school spirit TikTok competition. Students were invited to show their love and appreciation for Rock Ridge through creating on the platform.

When Rock Ridge returned to in-person learning in Aug. 2021, the SCA had another hurdle to overcome — rebuilding the SCA’s foundation and traditions…again. 

Senior Class Historian Lisha Chundu joined SCA just after the pandemic during her junior year as she longed to help plan large events like homecoming and pep rallies, and eventually found that SCA also helped her foster many friendships. “[I really love] the community and new friendships that we develop here; everybody is really supportive of each other,” Chundu said. 

During her first year on SCA, she served as junior class president and though it was “hard to fit in” as a newcomer, Chundu remembers Menna being helpful and supportive during the transition. “[Menna is] really good at helping us stay on task,” Chundu said. “She’s also really chill; as long as we get our work done, she lets us hang out and do whatever we want.”

Reserved Ruler

Similarly, towards the beginning of Menna’s SCA journey, she found some of her duties unfamiliar and difficult. Generally a reserved and introverted individual, Menna herself finds it funny that she has found herself in the limelight standing in the middle of a 2,000+ student pep rally and running through seas of students at football game tailgates. However, she often shares that working towards a common goal to provide an invaluable experience for the school community is her main intention.

History and yearbook teacher Michelle Menna poses a question to the SCA executive board just before the start of the Student vs. Staff Volleyball game on Nov. 18. The game ended in a victory for students, 31-30. (Ananya Karthik)

However, when Menna finds herself in the classroom, she feels comfortable with her students — just how she hopes they feel with her. “I do not enjoy speaking at a faculty meeting or even presenting at a conference — I find that very nerve-racking,” Menna said. “But, being a teacher, I like to hope that in my classroom, I kind of have a more collaborative community, where I don’t feel intimidated to speak in front of my students. I have always enjoyed being around students much more than adults.”

While it may be astonishing to some that introverted individuals like Menna enjoy a profession surrounded by people such as teaching so much, it is not a huge surprise given that reserved teachers are often great listeners, calm and collected leaders, and extremely dedicated. Furthermore, introverts are well-suited in performing essential skills like crisis management — an essential trait in the classroom — even outperforming extrovert counterparts. According to the “Inc.,” an American business magazine, introverts are more “insightful” and able to carefully consider and pre-assess others’ motivations, which are key skills in leadership and management.

Duellman agrees with this sentiment and believes that the loudest leaders are not always the strongest and most capable. “Sometimes, we think of leaders as people who stand and yell and are loud,” Duellman said. “That’s not true at all; some of our best leaders in the history of the world are those that not only lead by example, but [have a powerful presence and are underestimated].”

History teacher Victoria Webb particularly enjoys Menna’s task-oriented approach to her leadership role. “She is quick to solve problems, answer any and all questions, and effectively communicates updates from administration,” Webb said. “She is simply the glue that holds us all together, and we are lucky to have such a hardworking leader of the team.”

For this reason, Menna has performed phenomenally as the social sciences department chair. She assumed the position in 2021 after social sciences teacher Allison Alison left her position. Though Menna doesn’t particularly enjoy public speaking and jokingly told Duellman that she would only accept the position if she would “never have to speak in a microphone,” Duellman has seen that when Menna does give presentations or speeches, she is “very good at it.” 

Duellman believes that it is powerful to have a leader like her lead a department, especially to provide representation. “You have a woman in leadership who is also growing the voices of women in our school,” Duellman said. 

Through her role as department chair, Menna has also guided new teachers like Webb. Webb felt that she “won the lottery” working alongside and learning from Menna during her first year as a teacher during the 2021-22 school year. Because of the pandemic, her student teaching experience was mostly virtual, but she felt that Menna’s guidance made the transition much smoother. “[Menna] went out of her way to answer my questions morning, noon, and night — and she still does,” Webb said. “By working with Ms. Menna, I have learned so much about pacing content, different instructional strategies, and grading. Reflecting on last year, I know that coming to Rock Ridge was the best decision I ever made, and one of the greatest gifts to come out of it is Ms. Menna’s mentorship and friendship.”

Outside of the history department, Menna has made her mark on the Phoenix community, from working with faculty to coordinate countless events to inspiring former students to pursue teaching.

Like Menna, Student Activities and Engagement Coordinator Annamika Hacikyan joined Rock Ridge during its charter year and remembers the first year of the SCA as a time when the two teachers who ran the program were “just trying to figure out what to do.” When Menna helped take over, “she took SCA and ran with it and built this school culture that we have,” Hacikyan said. “I saw her to be dedicated and really excited about the opportunity, and I have seen her work tirelessly to continue to instill that spirit.”

History and yearbook teacher Michelle Menna poses with the editors of the yearbook just after they received the news that the 2020 yearbook was a “Crown” finalist, the “highest recognition” given by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association to “student print or digital mediums.” (Courtesy of Michelle Menna)

The latest addition to the Rock Ridge staff, new history teacher Aisha Ahmed, first met Menna in her junior year when she took AP U.S. History and became a yearbook assistant editor. “[Menna] had talked to [her history students] about yearbook and recruited some of my friends and I to join yearbook next year, and that was the best decision I could have made,” Ahmed said. “I started as a normal staff member, but as the year went on, I realized there was way more work for our three editors, and Ms. Menna needed [assistance] because others weren’t really carrying their weight.”

As of the new semester, Ahmed now works as the first Rock Ridge graduate to join the school’s faculty after substituting in history and yearbook classes. She has found that getting to know Menna on a more personal level has been nothing but enjoyable and inspiring. “Of course I loved [working with Menna] when I was an editor, but there’s something so special and cool about being able to work on it as friends and colleagues,” Ahmed said. “I never would have imagined that I would be working with her on more yearbooks, but I’m so happy to have that opportunity.”

Primordial Predetermination

Forever bound to the profession, Menna’s love for teaching became apparent when she began to conduct mock teaching sessions with her younger brother at age 5. She and a childhood friend even began holding a summer camp for children in the community where Menna was able to teach a wider range of subjects and students. “She always wanted to be a teacher, and her brother didn’t always like being her student,” Janet Gannon, Menna’s mother, said. “Probably when [Menna] was 9 or 10, we moved, and there was a space underneath the steps from the basement to the first floor which she made her schoolroom.”

Even equipped with a blackboard, calendar, miniature chairs, and fake student names, Menna quickly realized that she wanted to pursue teaching. However, she had yearned for one specific item: a gradebook. “I taught college, and I used to have a gradebook and I didn’t use it all, so I ripped some pages out and gave them to her,” Gannett said.

Menna’s love for the profession was furthered in the fourth grade, when she discovered the story of the Roanoke Colony, or the Lost Colony, and confirmed her love of U.S. history. She later attended the College of William and Mary, the University of South Carolina, and American Public University, attaining a B.A. in History & Secondary Education, M.Ed. in Language & Literacy, and a Graduate Certificate in U.S. History, respectively.

She always wanted to be a teacher, and her brother didn’t always like being her student.

— Janet Gannon, Menna’s mother

Decades later, this dream has become a reality. Menna approaches her teaching similar to her leadership positions in that she allows students to guide their learning, while providing them the necessary resources to succeed. In addition to teaching three AP U.S. history classes, Menna oversees the production of an award-winning yearbook, an activity that she has been part of her life since 7th grade.

Menna’s yearbook class organization and structure is fairly student-led and task-based, with senior editors-in-chief Miriam Ahmed and juniors Alisha Bojji, Naolee Makonnen, and Anisha Rapolu, leading the class’ production elements. After the first quarter of the school year, where new members are taught the basics of yearbook copy, design, and interviewing, staffers are assigned to work with either a yearbook editor or adviser and must complete a list of spreads and daily tasks for each class for a grade.

Rapolu joined the yearbook staff in her sophomore year in hopes of being a part of the award-winning organization because she enjoyed photography and the concept of the publication. After just one year, she became a co-editor-in-chief. Menna played a key role in Rapolu’s yearbook journey, from providing her the opportunity to pursue higher leadership to guiding her and the rest of the staff on how to master difficult writing skills required for yearbook. “The most valuable thing I learned [from Menna] was probably [how to write specifically for the yearbook], and learning the way that you write the dominant copy [the main text on a page].”

Proportionate Priorities

Prior to the 2022-23 school year, Menna would balance teaching, grading, and planning for her history and yearbook classes, and SCA — often averaging just above 80 hours of work per week outside of school. Like many others, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and personal changes within the last year have reminded her what is most important — family and friends — shifting her priorities.

History teacher Joshua Dobbs works on completing miscellaneous SCA tasks during the SCA study hall while periodically checking to ensure that members are making progress on their work. (Nanaki Bawa)

Therefore, after eight years of leading the Phoenix and serving as the familiar face in SCA, Menna is ready to take a step down, with history teacher Joshua Dobbs eventually taking over her job.

Despite Menna leaving, her fondness for the organization is one that is driven by student involvement and participation, and is content when she sees students thrive and participate in SCA events. In fact, during hard times, staying busy with SCA planning and collaborating with the students was what made her days significantly better. 

Duellman also noticed in his time working with Menna, she has always put her students first. “Every action Ms. Menna takes is in the best interest of students and makes sure that their experiences in high school are the very best experiences,” Duellman said. “You can tell that in a very brief conversation with her that [doing things in students’ best interest] is her number one priority.”

Menna is almost certain that she will not serve the SCA in the same capacity as previous years, but she may observe the group from afar and assist with administrative tasks, like handling sales and financing.

You can tell that in a very brief conversation with her that [doing things in students’ best interest] is her number one priority.

— Principal John Duellman

The 2022-23 school year is the first time Menna has gone as far as to receive assistance from and train another teacher to take over her position. She began mentoring history teacher Joshua Dobbs in August 2022 on how to oversee the SCA, sharing skills including how to organize SCA paperwork and decorate for a city life-themed homecoming dance. Like many other teachers, Dobbs has noticed Menna’s intense dedication and focus in her work while working with her. “[She has always been great at handling] technology, staying organized with everything, and making sure that we have all of these checklists,” Dobbs said. “[I think I am going to] just take it one step at a time next year.”

Even with Dobbs assisting the SCA as a co-sponsor, Menna feels a certain added pressure to ensure that the SCA is able to continue serving students to the best of their ability in future years. 

SCA will be different without Menna, but her impact remains evident through her guidance over the student and faculty’s unmatched school spirit, the school’s award-winning yearbook, and her high-performing history students. 

Though she will remain a history and yearbook teacher and the history department chair, Menna feels that a part of her school persona is leaving her, but looks forward to a new chapter. From staying up in the early hours of the morning to verify homecoming payments on the school payment portal to preparing decorations for prom, Menna has made some of her fondest memories in SCA and never let her busy schedule limit her from taking on new responsibilities. “She has supported as many individuals as possible to give students a well-rounded experience [in high school],” Hacikyan said.

Despite her step down, students and staff alike will continue to benefit from and enjoy Menna’s unique character and attitude. “Ms. Menna’s wicked sense of humor is certainly one of my favorite qualities about her,” Webb said. “She has the ability to say a sarcastic comment at the most perfect moment that makes everyone in the room laugh.”

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