In his element, Christopher Rhodenbaugh discusses the highlights of the semester with his AP Comparative Government as they prepare for their final exam. (Sierra Pape)
In his element, Christopher Rhodenbaugh discusses the highlights of the semester with his AP Comparative Government as they prepare for their final exam.

Sierra Pape

Impactful teacher Rhodenbaugh leaves, lack of support at state level

December 16, 2022

When speaking on their experience with government teacher Christopher Rhodenbaugh, multiple students answered with tears streaking down their faces.

One of Rhodenbaugh’s largest accomplishments throughout his time at Midtown was founding Midtown Votes, a club aimed at increasing voter turnout among younger age groups. Junior Imani Johnson, president of the club, credits Rhodenbaugh for greatly impacting her as a student and appreciates the dedication he’s brought to the job.

“For the first time in my academic career, I felt truly seen and heard, and I don’t think I’ll ever find a teacher who has helped me so much in terms of confidence and being assured in my ability to excel in my classes,” junior Imani Johnson said. “In [Rhodenbaugh’s] classroom, you get something that you don’t get with any other teacher because he fully wants you to have a good education and he’ll dedicate hours and hours of time to you academically and as a person.”

Rhodenbaugh has served as a government teacher at Midtown for four years, teaching one-semester Civics and Government classes and AP Comparative Government courses. During this time, he has supported students in a variety of ways including being the faculty sponsor of multiple civic engagement clubs. 

“I am driven by a passion to empower students to change their communities and participate in the civic process,” Rhodenbaugh said. “But that’s not the only reason why I teach. I really deeply care about students approaching life, approaching dialogue, and approaching working with others in a way that will lead them to having fulfilling lives.”

Since before he taught at Midtown, Rhodenbaugh has been a qualified National Board Certified Teacher, which is given to educators who have demonstrated a high standard through study, expert evaluation, self-assessment, and peer review. He has gone through a long process to receive and maintain this certification, which in other states would raise his pay and recognition. In 2009, Georgia Governor Perdue reversed some of these benefits in state-wide budget cuts.

“There’s just no good options for me to earn additional income and still have a life outside of work, and after going through this rigorous process I am not receiving any money,” Rhodenbaugh said. “That’s reflective of some of my frustrations with the way teachers are disrespected in this country and not treated like other professions.”

Rhodenbaugh expressed discomfort in current teacher conditions more broadly, especially regarding pay. 

“Teachers need ways to demonstrate their excellence to justify their increased salaries,” Rhodenbaugh said. “I have no problem if I have to go through additional steps if it means a real difference in the way I’m paid. You can see the amount of money I’ll make for the rest of my career on a PDF on the Atlanta Public Schools website. It just goes up by the same amount every year, no matter what’s happening in my classroom, which is just not an inspiring model to keep people in the profession long term.”

As he transitions this winter, Rhodenbaugh will continue to pursue his passion for teaching at The New Teacher Project (TNTP), a non-profit organization that conducts educational consulting with a mission of, “ending the injustice of educational inequality and advancing policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom.”

“It’s a good role that will allow me to see schools from a lot of different angles, not only geographically in different places, but at a higher-level district position,” Rhodenbaugh said. 

Claudia Black, a support person for the social studies department, has been an assigned teaching partner with Mr. Rhodenbaugh since the beginning of this semester.

“To me, it’s sad for education that we don’t hold onto people who are truly as good of educators as he is,” Black said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and he is one of the most committed, invested teachers that I have ever come across.”

In Rhodenbaugh’s classroom, particularly on-level Civics and Governments courses, Black has seen ways in which Rhodenbaugh has the ability to motivate students.

“In required social studies classes with freshmen, motivation is different, but Mr. Rhodenbaugh never loses faith in students’ abilities,” Black said. “He is not okay with just saying, ‘Well, that’s a person who’s just not gonna get it.’ When teachers take their subject matter seriously like that, it makes all the students feel the same way.”

Freshman Jaden Morgan is currently taking Rhodenbaugh’s Civics class and has seen a social transformation in the classroom environment throughout the semester.

“At the beginning of the year, our class was basically unteachable and extremely disruptive,” Morgan said. “But, Mr. Rhodenbaugh started to encourage me to become a leader and participate in class because he really always wants to make the classroom a safe and comfortable learning environment. Unlike many other teachers in my life who just quit at the beginning of the year, Mr. Rhodenbaugh never gave up on us, which is why every day in class we never give up on him.”

Morgan has had the opportunity to also engage with Rhodenbaugh on a more individual level, similar to the experience that many of Rhodenbaugh’s students share.

“Mr. Rhodenbaugh, at the end of the day, has inspired me to be a much better person to others and academically, and his class I think will open up a lot of doors for me,” Morgan said. “When I think of Mr. Rhodenbaugh, I see him as my school dad, a real father figure, who leads by example in almost every criteria, which is why he is literally the perfect example of a great teacher.”

His teaching style widely consists of personal, conversational writing projects that involve engagement with a real-world application. A notable example is his annual “Letter to the Senator” project where students choose a current event that they feel passionate about and form a case to send to a senator or elected official. 

“I see my role as a teacher with a few layers,” Rhodenbaugh said. “There’s obviously the academic layer where I have responsibility to teach content that is required by the state of Georgia and that I care about. But I care the same about helping students truly learn content, to help students grapple with the challenges that as a country, as a state and as a city we’re confronting. Academics isn’t enough for me to feel inspired and to feel like I’m making the impact that I can. So, I have consistently sought out any opportunity to take content from classes and make sure that students have meaningful ways to apply those ideas and to make them real.”

The only quote on his classroom walls this year is, “Argue like you are right, listen like you are wrong” by American organizational theorist Karl Weick. 

“I just love that idea because I think that classrooms have to be places where we’re practicing how to build relationships, get along with one another, find consensus and respectfully disagree,” Rhodenbaugh said. “I always emphasize to students that it matters much more that students are challenged to think in different ways, but not kind of told what to think.” 

Ava Smith, a class of 2022 Midtown graduate and freshman at Boston University, enrolled in his classroom for both U.S. and World Affairs and AP Comparative Government.

“He’s one of the only teachers I’ve ever had that truly challenged my perspective on things,” Smith said. “He was always writing on the whiteboard issues as a spectrum and really tried to show how multifaceted everything was and the many nuances that existed with issues. Also, he conducted Socratic seminars where we would all do our own research and figure out our own thinking about things like foreign policy decisions or domestic issues.”

In addition to going above and beyond inside the classroom, Rhodenbaugh has been the root of much civic action at Midtown for all four years he has taught here. In his time, he has worked as a faculty sponsor and integral member in student activist organizations: Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians, March for Our Lives and recently, Midtown Votes. 

“I don’t think my work stops in the classroom,” Rhodenbaugh said. “My theory of organizing in many ways is that you have to learn a certain amount of content, but then you also need to be able to have real opportunities to practice the skills. And I just want to make sure that my students, if they really feel that they care about challenges facing their neighborhood or their community, that they don’t just learn about the challenges, but that they learn concrete ways of making a difference and improving people’s lives that they care about.”

Smith worked with Rhodenbaugh as an early founder of Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians in the 2019-2020 school year, an advocacy group seeking greater pedestrian safety within the Midtown cluster. With Rhodenbaugh’s involvement, the group has done various service projects, bike summits, and installed systems around Midtown to ensure pedestrian safety.

“We were basically just a bunch of kids who liked bikes and were mad about Atlanta’s lack of quality infrastructure but we didn’t have the knowledge or experience that he did to translate that into actual advocacy and action,” Smith said. “He’s really good at helping students figure out how to organize around an issue that they care about in order to change something, but at the same time, allowing space for students to very much be leaders in that process.”

For the past two years, Rhodenbaugh has spearheaded Midtown’s partnership with the national non-profits When We All Vote and My School Votes, both aimed to increase voter turnout and raise civic engagement awareness, specifically for historically underrepresented margins like youth. 

Through the past two years, the new-founded club Midtown Votes has worked to register hundreds of people across the district. A prominent recent event was an event with Fulton County in which a bus, equipped with practice voting materials, visited the school allowing students to register to vote, where over 90 Midtown students registered to vote. Johnson is the co-president of Midtown Votes and has worked as a Georgia voting ambassador for the national When We All Vote organization for the past 6 months. 

“He truly cultivated and protected a great team, and taught us all how to continue it,” Johnson said. “Before I met him, I was kind of just going with the flow and like trying to do what I could in the club, but I feel like I’ve really learned to take initiative and that’s only possible because Mr. Rhodenbaugh actually believes in us.”

For many students, it is difficult to see him transition out of the school.

“I remember when he told me that he was leaving, I broke down and really just said, ‘you saved my life,’” Johnson said. “I don’t think that a single student can say anything bad about him in all his time at Midtown.”

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