Scott Rainey has never been one to bask in the limelight.
It wasn’t until a co-worker and friend ran into him at the grocery store that Rainey knew he’d been nominated for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Washington’s Citizenship Education Middle School Teacher of the Year award.
Even with more than 17 years of success in his teaching of U.S. history at Jemtegaard Middle School in Washougal under his belt, Rainey is quick to credit his students and fellow teachers for any recognition.
“The magic of teaching is you get to be eternal,” Rainey said, beaming. “I really, really cannot believe I get paid to do this job.”
The sudden transition to remote education nearly two years ago forced Rainey to thoroughly reconsider what to prioritize teaching his eighth-graders. Virtual seminars significantly hindered his ability to engage in conversations with students — something he notes as key to comprehension and interest.
“We’re teaching colonization to the Civil War. In a normal year, it’s very difficult to go into the level of depth you might seek out. I had to be very judicious in what I was going to be teaching,” Rainey said. “There is an importance in connection with kids; you can’t really do that over a screen.”
Eventually, he developed ways to joke around using technology that got the kids’ attention. On Halloween, Rainey prompted each of his students to share what their least favorite candy was.
Upon noting that his own most despised holiday treat was Almond Joy — or anything with coconut — a student changed their background to a bunch of coconuts. In a matter of moments, the “Brady Bunch”-esque composite of student background screens were littered with coconuts.
“It was the funniest thing I have ever seen,” Rainey said, laughing. Though perhaps a bit absurd, Rainey said it’s that kind of interaction that defines his work — and was ever-elusive during remote teaching.
History: a changing field
The award doesn’t just recognize excellence and creativity in teaching — but particularly those who stimulate an interest in history, democracy and national pride.
Rainey grew up in a largely white community in Orange County, Calif. When he moved to Southwest Washington in 1995, that demographic stayed relatively the same.
When Barack Obama was elected the first Black president in 2008, Rainey said he remembers thinking, “Hey, you know, America — look at us.”
He was once leading a class discussion on a documentary they had watched about the history of the Confederate flag that ended with a coming-together moment in between two Civil War re-enactors — a Black Union soldier and a white Confederate solider. Halfway through the discussion, a Black student stopped Rainey to remind the class that she and her brother, despite there being a newly elected Black president, were regularly followed in grocery stores and called racial slurs.
In that moment, and in many moments since, Rainey faced the reality and significance of the subject he was teaching. As he said, history isn’t just a list of dates and names. It’s a dynamic, ever-changing reflection on injustices and lessons from the past.
Since then, Rainey has said he’s sought to begin teaching issues of race and ethnicity with an acknowledgement of an important perspective: white privilege. He does so as a self-proclaimed patriot seeking to share a multidimensional perspective of the Constitution: the central item of his eighth-grade curriculum.
“I love America not because it’s a perfect country, but for the high bar that was set for us hundreds of years ago that we still haven’t achieved,” Rainey said.
Each day in February, in addition to their regular curriculum, Rainey will be leading with small lessons on Black history, beginning with an explanation of what Jim Crow laws were. He warned students that during some of the lessons, they may feel sad or uncomfortable.
“I tell the kids that if they are feeling sad or uncomfortable during this unit, then good. Because if history only makes you feel happy, you’re not studying history,” he said.
Rainey’s passion for history comes from a man whom he describes as none other than the greatest teacher he’s ever had — his father.
When Rainey’s father — Lewis Rainey — was 16, he enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. Rainey joked that at that time in his own life, he was still figuring out how to tie his shoes.
“My father only went through eighth grade, but he’d say to me ‘Now son, I’m not a very bright man’ — and then he’d lay out some insane wisdom, you know.”
Every interaction he had with his father, Rainey said, was a teaching moment of some sort. That wisdom has guided him through life, and is still with him in the classroom today, he said.
Rainey carried a framed photo of his father with him at the event to honor him in January.
Teacher and philanthropist
In addition to continuing on the tumultuous path that is teaching eighth grade U.S. history, Rainey has launched a nonprofit organization — East County Student Travel — to help pay students’ fees for yearly class trips to Washington, D.C., New York City and a handful of other East Coast landmarks.
Each year, he said, the trip is a fun and informative way to cap off a difficult class. When he started the trips in 2004, it cost about $2,000 per student. Today, it’s around $4,000.
“I’ve always said that if I won the lottery, I would gladly pay out of pocket for students to go on this trip.”
Donations can be made through iQ Credit Union.
Though now moving forward as an award-winning teacher, Rainey continues to applaud his students and colleagues each and every time he’s given the chance.
“I don’t know how I’m ever going to retire,” Rainey said. “The worst day of teaching is still awesome.”