In memory of her brother, Rochester teacher fights for all her students

Gretchen Lewis is the Post Bulletin Teacher of the Month for January. Nominate your favorite teacher with the attached form in the story.

Gretchen Lewis, a third-grade teacher at Riverside Central Elementary in Rochester, helps Benjamin Gomez with a math game on Friday, March 10, 2023.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — Gretchen Lewis has the name Louie James tattooed on her arm. It's written in a childish script, as if composed by someone just learning how to write. It's the name of her brother who died in 2017. It's his handwriting.

Lewis is a third-grade teacher at Riverside Central Elementary, located near the heart of Rochester. Year after year, she's been creating the kind of classroom environment she and Louie never had.

"When people ask me why I became a teacher, it's because of students like my brother," Lewis said. "And for students like me."

Lewis hated school when she was young. she hated it for what she went through. She hated it for what her brother went through. She was severely bullied, and Louie had special needs in a small town during a time when there wasn't as much awareness or support for students in his position.

But, the negativity didn't just come from other students. A teacher once told her on picture day that she looked hideous.


After graduating from high school, Lewis started to go into cosmetology before realizing that wasn't the right fit. She didn't think she'd be able to achieve a higher education.

Ultimately, though, her sister convinced her to venture into the world of teaching. She first became a special education paraprofessional at John Marshall High School before landing at Riverside Central. She hasn't turned back ever since.

Even though Lewis isn't focused on special education anymore like she was at John Marshall, she has students within her classroom that received specialized services throughout the day. She enjoys having that mix of students in her classroom.

In addition to becoming the kind of teacher her students can look up to, she's also trying to foster a class environment where students help each other. So, she encourages them to ask each other for help before coming to her.

Riverside Central Elementary third-grade teacher Gretchen Lewis has the name "Louie James" tattooed on her arm in remembrance of her late brother. She says she became a teacher for students like him.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

"I love having kiddos that have special learning needs," she said. "I want all students to accept all students. And I want all students to want to be in school."

Special education or not, she's tried to make as much of a difference for her students as possible. One year, she felt she needed more time with a student, so she followed her class to the fourth grade before eventually returning to third years later.

And even now, long after adults have returned to a normal life after COVID, Lewis is still working to catch her students up from that detrimental experience.

Hopefully, Lewis' students won't have to realize just how positive her classroom is by comparison with something inferior. Hopefully, they'll think of that as nothing but the norm. But for at least one student, Lewis has already been the turning point.


Kristi Urban described how Lewis helped her daughter, Anya, "feel special, loved, smart and capable."

"My daughter experienced a lot of academic and personal growth due to Ms. Lewis believing in her and encouraging her," Urban wrote in an email. "(She) went from not wanting to got to school each day to looking forward to school everyday."

Interestingly, the name tattooed on Lewis' arm wasn't her brother's actual name. It was Greg. But somewhere along the way, he decided to go by the name Louie instead.

When he was born, their parents were told he probably wouldn't live beyond a year. If he did, they were told he'd probably have to be put in a home.

Gretchen 1.jpg
Gretchen Lewis, a third-grade teacher at Riverside Central Elementary in Rochester, speaks with Christian Allgood during an assignment on Friday, March 10, 2023.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

In spite of all that, he went on to be able to assert an identity for himself, to beat the odds and live until he was 35 years old.

Although their lives looked very different, Lewis has been able to master a similar challenge. In spite of all the negativity she remembers from school, she returned as a teacher. She found a way to assert her own identity instead of listening to the voices that told her otherwise.

"I teach for him because he did it," Lewis said about her brother Louie. "And I teach for students who can't stand up for themselves."

Teacher of the Month winners receive a certificate, flowers and a $50 gift card to Townies Grill'd Philly Subs and More . Students of the winner receive Dippin Stix from Reichel Foods and a certificate for a free kid's meal from Townies.


Nominate your favorite teacher by downloading and mailing the form below:

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or
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