What’s it like to go from a three-decades career in business to an elementary school in Cheshire?
Just ask Kathy Wilson.
“I went from this very toxic environment … to Disneyland,” she says, a wide smile forming across her face.
Wilson, a non-certified “learning support teacher” (LST) at Chapman School, is described by Principal Diana Burns affectionately as a “superstar.” Her job is to help where help is needed, specifically as a literacy coach aiding students who struggle with reading.
Using data, scientifically proven methods, and just gut instinct, Wilson is there to help a child master the language … and hopefully instill a passion for learning along the way.
“We don’t just learn to read. As (the students progress) they read to learn, so this is vital (to their success),” said Wilson.
Speaking with Wilson, her love for education seeps through. Whether talking about the teamwork nature of her job or the respect she has for teachers who put in “countless hours” away from the classroom to do their jobs right, it’s clear Wilson has found more than a profession: She’s found a calling.
But teaching wasn’t always in the cards for her.
Having developed an interest in education at a young age, Wilson found herself with a difficult decision to make when entering college in the late 1970s. With far more aspiring teachers than there were jobs available, the “glut” of prospective educators minimized the likelihood of finding employment.
So Wilson focused on language arts while attending the University of Connecticut, but after only a few months determined it was not for her. She then turned her attention to business and, after graduating from UConn with degrees in finance, embarked on a 30-year career in private industry.
Eventually, however, Wilson found herself at another crossroads. Approximately a decade ago, the company for which she was working underwent “a culture change,” and Wilson was informed that her position had been eliminated.
“I said, OK, I have to find another job,” she recalls, “but then one day I just said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
It was around that time a friend of Wilson’s, someone who had made the transition from the business world to education, suggested a similar path forward for Wilson. She mentioned that a non-certified position had opened up in Cheshire and recommended that Wilson apply.
She did … but didn’t get the job.
“But then, another position opened up and I got that one,” said Wilson. “I actually started in Doolittle (in 2009) and it was so completely invigorating.”
Going from the private sector to public education was like “trying to drink from a fire hose,” Wilson admits. Yet, while so much of what she had to learn about her new profession was foreign to her, Wilson was able to use several of her business-world skills to aid in the transition.
“I’m a very analytical person,” said Wilson, “and that helps in trying to figure out why a student may be struggling (with reading). I had experience managing projects. I had experience managing people.”
“Did I have to learn a lot when I first started? Yes,” she continued. “But we are very fortunate in Cheshire to have a great reading program. We have a great reading expert — Pat Castle — who I really regard as a mentor. Still, to this day, she continues to be a person who, if I am stumped, I’ll go to for advice. She has been incredible.”
For Wilson’s part, the gratifying nature of her job comes from her interactions with students and those moments when the “light” goes on. She recalls one particular student, of whom she was told “good luck.” After working with the child for a brief time, Wilson realized he was highly intelligent, and she just needed to figure out a way to “crack the code.”
“I asked him what his goal was before leaving the first grade,” Wilson remembered, “and he said he wanted to read a particular book. So I said, ‘OK, that’s your goal. You will be able to read this book.’”
“Well, not only did he read that one book,” Wilson explained, “he read all of them (in the series).”
Knowing how exactly to motivate students is part of the challenge for Wilson, as each student is different. Some are quiet, others boisterous, and the trick is using all the data and personal experience to know how to best reach a child.
It also takes teamwork, Wilson admitted, stressing that, in order for a student to truly progress, both she and the classroom teacher she is aiding have to be on the same page. “The teacher has to know what I am doing. I have to know what the teacher is doing. There has to be that kind of collaboration,” said Wilson.
“It really does take a village,” she continued. “It’s not just me. It’s everyone coming together to help a child.”
That teamwork and collaboration was put to the test the last year as COVID-19 upended the traditional education model. When Cheshire sent students home to remote learn in March of 2020, Wilson found herself no longer interacting one-on-one with her students but, instead, over video.
“I was really focused in on being dynamic on the screen,” she said. “You have to perform a little. You have to keep their interest.”
“Being (remote), it was difficult because you don’t get all the subtle (cues) you do when with the students,” she continued. “You don’t get how they are doing today or all these other things that really impact how successful you are going to be (in reaching the students).”
Wilson continued to work remotely for some time last year, and when she was ready to return to the class, she worried about how that transition would go. “I was a little worried as to how I was going to transition from being on screen to being in front of them,” she said. “I was amazed at how quickly I bonded with them. The quality of the instruction, it’s just much better (in-person).”
Now with over a decade of experience as a literacy coach and educator, Wilson finds herself in a unique position of offering advice to younger educators, one of whom happens to be her daughter.
Early on, as her daughter adjusted to a difficult environment at a charter school, Wilson offered perspective.
“I reminded her that, for some of those kids, the time they spend with you may be the best part of their day,” she advised. “It’s up to you to make it the best part of their day.”
“Teacher’s work so hard,” she continued. “People don’t see it, all the planning and the prep. I would just advise (new) teachers to remember, you can’t do everything and sometimes you’re going to have a bad day, but just to come back the next day ready to make a difference in a child’s life.”