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Giving Back Through Teaching

Sylwia Wdowiak knows a bit about struggling as a student. That's why she joined TC's new teaching residency program

Sylwia Wdowiak knows a bit about struggling as a student. That’s why she joined TC’s new teaching residency program

By David McKay Wilson

As an immigrant from Poland, Sylwia Wdowiak (M.A., ’02) labored with literacy in elementary school, juggling French, Polish and English while adjusting to cosmopolitan Montreal.

Support from educators and family friends touched her deeply and inspired her to devote her career to helping other people.

“My experiences as an immigrant made me sensitive to the struggles of others,” says Wdowiak, 32. “Since I was seven, I was determined to help others when I grew up.”

Wdowiak received her master’s degree in psychology and education from TC in 2002. She counseled children in foster care and worked for nearly seven years in a therapeutic community at Bellevue Hospital with adults with severe mental illness and substance abuse issues.

As a senior rehabilitation counselor, she liked helping patients make life-altering decisions. But climbing the career ladder meant less time with clients—so Wdowiak switched careers, enrolling in Teaching Residents at Teachers College (TR@TC), a 14-month program that places TC students in classrooms with experienced teachers at high-need New York City schools. The program seeks career changers who understand the circumstances of the populations they will serve.

As member of TR@TC’s first cohort, Wdowiak is specializing in secondary inclusive education, which provides preparation in teaching students with learning disabilities. (Other TR@TC tracks include teaching English to speakers of other languages, and teaching students with intellectual disabilities/autism.) Changing careers can be a luxury, but Wdowiak, like all TR@TC students, receives a $22,500 stipend and partial tuition coverage. In exchange, she will teach for at least three years in a high-need New York City school post-certification.

This spring, Wdowiak is working four days a week at Brooklyn’s School for International Studies, which serves grades six to 12. There, she teaches eighth graders English Language Arts and science in a self-contained special-education classroom. Each Friday, she and the other TR@TC students discuss their classroom experiences, ranging from the practicalities of classroom management to the more elusive components of student achievement.

Wdowiak draws on skills she developed as a rehabilitation counselor. She’s sensitive to group dynamics, knows her role in a structure for following rules and can handle students who may become provocative.

“You have to remain cool,” she says. “My reaction shouldn’t be to yell, but to proactively redirect them. I also need to keep in mind what else may be going on in that child’s life.”

As she knows, the answer to that question—in any language—can make a world of difference.

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011