Podcast: Monica in Syracuse, New York, for Teachers in America

On the HMH Learning Moments podcast today, we have our ninth episode of the Teachers in America series. 

Our guest is Monica Fitzgerald, who has taught in the North Syracuse Central School District for 24 years. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked as a weather specialist in the United States Air Force. She received her bachelor’s in Inclusive Elementary/Special Education from Syracuse University, and master’s in Reading from SUNY Oswego. She has experience working as a classroom teacher for grades K–3, a Reading Recovery Teacher, a Reading Teacher for grades K–7, and a Literacy Coordinator. Currently, she teaches reading to vulnerable 7th graders and is working on her second master’s degree in Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation at Syracuse University. Follow Monica on Twitter @nyweathergirl.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Teachers in America host Rose Else-Mitchell and guest Monica Fitzgerald get ready to record.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee. I'm the producer for our podcast, and I'm excited to share today's episode of Teachers in America as host Rose Else-Mitchell, an educator and learning scientist, sits down with Monica Fitzgerald. Monica teaches reading to vulnerable seventh graders and has taught for 24 years in New York State's North Syracuse Central School District. She received her bachelor's in Inclusive Elementary and Special Education from Syracuse University and a master's in Reading from SUNY Oswego. She is currently working on her second master's in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation at Syracuse. Prior to becoming a teacher, Monica worked as a weather specialist in the United States Air Force. In her spare time Monica enjoys reading, golfing, and traveling, and she volunteers for Make a Wish, American Cancer Society, and Honor Flight Syracuse. Now let's hear from Monica and Rose.

Rose Else-Mitchell: Monica, thanks so much for being here. Let's start at the beginning. If you didn't grow up in the United States tell me a little bit about your journey here.

Monica Fitzgerald: My journey, my mother's German. Actually, she's still a German citizen. When I was young, about 5, 6 years old, we came to the United States. I think the most difficult part was my mother spoke mostly German and being in school it's mostly English. So just having that understanding was hard for the teachers at times—not understanding the support I had at home. My father was in the military, so we often switched schools, and I think that was more difficult than trying to figure out what was the difference between being overseas and here. I have traveled all over the world since. So I love visiting other cultures, so that piece of it wasn't very strange for me.

Rose: So how many times did you change schools?

Monica: I probably changed schools around 25, 30 times. [Producer's note: Monica later clarified that she moved about 15-20 times in grades K-9 and another ~5 times from grades 9-12.]

Rose: Wow.

Monica: Yeah. From when I was in kindergarten through 9th grade, and then we settled down.

Rose: How did that affect your learning?

Monica: Looking back it was very difficult. You know, you're in one school, you make friends, and all of a sudden you're moving and it's such short notice. And then when you start another school, the language the teachers are using—at the time I really didn't understand because you're coming in at a different point. You know, everyone else has started the year, so there's kind of a procedure and procedures are in place that the students have learned so they kind of understand that. But I think coming in it's very difficult to understand. And then you're expected to really just go with the flow.

[Producer’s note: At any given time, there are 1.1 children of military families in school. These students will change schools 6-9 times on average. Learn more about how this can affect their schooling.]

Rose: Yeah. It's not just the procedures, though, right? It’s the relationships both with other students. I mean, as you get older the peer group is more important than even your family. But also the all-important relationship with teachers. Did you have teachers that you really felt made you excited about learning?

Monica: I did have one teacher in second grade. Her name was Mrs. Criswell. I remember her being very tough on me, in the sense of her demands were very high. Yet I felt a love from her. And she would give me hugs and greet me, and there was a point in the year at the end when she invited me into her home to make a cake for her high school volunteers. And I remember feeling so important, jumping in her car, going to her house. That moment shaped my life forever. I realized then that she really loved me. It wasn't just she was my teacher, or she was nice and kind and hugging. I felt the love. And the next day when we came into school she allowed me to carry the cake in. She was patient. I remember at one point when we were making the cake, I'd never used beaters before. My mom often worked two jobs; that was very difficult. And I remember the chocolate cake and lifting the beaters out of the bowl and chocolate went everywhere. She was very kind about it. She just said, “no worries.” She just cleaned it up. We moved on. It wasn't a big deal. And then just driving me home. You know, that's a memory I'll have forever, to just, you know, end the year with such a moment in her own home.

Rose: Yeah. These pretty simple moments that you experience as a student and also as a teacher can stick with you forever, and they're really not the moments that are about a piece of content, right? They're not the moments that are necessarily about a grade or even an achievement in an extracurricular activity. They are about being seen. And it sounds like that's what happened.

Monica: Yes, yes. And I think I was very fortunate to have her as a second grader. I had another teacher in high school that had the same love for me. She taught home economics and she had asked me the next year if I would be her student teacher. It made me feel important. It made me feel loved and cared for. And it wasn't about learning or content in that sense, but it was giving me confidence, building my confidence. Knowing that I could succeed at something but also knowing that she trusted me. Which allowed me to trust her.

Monica Fitzgerald with her colleagues, Erika Gilbert and Cynde Ciesla, and podcast host Rose Else-Mitchell.

Rose: So when you left school you didn't go into teaching.

Monica: No, I did not. I did not. And the reason why, school growing up was very difficult. I did have these couple teachers that took me under their wing, but learning was very, very hard for me. It was all on me to bring things home, get my homework done. And I'm pretty sure I didn't really know how to do that. So when I entered high school it didn't come together. As a junior I was faced with my first hard decision in life. I wasn't doing well my junior year, yet the middle schoolers went to camp and that was something I'd wanted to do for a couple of years, like I want to be a counselor for these kiddos. And my guidance counselor—so this was 11th grade going into 12th—and he had said to me, if you do this then you're going to be lacking one of your grades and you're not going to graduate. And that was the first hard decision I had to make. So I had to give something up I really really wanted to do in order to be successful. I love that he came to me and talked to me about that. So again another person that cared for me along the way.

Rose: But that's a very hard decision between something that you felt vocationally connected to, right? I mean, you're a teacher now, you can see the through line from wanting to be a camp counselor to being a teacher and yet somehow that was not aligned or sympathetic with a grading system, right? It makes you concerned about what it really means to be at school and what the point of school is, I'm sure. I mean now that you look back. So you decided to stick with the grades and not be a counselor.

Monica: I did at that time and it served me well. I've lived life with no regrets. I always try to make the best decisions based on the people around me and my heart. It's never served me wrong. After high school I did go into the Air Force. That really helped me grow up and gave me guidance. 

Rose: Did your father want you to do that?

Monica: He did not. But I had grown up in the military, so I understood it more than I understood […]

Rose: Other jobs. Right.

Monica: And I knew I wanted for me something different. I knew if I didn't do something else it would be a hard track for me. I wasn't ready for college and I did know that. So I thought, well, let me do something that I know really well.

Teachers in America guest Monica Fitzgerald.

Rose: And what did you do in the Air Force?

Monica: I was a weather girl [in the Air Force], so I worked in the weather station. And I spent a couple of years in Germany writing out the weather forecasts. It helped me grow up not only personally but also academically, learning in a new way. And then also coming to the realization that people learn at different rates. And it wasn't until after I got out of high school that I really learned how to learn.

Rose: So how do you think that kind of learning was different, how being a weather girl provided this different kind of learning opportunity.

Monica: I don't think it was so much through being a weather girl. I think it was a developmental piece for me. I don't think in that, well, my beliefs are now as students they don't grow in the same way on the same day. Content is not the end-all be-all. And I think it was more a knowledge-based growing up. In high school I really didn't understand. I don't know if anyone really sat down to teach me to learn how to learn. And when I was in weather school and became a weather girl I started noticing things that I hadn't noticed before and that was my big moment to realize, wait a minute, I can do this, I've got this.

Rose: How long were you in the Air Force before you started to make a change and go into teaching?

Monica: I was in the Air Force for six years active duty and I realized I needed to go to college. It was at that moment I knew I was going to be a teacher and I stayed in the Air National Guard for another six years. The G.I. Bill helped me with my education through Syracuse University. For me I feel like it was the best of the best. I was dual certified special ed and elementary. I was fortunate my husband supported me through school. So I had a daughter at the time. And every moment of every class I loved. I loved. And I also knew I had something really big to offer the students I was teaching based on my past experiences because I could feel it in my heart. I just knew that I could make a difference in children's lives. 

[Producer's note: The G.I. Bill was introduced in 1944 to help World War II veterans readjust to civilian life and find financial stability. Learn more about it here.]

Host Rose Else-Mitchell in conversation with Teachers in America guest Monica Fitzgerald.

Rose: Do your students today or any of the kids that you've taught know that you were in the Air Force? Is that something that you share? 

Monica: They do. This past Flag Day I was recognized and asked to sit on the stage with the other veterans that came to our building for Flag Day. Not just my students, but the students in the building now high five me and they greet me. As far as my students go, I'm always very real. They know I always share about myself and my children. I share about the things I like, I share that I was in the Air Force. And I also share my struggles. I think it's important for them to know it's not a straight line from where you are to success, that there are some bumpy roads but it's how you manage them versus just getting to point B. And so I do teach a lot with growth mindset and I'm here to share my experiences with them. 

Rose: Talk a little bit about the students you teach today, because you've got a real focus on literacy and students who are struggling.

Monica: I'm an interventionist so I teach with my colleagues the most vulnerable students. Right now it's all seventh graders. They're in a developmental age where things are changing for them. And I think they have not seen a lot of success. And so working with goals and where they are allows them to grow even more. But there are a lot of bumps in the road and I think for them to not lose their confidence or to get down on themselves, I lift them up as much as I can. Not by just praise but for them to be able to see how talented they are.

Rose: When you're working with a student that's struggling, what specifically—maybe you can come up with a particular student or something that you've done that you feel like has been different and turned the corner for them.

Monica: I think the students are more vulnerable than they were in the past. I think they're faced with more issues in their life with technology and social media and bullying that they're, you know, there's a lot more stressors. So I think number one is just building the relationship and letting them know I'm there and they can trust me and not just always just thinking they need to learn to read or teaching four strategies every moment of every day. Sometimes it is taking a downtime and just saying, “Hey guys, let's have a conversation about this” or “What's going on out there, help me understand. What do you need from me.” I think building that relationship is just probably the number one way that I build trust and can help them. 

Cynde Ciesla, Monica Fitzgerald, and Erika Gilbert enjoying the Model Schools Conference 2019.

Rose: When you take downtime over the summer what do you do to rejuvenate and plan for another year? Because it takes it out of you having those relationships with all of those kids individually and specifically and really trying to reach them. What do you do to fill your bucket?

Monica: There's a few things of course. Well, starting with Model Schools [Conference], it gets me excited already for next year. I do read over the summer. I love to travel. I take time for, whether it's meditation or yoga or going for walks. I think we have to keep ourselves healthy in the sense that, so we're there for the students that we teach. Because I think teachers’ stressors are more so than they have been in the past because of some of the traumas our students have had or things that we've never faced or they've never had to face. And so it weighs heavily on our hearts. 

Rose: Yeah. And obviously continuing your education has been part of what it means for you to grow. So conferences, but also, you've trained as a literacy coordinator and had some of that experience coaching others.

Monica: I have. I have. 

Rose: Talk a little bit about how that's been different from being a teacher. 

Monica: Eight or nine years ago my district sent me to Ohio State University, and I trained under Fountas and Pinnell as a literacy coordinator. It was the first time that I really had a chance to reflect in a new way on my teaching practices. And then to be able to bring it back to the district and coach teachers. We started small with six teachers the first year. We have six elementary buildings. I was K to 2. We really believe in that early intervention piece. So the first year I had six first grade teachers. Our program was 40 hours within the school day over the course of the year. So we talked all balanced literacy. But what was really neat was that whole relationship piece not just me with my students but also me now with the teachers, and then the teachers touching the lives of all the students in their classroom. So I felt like my role actually expanded beyond just me teaching a group of kids. So it is now my influence over six teachers and then six classrooms that they taught. So that was pretty powerful. And I thought what was most powerful is that teachers are very isolated still today. So bringing them together and letting them know there are different ways to do things, not thinking one way is right over the other but it's pretty much your choice. So why did you choose that strategy at that moment in time versus another one. So teachers really hold true to what they believe, and I totally support them 100 percent. So it wasn't that difficult piece, it was more, “Hey, let's have a conversation about this.” And I absolutely loved those conversations. After the three years our district did have some budget cuts and I absolutely fought to keep a piece of the program and I advocated for the kids. I wasn't just one teacher touching one classroom. I was beyond, touching many, many lives.

Rose: So when you think about being a coach versus a teacher, obviously there's the scope and the impact of your reach. But how do you think the day-to-day of the work changes? Like how are those relationships different or the activities or the nature of the conversations that you have different as you're coaching versus teaching. 

Monica: I think it gives the opportunity to lift thinking. You know, my teachers would lift my thinking and they would say something, and I think, wow I never thought of it that way. But I think also it's really hard to come to an understanding about where you need to be next without a coach, although we want to reflect on ourselves. If somebody comes in to watch me teach and then I have some ideas coming together about those conversations, that is so powerful because you actually have two sets of eyes and you can have a conversation about it. 

Rose: And two sets of ears. You know, there's so much in teaching that's about what's said and how it's said, right. And having that opportunity to reflect is a bit of a luxury in the classroom. 

[Producer's note: In an attempt to personalize professional learning for teachers, support integration of technology, and effective use of data, reform efforts such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have supported coaching as an intervention strategy while Title I funding is also now frequently earmarked for instructional coaching programs. Currently, instructional coaches are becoming a standard feature of educational systems with more than 90% of students now enrolled in school districts that employ at least one instructional specialist who provides coaching support (Domina et al., 2015). Learn more about the role of instructional coaches here.

Rose: If you could wave your magic wand and change something about teaching, maybe not your specific context, but for your colleagues or for teachers more broadly in America, what would that be?   

Monica: I think it would be care more and love more the students you teach than the content. The moments in my life that made a huge difference did not, did not come from teaching math or science or I'm not saying those are not important. We want the rigor and we want the relevance but that magical piece of the relationships is so important knowing our students. You don't even have to know the whole story. You need to look at your kids. You can listen to them and know something might not be right. But unless we stop and take the time then we're not going to have the opportunities to really make them feel loved and cared for, which allows us to do the harder work of the academics.

Rose Else-Mitchell and Monica Fitzgerald

Rose: I think we often think about covering content and meeting the standards and we teach standards. We don't teach children. So I think that's super good advice and a great wish. If you could send a message to your younger self and perhaps yourself when you either first started teaching or even when you first left school, what would that message be?

Monica: It would be, keep the confidence, you'll be OK. There's going to be bumps in the road. It's not so much always having a straight shot at it but how do you navigate those little bumps. And I think for me I didn't realize that growing up. But I think I would want myself to know, hey, you know there's bumps you learn from the bumps and you move on. It's not, it's not always going to be easy. Whether it's outside of school, inside of school, that's the advice I'd give myself. 

Rose: Good, keep the confidence. Yes, a good one and a great one to share with your students. Well, I hope you have a fantastic summer and come back for a great 2019-2020, another fabulous year with your seventh graders.

Monica: Yes. Oh thank you so much.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. You can join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. That's hmhco.com/shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen to podcasts. Stay tuned for future episodes of Teachers in America including an upcoming interview with Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. We hope you enjoyed today's show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening. 

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Research for this piece includes contributions from Joanna MiralShaped staff.

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