Cindy Gerwin is a dedicated member of IRA who took the long way around to become a classroom teacher. She was inspired to be a teacher by her father, but wound through theater, the business world and the fitness industry before she went back to college and earned a degree in education. She said she’s never once regretted her journey, calling it an exploration of all sides of herself.
Gerwin is president of the Illinois Reading Council, which recently earned the IRA Distinguished Council Award at the Council Leadership Academy. The council was honored for its work in community engagement, teacher empowerment, and public awareness.
How did you begin your career, and what led you to your current position?
I was born in Oak Park, IL, and raised in the Cook County Forest Preserve at a place called the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. The building was originally used in the 1800’s as a one-room schoolhouse to teach the three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic. After the building was moved from its original location in the 1950s, the doors reopened to provide a different type of educational environment—a nature center where visitors could learn about plants and wildlife native to the Cook County area. My dad was the director and caretaker, and he was an incredibly talented speaker. With his biological knowledge of the area and his quick wit, he gave engaging presentations to many school groups. He was my teacher inspiration and role model. For as long as I can remember, I also stood in front of visiting school groups and “taught.” Teaching was in my blood, or so I thought.
After spending several years actively involved in various theatre groups, I came to realize I was imitating my dad’s performance, which wasn’t the same thing as teaching. But, I was still interested in teaching as a profession. I was concerned, however, that I could not provide for a family with a career in teaching, so when it came time for me to choose a career and a college, I chose to pursue a business degree.
I graduated from Eastern Illinois University in 1984 with a bachelor’s in marketing/advertising. My first few years after graduating were spent as a director of marketing in the business industry. I moved to the fitness industry, as both a manager and an instructor and had two children. As my children got older, my thirst to make a difference in the lives of others through teaching brought me back to school. I obtained a master’s in elementary education from Benedictine University, an endorsement in English as a Second Language from National Louis University, and I became a National Board Certified Teacher. I am excited to begin work in January on my Doctorate of Education in literacy at Judson University.
What are you most excited about as president of the Illinois Reading Council?
Literacy teachers across the state know the Illinois Reading Council (IRC) is an organization empowering teachers, and raising community engagement and public awareness. After I was elected vice president of IRC, the executive committee began to realize that although IRC was an excellent organization, the organization had become complacent—losing focus and quickly depleting financial resources. The executive committee analyzed IRC’s current status as an organization, implemented immediate corrective financial action and began strategic planning to ensure its sustainable success. In two short years, IRC is operating with a balanced budget, replenishing depleted reserve funds, and increasing membership. The group organized the most well-attended and profitable annual conference in IRC’s history, and has a renewed sense of direction and purpose. I am so excited and proud to be part of the incredible leadership team that has accomplished so much in a relatively short time, and of the energy for the direction we are heading as an organization. I am excited about IRC’s strategic plans, including increasing membership value, researching the connection between active involvement in a professional organization and student achievement, growing our quality professional development services, increasing productive relationships with administrators, pre-service, and early career teachers, and empowering lives through literacy.
The Little Red Schoolhouse in Oak Park, IL. |
What role does your council play in empowering teachers?
IRC empowers teachers through the quality of professional development we provide our membership, particularly our annual conference. Our conference is one of the largest literacy conferences held in the United States. For many of the downstate teachers who attend our conference, this is the only professional development they can afford and receive throughout the entire year. Teachers often are discussing the conference in their schools and with their students for weeks after.
Our local councils often compliment IRC’s annual conference by providing professional development throughout the year related to the conference theme, which we help support. IRC also empowers teachers with our nationally known quality publications including the IRC Journal, our quarterly newsletter Communicator, and monthly e-newsletter iCommunnicate. As part of our strategic planning, IRC is working towards offering professional development in variety ways utilizing various media formats—our overarching goal is to increase membership value by attending to our membership needs.
How do you raise community awareness and engagement as a council?
IRC raises community awareness and engagement by funding Literacy Support Grants to support teachers and their learning communities as they work towards empowering lives through literacy for all the citizens of Illinois. IRC provides classroom libraries that are culturally diverse through the Obama Library Award and libraries that support rural towns through the Pamela J. Farris Library Award. Many of our statewide special interest councils and local councils also support such projects as the annual Young Authors Conference and various International Projects. The “Illinois Reads” project was launched two years ago with the purpose of getting everyone in Illinois in a “reading state of mind.”
What are you reading (personal, professional, or even children's/YA)?
Professionally, I am reading Falling in Love With Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Personally, I am reading The Maze Runner by James Dashner, which will be released as a movie this fall. My favorite book of all time is Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. When I was little, my dad used to ask me, “How much do you love me?” I would reply, “This much!”—spreading my arms out as wide as they would go. When I read Guess How Much I Love You, it spoke to me. After I had kids (John, 23, and Ashley, 20), I read it to them every night when they were little, we still sometimes read it together. When the kids were little we began what we referred to as our “I Love You book collection.” We created the following saying from the books in our collection that we still repeat to each other multiple times a day, “I love you this much, to the moon and back, forever and ever and always.” I have the Little Nut Browne Hare tattooed on my ankle (I love you this much). My son has the moon on his ankle (to the moon and back,) and my daughter has the infinity symbol on her ankle (forever and ever and always.). Guess How Much I Love You means a lot to my kids and me!
How long have you been a member of IRA? How has membership influenced your career?
If I am reading my records correctly, I became a member of IRA December, 2005, and attended my first IRA conference in downtown Chicago in 2006. When I was working on my Master’s degree, during one of my reading methods courses I was given an assignment to explore various professional literacy organizations and write a two-page paper summarizing what I found. I researched, and joined, IRA. The professor who was teaching the course was a member of IRA, the Illinois Reading Council and Prairie Area Reading Council. She was being asked to step in as president of the Prairie Area Reading Council and inquired if I wanted to join her for PARC’s fall meeting featuring Dick Allington. I went to the meeting, loved Dick Allington, and when the meeting was over, I was the newly elected Vice President of PARC. The rest is history.
What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?
Boy this is a tough question. I would have to say my proudest teaching moment was a moment I had before I officially became a teacher. It is a moment that inspired me to pursue my passion for teaching and it is a moment that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.
When I was in high school, I taught swimming lessons during my summers. It was my senior year and my last year of teaching swimming lessons at the high school before leaving for college to pursue a career in business. A little boy with blonde curly hair and blue eyes (I can still see his face) was there for swimming lessons. He sat in the corner of the deck crying hysterically, so of course no one wanted him in the group they were teaching. I took him into my group, reluctantly. He never left the corner of the deck that day. After the lesson, I talked with his mom. She was desperate. He had nearly drowned has an infant and became hysterical every time he was near water, including bath time. She did not know what else to try. Long story short, I worked with him every day over the summer. And, at the end of our time in the pool together, before I set him back down on the deck, I would always ask him to promise he would come back the next day. He never said a word, he just ran off at the end of each lesson. I taught him to swim, and he grew to love the water by the end of the summer. The last day of class, he appeared with a white rose in his hand and said, “Teacher, I promise I be back next time.” I knew that I played a small role in changing that little boy’s life forever. Even though I have accomplished other things in my teaching career that I am proud of, this moment stays with me and inspires me daily.
What's the best advice you could offer someone new to the profession?
To make a profound impact on the life of another, you have to be a passionate lifelong learner yourself. Today, for many reasons, the odds are stacked against you in the teaching world. Contrary to popular public opinion, teaching is not 9 a.m.-3 p.m. job with summers off—at least good teaching is not. But, if you love what your do, it is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Seeing someone succeed and knowing that you played a small part in that accomplishment is worth all time and effort you put into teaching. Those are the moments that inspire and energize you.
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April Hall is the editor of Reading Today Online. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.