It didn’t take Virginia Kelly long to experience the impact a good teacher can have on her students.
A 2012 graduate of Elmhurst, Kelly was in her first teaching job when one of her students at Bellwood’s McKinley Elementary School told her that she dreaded classroom reading assignments. So Kelly went to work. She convinced the girl to try an audio version of the popular comic novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid. When the girl responded to the book’s goofy humor, Kelly followed up with more book suggestions, this time in print versions. Before long, the girl was picking out books to read on her own—and declaring that reading had become her favorite school subject.
“To be able to help a student like that is such a great feeling,” Kelly says. “You hear teachers say what a rewarding job teaching is, but I never expected to have that kind of feeling right away.”
Kelly has now moved on to a new job, teaching fifth-graders at Chicago’s Providence St. Mel School, but she’s still making a difference in the lives of her students. Providence St. Mel is an academically rigorous private school, where parents play an active role in their children’s education and where 100 percent of graduating seniors go on to college. But the school’s strong academic reputation notwithstanding, Kelly’s students sometimes need a little extra motivation. So each morning she waits outside her classroom to greet her neatly uniformed fifth-graders as they arrive. Her first job of the day, Kelly says, is to put smiles on the faces of her students.
“I want to liven up their spirits if they’re looking a little tired,” she explains. “We need enthusiasm.”
And if she has to, she’ll share a story or two about her own days as a student. As a grade-schooler growing up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, Kelly admits, she was herself a reluctant reader. But that was before her dedicated sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, introduced her to the Goosebumps series of children’s books by R.L. Stine. Kelly then moved on to the Sweet Valley High books, and before long she was a constant presence at the local library, looking for new reading adventures.
“I think it helps to let students know that their teachers understand what they’re going through, and that some of us struggled with school, too,” she says.
Kelly never forgot the lessons she learned in grade school. Years later, when she was studying elementary education at Elmhurst, she gathered much-needed school supplies to donate to her old school, Mt. Vernon Elementary. Kelly explains that she believed it was important for her to help give students at the financially stressed school the resources they needed. It was one way for Kelly to repay the school for the lessons she learned there.
At Elmhurst, Kelly worked in the Niebuhr Center and credits the staff there with helping her thrive in college. She calls getting involved with the Niebuhr Center “the best decision I’ve ever made.” She was part of a group of students from the center that traveled to Senegal, an experience that she likes to describe to her Providence-St. Mel students. But just as important as that overseas experience, she says, were some of her Niebuhr Center activities closer to home, like the center’s service projects in impoverished and violence-torn neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side.
“Elmhurst’s campus is such a peaceful place, and it was so important for us to experience that reality outside our comfort zones, and to go into other communities,” she says.
Kelly recalls conversations with homeless men and women during one service project that changed the way she thought about the problem of homelessness. “When you are able to sit down with people and eat with them the way we did, you can learn from them,” she says.
And that, the young teacher knows, is a lesson worth sharing.