How This Educator Inspired Her Father’s Teaching Journey
Anna Pietrantonio knew she wanted to teach to inspire the next generation. Unexpectedly, she inspired her dad to leave his law career to do the same.
Frank Pietrantonio, a 2021 Washington, D.C., Teach For America corps member and seasoned lawyer on the brink of retirement, found his life's purpose in the most unexpected place—his daughter's classroom. Frank’s decision to shift gears from a successful law career to the classroom was heavily influenced by his daughter Anna's commitment to her students. Frank and Anna Pietrantonio, who was a 2014 Milwaukee corps member, first shared their unconventional story at an annual gala for Teach For America D.C. This remarkable father-daughter tale unveils a shared passion for education that transcends generations.
Join us as we delve into their inspiring journey of teaching, learning, and the profound impact of unwavering dedication.
The Spark: Motivation to Teach
Visiting Anna's classroom in Milwaukee during her Teach For America tenure, Frank witnessed the immense dedication of teachers who were striving to provide quality education despite resource limitations. He found himself moved by Anna's commitment to her students and her relentless efforts to uplift their lives. "I had to think about my high school experience and how it led me to my college experience. Anna was creating those experiences for her students. To see her devote that same level of commitment to others was really inspiring," Frank said.
Anna's deep-rooted passion for teaching was evident from a young age. "I love that 'aha' moment when somebody gets something that you're teaching them," she said. Her initial experience was as a swim teacher during high school, where she transformed non-swimmers into confident swimmers. This fueled her desire to make a lasting impact in students' lives. “The kids couldn't swim at all,” she said. They didn't know how to blow bubbles. By the end of it, they were swimming laps. I love that connection of being able to help somebody realize something they weren't able to do before.”
A Purpose-Driven Decision: The Beginning of Frank and Anna's Teaching Journey
Anna's commitment to service-oriented values was nurtured by her parents. Their focus on sharing opportunities with others led her to becoming a swim instructor, where she taught students from D.C. public schools at her private school. That translated to her time teaching in Mississippi through a program led by a Teach For America alum. Her experience exposed her to stark disparities that extended beyond the realm of education. “Mississippi was pretty formative,” she shared. “I had learned about inequities in history classes. I was living in a town that didn't have a grocery store. I was teaching in an even tinier town that had one place to buy food. I was seeing the inequities that were not only in education but also in the lifestyle that kids were experiencing.”
This experience fueled her curiosity in Teach For America, as she witnessed education's potential to open doors for underserved students. The support of Teach For America's alumni network and their dedication to addressing long-term educational disparities inspired Anna to eventually continue her educational journey by joining the Milwaukee corps in 2014.
For Frank, the transition to teaching was gradual. After consulting a coach to explore his post-law career options, he realized his passion lay in mentoring and teaching. That notion gained momentum as he observed Anna's unwavering commitment to teaching beyond her initial Teach For America commitment.
"By this time, Anna was in her third year in Milwaukee. She stayed on after her TFA commitment. That made a real impression on me," he explained. Frank's path to teaching, shaped by his daughter's dedication and his own desire for meaningful impact, eventually led him to Teach For America. He recognized the potential to make a significant difference in the community through TFA's placement in areas with pressing educational needs.
Lessons Learned and Shared: Insights From the Classroom
Thinking about their teaching journeys, both Anna and Frank spoke about the lessons they've learned from their students. They emphasize the importance of humility, reflection, acknowledging mistakes, and seeking continuous improvement.
Frank underscored the need to recognize students' diverse life experiences. “The law profession lacks racial, economic, and educational diversity—it was fairly homogeneous,” Frank explained. “With my students, I realized the life stories behind how each of the students learn helps me understand how to relate to those students. How best do you empathize, connect with, plug into that diversity of life stories? To do that, I had to remove the implicit biases that crept in.”
Frank was also humbled by the impact genuine care and concern could have on students. “The math was going OK, but to have kids come up and say, ‘Mr. P., it's so clear you really care. We see you're invested in us.’ That's awesome! That's when I felt like I was having some sort of impact,” he reflected.
Anna's students taught her the value of embracing diverse learning styles and the importance of individuality in education. "My students have taught me that there's more than one right way to do things," she acknowledged. Adapting her teaching methods to accommodate diverse learning styles challenged her and enriched her teaching approach. “Approaching problems from different angles and giving kids the opportunity to solve things their way teaches me things in the process.”
Frank agreed. “You have to be able to explore the things you learned from your kids to make your next lesson better. Where you sit there and go, ‘Ooh! That was a great question. That led me down this road, which helped a bunch of kids. I should incorporate a question like that.’ If you don't approach it with humility, you're going to limit your overall ability to have an impact,” he said.
“With my students, I realized the life stories behind how each of the students learn helps me understand how to relate to those students. How best do you empathize, connect with, plug into that diversity of their life stories? ”
Community Uplift: Support Amid Challenges
Anna and Frank's bond extends beyond familial ties. The father-daughter duo's unwavering support for each other has been a cornerstone of their teaching journeys. Regular phone calls and conversations provided them with outlets to process challenges, swap teaching strategies, share successes, and offer guidance. Anna also helped Frank navigate pedagogical changes during his transition to teaching, demonstrating the strength of their bond.
“I was struggling during pre-service,” Frank explained. “When I was learning in school, it was all about being lectured at. In pre-service, it was all about active learning. Like, here's five minutes. Go talk about this topic. Come back and let’s sum up what you did. Now, I realize those things are important for the classroom. But before, they were so foreign to me, so I rebelled because it felt incredibly uncomfortable. Being able to have weekly calls with Anna to unpack things was really helpful.”
Teach For America played a pivotal role in shaping both Frank and Anna's teaching paths. Anna's experience in Milwaukee's Teach For America corps was marked by dedicated teacher development leaders who provided valuable support and pushed her to excel.
“I had an amazing corps experience in Milwaukee!” she said. “My two coaches during my time in the corps provided different supports and pushed me in different ways to become a better teacher. They had good ideas of how to support me and they were always there. They were ready when I needed to call them in October the first year because it was really hard. I'm really grateful for that experience.”
For Frank, Teach For America's in-person programs and coaching enriched his teaching journey by connecting him with like-minded educators and helping him navigate the challenges of addressing educational disparities. “It grounded me as to what we're really there for. It's not just about the subject matter; it's about addressing the inequities kids experience,” he said. “Keeping that in the forefront is important. Navigating that with coaches and being able to say, ‘I hit a snag.’ And having the coaches go, ‘What if you twist it a little this way? Maybe that might work.’ is helpful. I don't think I would have made it otherwise.”
A Full Circle of Impact: Reciprocity in Learning
For Anna, observing her father's growth as an educator was inspiring. She admired his investment in the school community beyond teaching and noted his involvement in extracurricular activities like the school band. After a series of conversations about music, students asked Frank to help them start a music club. In response, he stood in as the de facto sponsor until they could get a permanent teacher.
“He has the chops to do this because he's in a band with his high school friends,” Anna said. “They play a lot of music too, so this is not just a random choice by these students!”
Frank, in turn, marveled at Anna's development as a teacher as she embarked on her 10th year of teaching. Frank couldn't help but express his awe at her growth over the past decade. He acknowledged the transformative journey from being an active parent to watching his daughter flourish into an exceptional educator. His pride in her unwavering dedication to students and selfless commitment to addressing educational inequities shone through as he shared his admiration. "The many students' lives you've touched is mind-blowing," Frank said.
The story of Frank and Anna Pietrantonio is a testament to the transformative power of education, familial bonds, and the shared commitment to service.
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