The Learning Curve
Second-year Greater Chicago–Northwest Indiana corps member Francesca Sigmond shares her experience—and the learning curve—of beginning her teaching career in a pandemic.
May 20, 2022
We interviewed second-year corps member Francesca Sigmond about what kept her coming back every single day and how she became motivated to continue working toward ending educational inequity beyond her corps commitment.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: What and where do you teach?
Francesca Sigmond: I teach 10th grade geometry at Englewood Stem High School in Chicago.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: Where did you grow up?
Francesca Sigmond: I grew up in the Chicago area, north of the city, in Deerfield.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: Did you want to stay in the Chicago area?
Francesca Sigmond: Yeah, I felt really called to come back to the Chicago area and specifically to work in the city of Chicago, based on my undergraduate experience in Nashville. Family and a love for the Chicago community has brought me back.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: You studied in Nashville?
Francesca Sigmond: I studied special education at Vanderbilt in Nashville and part of my coursework involved a lot of field work in the community in a variety of settings. And that was when the inequities that exist in education were first called to my attention. I was connected with TFA corps members who were serving in Nashville at the time and it really called me to the work of education equity. I wanted to return to Chicago and make sure every student had a great teacher.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: What was your experience as a student growing up?
Francesca Sigmond: I loved school growing up. I knew I wanted to be a teacher from a very young age, as long as I can remember, honestly. And then when I was in high school, I got involved in special education and I knew I wanted to become a special education teacher based on some interactions I had with classmates and family members. Overall I really loved school, but I noticed that that wasn't true for everybody. I thought I could bring that frame to my work as a teacher and try to make the classroom a place that serves everyone to the best extent we can.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: How did those experiences make you reconsider your own upbringing?
Francesca Sigmond: I had the tools I needed to not just get through school, but excel in school. I had a really positive experience and the biggest part of that was the teachers I had along the way. They were phenomenal. And I had lots of extracurricular resources that ensured I had this love for learning. That all came really easy and naturally to me and I got to go into a field that I've just felt so passionate about. But I knew many of my classmates growing up didn't necessarily have the same experiences. When I was working in Metro Nashville public schools, I noticed the student literacy rate or their access to materials and I realized the importance of making sure students had access to materials that were reflective of their own identities. I'm passionate about working toward ending educational inequity within a large, complex system. All the things we hope for in a student, it's unachievable without a lot of different people working together to get it done. That’s why I continue to do the work I do.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: So you always wanted to be a teacher. Why did you choose TFA?
Francesca Sigmond: That’s a great question. I chose the path of TFA because I had connected with a recruiter on my campus who convinced me that TFA is part of a coalition that will get this work done. I wanted to find that community going into my first years of teaching. And it wound up being the most invaluable thing, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn't know when I accepted my offer that COVID-19 would be a part of my first year of teaching but the community that TFA has provided along the way has been the most strengthening. There are days that teaching is not easy and I have a whole community to lean on.
“I didn't know when I accepted my offer that COVID-19 would be a part of my first year of teaching but the community that TFA has provided along the way has been the most strengthening.”
I am especially thankful for the other corps members at my school. We’re so tight. We connected on so many levels and we all have different expertise in what we work in. I found my roommates through TFA and being able to lean on them as teachers who work in other disciplines, or even in grad school, it was a major source of connection for me in a time where it was hard to feel connected to a lot of people, especially when we were online teaching and working from home.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: You joined in a very tough year. That must have been really difficult. Can you tell me about someone that you look up to, someone who inspires you to do this work?
Francesca Sigmond: One person that I look up to at my school is my instructional coach. She's been a real mentor to me and has shown me that she believes in my abilities. She welcomes failure and trial and error and that has been huge in my development as a teacher and as a leader this year. I also greatly look up to my co-teacher. The two of us are on the same wavelength. I love teaching with her. We communicate really well. The way that students look up to her gives me the best feeling and that I get to be a part of that. And since she's the math content expert and I work more in the special ed space, she has taught me so much about being a great math educator and why math can be exciting and relevant and fun. She really just goes out of her way to make sure everyone in the school community thrives. So I'm really grateful for her.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: How do you start your day?
Francesca Sigmond: I like to get to school bright and early. I love the feeling of being at school when it's super quiet in the hall. It’s such a contrast to the hustle and bustle of a passing period. Getting to work early has helped me set some boundaries with work, which I think are really important. I start my day with some music and checking some stuff off my to-do list, and just bringing my head and body to the space and centering myself.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: Can you share something that inspired or energized you this year?
Francesca Sigmond: There's been a lot over the past two years. One story that comes to mind is making sure every student gets what they need. In a special education classroom, that looks different for each and every student. I have one student who has gone out of his way this year to request time to meet with me outside of class to go over material together. The 50 minutes of instructional time I got with him every day was enough practice and opportunities to perform for this particular student with his particular learner profile, but his initiative to go out of his way and make that connection and advocate for himself and become someone who I eat lunch with multiple times a week and talk about math and ensure his success. That was a huge source of connection for me.
I’m also struck by the vast difference between what teaching and learning in person is like versus what teaching and learning looked like online last year. It has filled me with gratitude to be able to juxtapose last year, when we learned about the same topic online and discovering the differences in timing and student performance and what we're able to achieve together and the projects we're able to do. We've done some really creative projects in person. And when I reflect back, I think about how that wouldn't necessarily be possible online. I was recently looking at this picture of a mural in our school and it energizes me to know that I get to go to school every day and I get to share space with the students. I get to learn alongside them and connect with them and get to know them in those in between moments—which are so important.
“I’m also struck by the vast difference between what teaching and learning in person is like versus what teaching and learning looked like online last year.”
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: Such huge adjustment to make from teaching online to in-person.
Francesca Sigmond: There were some like silver linings. One particular student thrived in the online setting and she got to manage her own schedule and get her stuff done on her own time, which is something that, when we’re back in the school, on a bell schedule, we can't accommodate for that. But it gives me perspective on what students might need. I really took a lot of community building last year to make sure we all felt in a space to learn.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: So if you had to summarize your experience of being a corps member, what would you say?
Francesca Sigmond: That is a tough one. It's been so all over the place—in a good way. There have been so many highs and lows. I will say like the second year of teaching—maybe it's being in person or maybe it's being a second year teacher—is exponentially easier and smoother than that first year of teaching. There were moments, especially in my first year, that I didn't think I could do it and I wanted to quit. I didn't think I was the right person to provide our students with what they needed. There were times I got down on myself, especially being in the online space all the time. It was very isolating from other staff members and I am so glad I had a community, not only TFA, but also my friends and family to lean on during those times.
When we returned in person this year, it felt like the first time our school building was full of students, which was so joyful and came with its challenges. We had all been in our own spaces for a whole year. I really feel grateful to call so many of my colleagues friends and I have personal and professional support in the building. That support is the only reason I can say I'm still here right now. I absolutely love my job and learning how to deal with the emotional energy it takes to be a teacher and just all the different responsibilities you have to manage but there’s a learning curve. I'm lucky that my school has really high expectations for their teachers to meet and that there is a really high level of support for their teachers. I've really thrived in that environment while making adjustments along the way. It can be challenging to hold the experiences of—I see about 50 students throughout the day—50 different experiences. The good and the bad and everything they bring to the classroom. It wasn’t always easy but ultimately, the support I got through Teach For America, my family members, and my students kept me here every day.
“It wasn’t always easy but ultimately, the support I got through Teach For America, my family members, and my students kept me here every day.”
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Francesca Sigmond: That's an exciting question. I'm staying at my school next year. I feel very connected to the community I work in and my students in Englewood. I will also be starting a doctoral program for educational psychology in the fall. So in five years, I see myself almost graduating with my doctorate and I intend to return to Chicago Public Schools as an educational psychologist in special education, but more in assessment and diagnosis.
Whitney Stoepel-Brewer: That’s so exciting!
Francesca Sigmond: I feel so fortunate that I can pursue what I'm really passionate about and continue to build relationships and community and continue to spend more time around young people.