Inspiring the next generation of educators
February 2014—story by CCE staff writer Jenny Morgan, photo by Sandra Costello
Robert Siudzinski never meant to be an educator.
He was, in fact, adamantly opposed to the idea for most of his early life. “When you come from a family of 14 teachers, your Thanksgiving dinners are always about ‘my kids’ and new school policies.’ I wanted to be a cowboy or an astronaut or anything else.”
Yet there’s only so much one can do to stave off the inevitable. Almost immediately after graduating from college, he found himself being asked—repeatedly—to teach. Siudzinski, who most recently was the assistant professor and coordinator of secondary education at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, has a resume that reads like an educator checklist: classroom teacher, corporate trainer, researcher, college professor. “When I look back, all the dots connect to education,” he admits. Today, Siudzinski is helping to connect the dots for aspiring educators at Amherst College as the director for Careers in Education Professions.
Siudzinski’s position is the first of its kind at Amherst, and it’s part of a larger initiative to “professionalize teaching,” says Charles Ashby Lewis ’64. Lewis, together with his wife Penny Bender Sebring, has helped to establish education professions programs at Amherst College, the University of Chicago, and Grinnell College through the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation.
For Lewis, improving public education is an imperative with both social justice and economic implications. “Without more deeply and broadly educating our young people, the income gaps will persist, and our ability to compete globally will continue to be hampered,” he says. While the problems facing public education are “multidimensional”, Lewis is hopeful that these programs will address at least one major problem in public education: talented teachers often leave the classroom after only a few years. “The programs assist high-performing students who have a predilection to teach and help them first explore teaching,” he explains. “Then the programs will help scaffold them into an authentic teaching career.”
Enter Siudzinski, whose early aversion to education has long since morphed into a contagious enthusiasm. Situated between the Career Center and the Center for Community Engagement, Siudzinski serves as an advisor for all things education: careers, internships, and community-based opportunities. After being on campus only part-time in the fall, Siudzinski transitioned to full-time this January—and he’s hit the ground running. Over Interterm, he facilitated Rethinking Education, a course on solving actual problems in public education. He’s also busy growing Amherst’s cohort in the Education Professions program, and this spring he’ll take the group to the Rural Education Summit at Grinnell College. Amherst, Grinnell, and the University of Chicago take turns hosting an annual education summit⎯last year was the Urban Education Summit in Chicago, and Amherst is slated to host one in 2015.
Siudzinski shares Lewis’ commitment to preparing Amherst graduates for authentic teaching careers. The most common question he gets from students is “whether or not teaching might be a fit,” Siudzinski says. He wants students actively and thoughtfully exploring this question. “As a believer in experiential education, I want students to take their interests to the next level. I try to get students in the shoes of teachers,” he says. “I want to prepare Amherst students to have a meaningful impact.”
Now in its second year, the Education Professions program is beginning to take shape. With Siudzinski at the helm and the program’s extended network, it’s an exciting time for education at Amherst. Siudzinski hopes students in the program will take advantage of the opportunity to “cross-pollinate” across disciplines and within the network. Among his goals are to create experiences that "get our students collaborating and exploring, and not just doing what they’ve always done, but in that vulnerable spot of test driving innovative approaches.”
Siudzinski advises aspiring educators to take their time both in- and outside of the classroom—something he’s learned along the way, too. “Even the best laid lesson plans fail. Education and development take time,” he says. “And life is rarely linear.”
Solid advice from the Siudzinski family’s fifteenth educator.