Learning from Experience 

CPS teacher comes through difficult year with help from her students

November 10, 2011

After being taken out of private school, student John W. Carpenter III continued the last seven months of 6th grade at Woodlawn Community Elementary School. He entered his new school with a trail of failing grades behind him, especially in math.


His mother, Naomi Gibson, was understandably worried. "It was a big expense sending him to that private school, and they just didn't seem as interested as I was in what we could do to improve his performance. I got to a point when I felt they were just taking my money. That's when I decided to try Woodlawn, a Chicago public school," Gibson said.


Seven months later, Carpenter left Woodlawn a completely different boy, loving school, enjoying learning and proud of his much improved grades, especially in math. So much improved, in fact, that now, at his current school, he's a strong candidate for advanced placement math.


Although it may sound like it, what happened to Carpenter to effect such a change was no miracle. It was all thanks to his 6th grade teacher, Nathalia Washington, an 18-year veteran educator known for her dedication to doing whatever is necessary to help children learn and succeed.


"When I spoke to Miss Washington the first time, I told her about the issues my son was having at the last school, and how worried I was about his failing grades," said Gibson. "Miss Washington took it all in, and then said, 'We have a lot of work to do, a lot, but we're going to get it done,' and I believed her."


Soon the boy, who had cried every day for the last six years because he dreaded going to school, was instead eager and excited to get there each morning. When his mother asked him why, he said that he loved the school and he loved his teacher.


The year that Carpenter was in her class was a difficult one for Washington. By that time, she had already been battling cancer for nearly five months. She was diagnosed with the disease in March 2010, and soon after started thrice-weekly chemotherapy treatments that lasted until May 2011. Before the chemo ended, she was receiving radiation treatments in the evenings after school. Rather than try to hide or explain away her illness, Washington was honest with her students about what she had and what she was going through.


Gibson saw Washington's honesty as a plus. "I think her being straight with the kids about what was going on helped them learn compassion and empathy, and that when something like this happens, it's important to face it, get through it and move on. I believe it made them better kids and will make them better adults," said Gibson.


She also noted how it helped strengthen the bond between Washington and her students as well as among the students themselves. "The kids really gelled with each other, even my son who came to the class after the others. They supported each other in doing well, because they all wanted Miss Washington to be proud of them," Gibson said.


A student in Washington's class, Paula Clayburn, who is now at Canter Middle School, confirmed how touched Washington's students were by her sharing her illness with them. "She inspired me to do my best, because I wanted to make her feel better. Even though she was sick, she still wanted to be there, and she still wanted us to succeed, which we did," she said.


"My students were with me all the way," confirmed Washington. "I told my students that I couldn't do a lot of the extra things because I wasn't feeling 100 percent, and that they needed to help each other, especially when I couldn't be there," Washington said. "The parents were very supportive as well. It was a real blessing. We all worked together as a team."


Washington is still bothered by the days that she had to miss. "I was out more days during this illness than I was over the last 18 years combined," she said.


It seems she more than made up the lost time, however, according to Gibson. "She was at the school on Saturdays from 9 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon to talk to parents and help the children with their studies. She also gave us parents her cell phone number to call her if we needed anything. In fact, she worked with my son several times on the phone," she said.


The hard work of everyone paid off big. Washington's 2010-2011 6th grade class scored in the 95th and 90th percentile in reading and math, respectively, on the Illinois Student Achievement Test.


Like Carpenter, Clayburn herself did well in Washington's class, especially in math. In fact, at her new school, her math teacher is so impressed with her work that he asked her who previous teacher had been. "I told him, and he said that he wishes all his students could have had Miss Washington," she said.


To Gibson, her experience at Woodlawn has made her a "big advocate" of the Chicago Public Schools; so much so that she pulled her pre-school-aged son out of private school and enrolled him in Woodlawn this school year. Her niece followed.


When asked about "how she does it," Washington's explanation is simple. "It's all about the students doing well. There's no one right way to teach. Each class is different, each student is different. You have to find out what works and do it," she said.


"I tell my students to believe in themselves," she continued. "We all have different strengths, and we need to make the most of them. I also tell them that they are in charge of their own destinies. They are accountable to themselves to do well," she said, acknowledging that for some students, it might be the first time they've heard something like that.


"The students respected Miss Washington a lot, and really listened to what she had to say. She taught them the importance of having a good work ethic and doing their absolute best," said Gibson.


Providing an example of Washington's effect on her students, Gibson recounted one day when she was driving her son home from school. "I asked him why he was so quiet," she explained. "He said that Mrs. Washington had really 'gone off' on the class that day. Apparently the class did not do their best on some assignment. Now, I know when I 'go off,' I usually get pretty upset, like most people. But when I asked him if Mrs. Washington yelled at his class, he said, 'No. Her voice got real low and quiet, and she asked us if we could be proud of the work we did. And we knew we couldn't.'"


Students, parents and teachers alike were very emotional at the end of the year when the class went through its "Rites of Passage" graduation, which came just two days after Washington's last cancer treatment.


"We knew we had been a part of something special that year, and we all benefitted from the experience," said Gibson. "None of us will forget what Miss Washington taught us."


Woodlawn Community Elementary School is part of the Small Schools Coalition offering students an African culture-centered curriculum in reading, language arts, math, science, cultural arts, and social science. The curriculum is designed to provide students with a solid foundation of values. Woodlawn has partnerships with the Washington Mutual Bank and the University of Chicago. This year, the school won a $3,000 gift card to Target for having the highest attendance during the first week of school at 99.18 percent.



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