Profile with Theresa Simmonds

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Theresa Simmonds (Pennsylvania & St Catherine’s 1991) is the Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator for College Access and Career Readiness at the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Previously, Theresa was a classroom teacher, a leader of a school-within-a-school, and a post-secondary counselor, all in West Philadelphia public high schools.  She holds teaching and administrative certifications, an MSc in Educational Studies from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Urban Studies and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Theresa Simmonds: A place called Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, right outside Philadelphia. I was born and raised in Philly, went to Penn as an undergrad, and then after Oxford came back to Philly to live and work. So I consider myself a city resident, born and bred, fourth generation. However, I was dragged kicking and screaming out to suburbia last summer. Our children are 7, 5 and 5, and the public schools in Philadelphia were not an option ($300 million budget shortfall, more than 20 schools closed, massive teacher and counselor layoffs, no librarians, very few nurses, very few extracurriculars—a nightmare), and the private schools are outrageously expensive. It hurt me in a number of ways to leave. I’m very committed to this city, and if its middle-class tax base leaves, the class divisions, which are also partly race divisions in Philadelphia, are just going to widen. It’s tough to weigh your commitments to the city against your responsibilities to your kids. We are now in an absolutely amazing neighborhood, though. Our kids can walk out the door in the morning and if we don’t see them for a while, that’s fine, as we know they’re safe, they’re close, and they’re having fun. That’s the way it was when I grew up in South Philadelphia, but the city has changed now.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?

Theresa Simmonds: Certainly not a teacher. I was all over the place. There was not a clear path. I flirted with politics but realized that my personality wasn’t compatible with the political fray. When I was younger I was unwilling to compromise on some things that I thought were at the core of who I was.

Rhodes Project: How did you get into teaching?

Theresa Simmonds: During my first year at Penn, I studied with a professor, whom I now work for, who really believed that the whole purpose of universities was to improve society and that if your research didn’t have a direct, positive impact on people then it wasn’t worth doing. I was raised Catholic, and though I left the church a while ago, one of the things that stayed with me from that upbringing is the idea of a calling or a vocation. Mine was always that I use what gifts I’ve been given to serve other people, which sounds so trite and scholarship-application-ish, but that’s the truth. This professor told me that, yes, the aim of your education and the whole university function should absolutely be to make the world a better place. The work that he was and is doing involves the public schools in West Philadelphia, which is where Penn is located. Although I do love teaching, I didn’t go into it because of that. Loving kids is a good thing if you’re a teacher, but it’s not sufficient. I taught because I wanted to change schools, and Philly is a rough place for that. It really does chew people up and spit them out. Part of it is financial (all schools are desperately underfunded), but it is also a complete lack of vision and leadership. There isn’t a culture of learning and reflection that promotes individual professional development.

Rhodes Project: What are some of the biggest challenges facing education reform in the US?

Theresa Simmonds: Where should I start?  One of the big ones is funding, which is necessary but not sufficient. Money doesn’t solve everything. Some of the problems of urban education are specific to urban areas, while there is some, but not complete, overlap with problems in rural and reservation settings. There isn’t a good career trajectory for people who want to make a difference in education. Generally, the only way to advance in teaching is to leave the classroom and advance up the administrative ladder. The fact that I was a Rhodes had absolutely nothing to do with how I was hired in Philadelphia or if I was seen as a desirable candidate. Within the profession, there need to be better ways to advance and be valued as a teacher and leader.  The charter schools have siphoned off so many of our kids that comprehensive public schools are operating way under capacity, and it no longer makes sense to run these huge buildings with so few students.  Instead of talking about leadership and promoting student achievement, the discourse in Philadelphia is about closing buildings and figuring out where to squeeze savings, how to renegotiate teacher contracts and reduce their pay…and let’s not even get started on the national war on teaching as a profession that provides a living wage and that can attract and retain qualified people.  

Rhodes Project:  What’s the ideal school environment you envision for your own children?

Theresa Simmonds: I’d want a school where my kids are seen as individuals, where their talents and gifts are valued and developed, where their vulnerabilities are recognized and accommodated, where they are challenged in ways that are supportive. I want them to have arts education, music, and gym during the school day. The way that children make themselves vulnerable to their teachers--that is a sacred trust that we have. It is something that must be taken very seriously. They put their egos and their self-image in your hands. You have to support them as they grow, to be a constant affirming force in their lives.

Rhodes Project: What is the most inspiring part of your current work?  

Theresa Simmonds: The resilience of the kids. The past two years I have been doing counseling with future first-generation college kids. It’s an incredibly depressing situation to be in, as most of our students are not college ready. You often have to teach very directly and explicitly what an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree is and how long it takes, what it means to major in something—college knowledge that kids from more affluent backgrounds and well-funded schools absorb from their surroundings. A number of these kids are coming from really rough backgrounds; some of them struggle with homelessness. Week to week they have no idea where they can go back to at the end of the day.  I cannot even imagine coming from that, and then going to school and achieving at any meaningful level. Family dynamics are really negative for a lot of the kids; the issue of parental abandonment is very real for them. They are trying to construct identities for themselves, to fight so that these circumstances do not prevent them from moving forward.  It just makes me realize how privileged I was. My father worked three jobs, it was a struggle, but I never worried about not having a bed to come home to. I had no reason not to achieve what I did. What inspires me is that so many of these students, without family support, without a strong network, are trying so hard to succeed academically, in employment, in life.

I almost feel this sense of survivor’s guilt. I drive through these terrible neighborhoods to get to work and back through them to get home. In many ways, I live an idyllic existence. Food and security are not issues for me in the way they are for my students. I clip coupons like everyone else, but it’s never an issue to get healthy food for my kids. We are vegetarians, very nutrition focused. Every night when I am making food for my kids my heart just sings as I’m so happy, I love cooking for them and eating with them. There is also this part of me that asks, “How many of my students get this? How many of their families are struggling to feed them anything, let alone something healthy?” There is no way not to be reflective about this, unless you make a conscious decision to shut it out, because it’s too painful.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman beginning a career in education?

Theresa Simmonds: Find really good mentors from the very beginning. Especially if you’re working in an urban system, you must find people who will help you and lead you through. Talk to women in every decade of life who have been in education and also other fields about balancing work, family, and your own education. I’m 44 now, and as I have gotten older and had children, I have found it so valuable to hear from other women who have done it and are doing it now. The sharing is so important.

I’ve spoken to some other Rhodes who have done very different things than I have, who are in policymaking. I am on the ground, which is partly due to my own decisions and partly due to the dynamics of Philadelphia. I look back now and say I might have made some decisions differently. I think that so many of us who were high achieving want to believe that if you can just push harder, then you really can have more, do more, be more, give more to everybody around you. It took me a very long time to know that you might not be able to get 20 things done each day when you have children. You have to decide personally and professionally where the balance is for you. I’m lucky. I have my mother, who watches my kids. Believe me, there are times when it would be nice to have staff to chauffeur my kids to various things. Yet there are trade-offs there, too, in terms of what experience you get to have with your kids, the quality and quantity of time. The idea of quality time is important, but quantity counts, too-- just being there.

Rhodes Project: What are you most looking forward to?

Theresa Simmonds: In an immediate way, my husband and I planned that we are doing absolutely nothing today apart from this call. No laundry, no cleaning up, no nothing. It’ll be a day of us hanging out with the kids. In a longer time frame, in my new position, which is back at Penn in the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, I am looking forward to bringing my ground-level experience to this new space. To get in touch with people who may be able to effect policy change, at least on a local level. I’m hoping that I can get back into the dissertation process and actually finish one, not only because of what that would do for me career-wise, but also because I want the power to make more of a difference in students’ lives.

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