From Tutors to Teachers

The Literacy Lab’s current Data and Strategy Manager, Connor Nowalk, first moved to Washington D.C. in 2011 for an internship.  While searching for opportunities to supplement his time in a meaningful way, Connor found The Literacy Lab, and quickly joined the team as an after-school literacy tutor at a local elementary school. Before long, he was counting down the hours at his office internship until he could spend time reading with his students. This part-time job sparked a passion and started a journey down a path in education that eventually brought him back to where he started: The Literacy Lab. As a former Teach for America Corps member, Connor is now working to build bridges between our Kansas City tutors and long-term careers serving students.

1) When did you first get acquainted with The Literacy Lab?

I started working with the Literacy Lab in 2010, when I was living in DC, bouncing between unpaid internships.  The program was a bit different then—I tutored children living at DC General Family Shelter four nights a week, and I was hooked.  What I thought would be a way to pay rent and buy groceries ended up setting me on a years-long career path.

2) How did your experiences with The Literacy Lab lead you to Teach For America?

At the time, I begged The Literacy Lab’s co-executive directors, Ashley Johnson and Tom Dillon, to hire me after completing my tutoring position. When that didn’t work, I asked if they could help me find a full-time position at an educational non-profit or policy organization.  They gave me a piece of advice that I took to heart:  The best way to understand the challenges and complexities of education is to work as a teacher.  As an alum of Teach For America, Ashley recommended the program, and helped me plan a stand-out sample lesson. I credit her guidance and support through the entire process as a big reason that I was accepted.

3) What similarities and differences do you see in the challenges posed by tutoring and the challenges posed by leading a classroom?

There were a lot of differences between being a literacy tutor and a teacher for me, particularly because I taught high school math.  Overall, building a curriculum, managing a room full of students, and mastering the rhythm and vocabulary of an engaging lesson are skills that I learned once I ran my own classroom.  But tutoring taught me valuable skills that I carried with me as a teacher.  Helping students feel comfortable while pushing them to master challenging material, listening for and understanding misconceptions, and seeing the intersection of poverty and education were invaluable skills for my teaching career.

4) What brought you back to The Literacy Lab after spending a few years in the classroom?

After four years as a teacher, I wanted to try a different approach to my work in education.  One challenging aspect of being a teacher was taking on all the issues that were preventing my students from being successful all at once.  What I love about the work of the Literacy Lab is that our tutors pour all their energy into a single, but crucial, barrier to student success:  early literacy proficiency.  As a result, our tutors can provide a highly effective solution to that one issue and free up teachers to handle the many other challenges before them.  That was a big draw for me to return to the organization.

5) What kind of strategies for recruitment are you hoping to build through relationships with TFA and KCTR?

When I started with the Literacy Lab, I didn’t plan to spend my career working in education.  But thanks to a thoughtful nudge from Ashley and Tom, I’m still here, passionately working to help our kids have the opportunities they deserve. For the tutors that feel that same pull toward teaching that I did, I want to make sure we can offer them a clear path towards a future in education.  Programs like TFA and KCTR are an excellent next step for many of our tutors to continue their work.

Of course, we don’t expect or require our tutors to stay in education after serving with us.  But we work with such passionate, caring tutors, I personally would like to see as many as are interested continue to impact our students.  If they choose to become teachers, we know that their experience with the Literacy Lab will provide a strong foundation.  And with the training and support from KCTR and TFA we know they will be on a path to becoming excellent teachers.

6) How do you feel about the education landscape in Kansas City, and how do you feel nonprofits and teach recruitment organizations like KCTR/TFA are helping to shape that landscape?

I think this is an incredibly exciting time for education in Kansas City.  This year, we have a new superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, four new charter schools in the metro area, and the expansion of new non-profits like the Literacy Lab, City Year, and KCTR.  With this growth, we have a rare opportunity—I think a responsibility—to make collaboration integral to how we operate as an education community. I’m thrilled that we can be an entry point into the world of education for many of our tutors.