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Dr. Gill Maimon and Dr. Joe Alberti, Samuel Powel Elementary School teachers and professors in the Graduate School of Education.

Credit: Jennifer Wright

Grading fraction worksheets by day and term papers by night, two full-time teachers at Samuel Powel Elementary School moonlight as Penn professors.

Gill Maimon, a first-grade teacher, and Joe Alberti, a fourth-grade teacher, are two of the handful of teachers from around Philadelphia who work full-time in the classroom and also teach courses at Penn.

“We do so much, so that’s why it takes over three weeks to grade papers,” Alberti joked.

“Oh it’s horrible, [our students] are ready to kill us,” Maimon responded.

The two co-teach a math and science methods course in the Graduate School of Education’s Teach for America program — a nationwide program that puts recent college graduates directly into low-income classrooms. Penn’s program is the only Ivy League collaboration with TFA, and students have the option to earn a master’s degree in education on top of a Pennsylvania or New Jersey teaching certification. Maimon also teaches two different undergraduate courses — one each semester.

“To be fair, it’s not that we need to just read them and grade them, but that we need to get together and do it,” Maimon said. “Although, we’ve been trying it more on our own so it seems to be going a lot faster,” Alberti said, laughing.

Sitting in fourth-grade-sized desks in Alberti’s classroom at Powel, an intercom announcement calling a student to the main office interrupted Maimon’s explanation of how practitioner research — research done by teachers themselves — completely changed the course she had been on.

Alberti always knew he wanted to be a teacher, even since middle school. He started at Powel back in 2007, but said, “I’m still the baby here according to some people.”

“This is the sort of school where there’s not a lot of turn-around,” Maimon said. In fact, she’s been teaching at Powel for about 16 years, although she did not go directly into teaching after graduating college.

She thought after a few years teaching she would switch to policy, but instead, her experience working with GSE professor Emeritus Susan Lytle and former GSE professor Marilyn Cochran-Smith, now at Boston College, totally turned things around.

“That whole idea of practitioner inquiry was a revelation for me,” Maimon said. “The research I want to do in order to have an impact on big picture decisions on education, it needs to start small.”

Doing double-duty seems to be nothing new though for both of these educators who earned their doctorates from GSE while teaching full-time — Alberti in just a year, since GSE required doctoral students to attend full-time when he began.

Their dual jobs serve them well in their roles at Penn, Director of the GSE TFA program Mary Del Savio said. Having current or retired teachers instruct the methods courses, which are content-specific, like math or science, is the standard, she said — about half are taught by current and half by retired teachers.

“They are able to collaborate with other teachers, and having the mentor-teacher in front of them helps in so many ways,” Del Savio said. Since the TFA students are full-time teachers themselves, that collaboration allows them to “to ground the theory they are learning and the things they are doing every day.”

“To see Gill and Joe just up there all excited, I think it reminds them of that passion and it keeps them going,” Del Savio said.

If current or experienced teachers weren’t teaching the next generation of educators, then, “we may not be preparing teachers with the most up-to-date, with the most important things that they need to educate. That informs the work we do here,” she said.

Alberti said he looks to Maimon’s philosophy about having a doctorate degree to help his work in the grade school classroom.

“What I’m doing here is so meaningful and so important, I wanted to keep doing that. I think a Ph.D. helped me do that even better,” Alberti said.

The classroom is the place to be in order to understand what really is going on in education, Maimon said. “It has always depressed me that the forward trajectory in the field of education so often has taken people further and further away from children,” she said.

And while the two are both GSE graduates and hailed the work of colleagues and mentors at GSE, sometimes the academic expertise of scholars puts them at a distance from the work on the ground. “We’re like smack in the middle of the mess of it,” Maimon said.

Maimon incorporates a fieldwork component into both of the undergraduate courses she teaches — “Learning from Children” and “Children’s Literature.”

“For an hour every two weeks, all of the students come into the classroom and have an opportunity to read with a first grader,” she said. “To see it in action just opens up worlds.”

Contrary to how it may seem, the two of them both manage to sleep, and the key is just being really efficient, Alberti said. Alberti is also a professor in Drexel’s education program, where he teaches elementary and middle school math methods courses, and works with a course at Swarthmore College whose students do fieldwork in his fourth-grade class.

Simply put — “I love it,” Alberti said. “It can be so exhausting dealing with all the things that are going on but at the same time [the students] give you energy, too. It’s so exciting just seeing them learning and discovering new things.”

Maimon credits the Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative, a group of teachers and others interested in education who meet weekly, for keeping her grounded.

Both said the experience teaching children and college students varies in specific ways.

“One of the things I’ve always said, I just find first graders easier to read,” Maimon said.

Still, they agreed they both typically maintain the same voice from their elementary school class to their college students.

“I’m often kind of goofy with kids so I often bring that to the older kids,” Alberti said.

Maimon though, said she doesn’t take on a “goofy voice” with her first graders. Alberti joked, “Oh, Gill is super serious. With those first graders, she lays down the law with them.” She responded, “Well, I’m sorry, I just like routine.”

Coming to a consensus, Maimon said to Alberti: “You have more a fourth-grade voice with university students and I think I have a university voice with first-grade students,” and amid the laughter added, “I think we should do a discourse analysis on that.”

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