GSU Connections: Sharmetta Wilson
Heading back to college at age 50 would be daunting for most, but for Sharmetta Wilson, enrolling at Governors State University was the step she needed to take to realize her lifelong dream to become a teacher. The skills she learned in Governors State’s former Alternative Certification program put her on track to the most satisfying part of her professional journey.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher,” said Wilson, now a special education teacher at Chicago Heights Middle School. She had earned her engineering degrees and worked as a telecommunications expert for more than 20 years before being displaced in 2004.
Though she worked for giants like Illinois Bell, Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel and State Farm in Bloomington, Illinois, Wilson never lost sight of her goal and made time to tutor children. In 2000, she joined Sprint PCS and managed a team of customer service representatives until she became one of 750 employees laid off.
Unaccustomed to being idle, Wilson took a yearlong assignment as a substitute teacher for Chicago Public Schools before deciding to return to school. The daily interaction woke up latent dreams of teaching.
She’d heard about the grant-funded Alternative Certification program in the College of Education, and three years after earning her K-9 teacher certificate at Governors State, she taught at Washington-McKinley School in Chicago Heights. This is her first year at the brand-new Chicago Heights Middle School.
Getting to Governors State University
After being laid off, Wilson—who had already earned a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering at the and a Master of Science in Engineering Administration—wanted a program that would give her credit for the work she had done to earn her previous degrees.
“I didn’t want to take math all over again,” she said. “The Alternative Certification proved the perfect fit for me.”
The accelerated program was in-depth, running five days a week for 18 months. Students also participated in field service, partnering with school districts in Illinois.
Practical Lessons Still Apply
In a psychology course, Wilson gained an appreciation for how people vary in their learning ability. “Understanding how the brain works is the key to understanding my students, whether they have autism or an emotional disorder,” she said. “If you understand a child, you can reach them. I draw on aspects of that course to this day.”
Program leadership gave valuable advice that Wilson still thinks about in her day-to-day experience. Karen Peterson and Vickie Person, both no longer with the university, served as directors to Wilson’s cohort and made a lasting impression.
“They really wanted to instill in us that character you needed to have and to display to be an effective teacher. And they stressed being effective, something I’m always reflecting on to this day. Every day when I leave the classroom, I think, ‘What could I have done better? Or said differently? Is there something I could have ignored?’ Because you can’t let one or two children take your focus off what you have to do.”
Treated Like Professionals
Wilson’s cohort included a lot of other adults who were changing careers. The way GSU prepared them for life in the classroom was unique, she said.
“Our instructors treated us like we were already teachers. They were empathetic to our situation, but they were still very demanding. You couldn’t be late, because teachers can’t be late. You had to be prepared. They expected you to meet your deadlines,” Wilson said.
She recalled a time when a family member had a family emergency that she learned about during class. “Vickie Person told me, ‘There may be times when you have to make hard decisions.’ But she also was empathetic. Because I’d been there on time every day, she let me go.”
On to the Classroom
Wilson has spent the past 10 years teaching in South Suburban schools, from Harvey to Riverdale to Chicago Heights. In 2013, she returned to Governors State for her endorsement as a Learning Behavior Specialist. But she still thinks wistfully about advice she got from Professor Lisa Chang. “She encouraged me to get my master’s in math, but I was ready to go to work,” Wilson said. “It’s on my bucket list.”