A Woodrow Wilson Fellow finds strong chemistry in the classroom.
Jenna Chirico ’16 says her mother always thought teaching would suit her. The chemistry major wasn’t so sure. But when Chirico was named a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow in 2016, she embraced the three-year teaching commitment that defines the award, and it’s been a winning formula.
Woodrow Wilson fellows receive $30,000 to complete a specially designed, 13-month master’s degree program in STEM education. They spend an intensive year in the classroom before being assigned to teach for three years in high-need, urban and rural secondary schools. Chirico chose Montclair State University for her master’s program. Now teaching chemistry at Bard High School Early College in Newark, New Jersey, she is one of two WC alumni to earn the highly competitive award in the last two years; in her first year of the program, Morgen Ricketts ’17 is pursuing her master’s degree at Georgia State University.
Chirico’s mother, it turns out, was right about her daughter’s calling. She makes chemistry less daunting with hands-on lessons about relieving heartburn. She offers extra help before and after class time. And she truly loves her subject. “I think it’s interesting to think about the things you can’t see,” she says. “Chemistry makes up everything, things we don’t even consider.”
It’s a lesson that extends to those she teaches. “A lot of these students have hard lives. They may be tired during class because they were taking care of younger siblings late last night. Or they had to wake up early to get them to school. Some people interpret it as the kid not caring, when that’s not the case.”
The caring is definitely mutual, and lasting. Chirico keeps in touch with some students who have left the school for various reasons. “Before one of my students left the school, he wrote ‘I love you Chirico’ inside my desk,” she says. “I brought that desk into my new classroom because that note makes me smile.”
Through ups and downs, her commitment never waivers, and she hopes to extend her teaching career at Bard after her three years are up. “They are such great kids, and they deserve great teachers who truly care about them,” she says. “I love when my students just come and talk to me or ask to play basketball after school. I know it sounds corny, but I love them so much, and I am really looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for them.”