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Meet our award-winning tutors

Partnership Cert_group

Innovations for Learning has recognized eight organizations for their outstanding support of the TutorMate program.

And it has singled out two tutors for particular recognition:  Tracie Zettler of General Motors as “most dedicated” and Julia Martin of Weyerhaeuser as “most inspirational.”

The annual awards were sent to the recipients on Tuesday.

IFL picked one outstanding organization in each of the cities in which TutorMate operates.

They are:

Miami – Veterans Hospital
Oakland – Farella Braun + Martel
Seattle – Weyerhaeuser
Detroit – Comerica Bank
District of Columbia – Booz Allen Hamilton
New York City – JP Morgan Chase
Chicago – CBRE (CB Richard Ellis)

Tracie Zettler was named “most dedicated” because she tutored twice a week after realizing that her student needed more help. (The standard requirement is to tutor once a week for 30 minutes.) If Zettler ever called and didn’t get an answer, she made sure to reschedule and call back until she got through.

Julia Martin was named “most inspirational” because “the level of detail in Julia’s tutoring feedback each week was amazing,” said Cary Zakon, national director for TutorMate operations.

“Reading them, it was so clear how much she cared about her student and also how much fun she was having with him. It was also clear that she was writing for the teacher’s benefit, too, and sometimes even included a message for her student there.”

The winning organizations were recognized for the following criteria:

  • Outstanding and engaged support from our coordinators
  • Meeting and exceeding tutor recruitment goals
  • High participation rates in the end-of-year tutor/student meet-ups
  • High levels of tutor persistence and dedication
  • Notable atmosphere of collaboration within your tutoring team(s)

In reply, we’ve heard from some grateful and enthusiastic recipients:

Tracie Zettler, General Motors, Detroit, “Most Dedicated”: “I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed tutoring this year. I was terribly disappointed that I could not be at the ‘meet your student’ day but I received a card that my student (Daniel) made me and it brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile to my face. This was such a rewarding experience; knowing that I made a difference in this little boy’s life means so much to me.

“I was so shocked by my award today! When it came up on the screen, my eyes were as big as lunch plates! Thank you so much for that; I am going to print it and hang it in my cube next to the newspaper article of Daniel and I tutoring.” 

Julia Martin, Weyerhaeuser, Seattle, “Most Inspirational”: “I’m very honored. And I was very fortunate in my assignment. The kids were highly engaged and the teacher (Cate Simmers with Arbor Heights) highly supportive. AND I didn’t have to deal with ‘yellers’ in the background at all which made my job really, really easy!!

“I’m really looking forward to next year!! (2013-14 that is!!)”

Joan Ai, Employee Engagement & Volunteerism, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.:  “Thanks Cary, for your kind message and the award.  The recognition is not necessary as we are glad that we were able to participate in such a meaningful program to benefit the children in your program.”

Stephanie Beck, Human Resources Manager, CBRE:  “Again, thank you.  We all loved the experience with the kids.  Thank you so much for the recognition.

Lori Hulvey, Asset Quality Review, Comerica:  “Thank you so much, Cary … this is so exciting!! Can’t wait to display this in the office.

Karen VeitenhansManager, Community Investment & Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund:  “Hi Cary.  I just wanted to weigh in and thank you …  This is a such an innovative idea and great opportunity for our employes to have a significant impact on student achievement.  We’ve been pleased with the positive feedback our employees have provided, and look forward to growing this effort.  Thank you again for approaching Weyerhaeuser and providing us with the opportunity to engage our employees!”

Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

lg.Cary and Mira (color)

Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 

Today: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

Tutors, sign up now to meet your students!

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It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.

About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.

To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.

dan's screen grabThis year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.

The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.

Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”

Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.

As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”

For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.

Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.

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