Kathleen Sheehan was not about to not be a teacher. All the bureaucratic fat and lethargy she had to contend with dismayed her, but didn’t drive her from it. All the infuriating attention she had seen given to business concerns incensed but didn’t dissuade her. And now even the terrible illness that struck her could only sideline her, not finish her.
“Benched,” she says, dropping a touch of sports jargon appropriate for a woman who had been a lifelong athlete.
The diagnosis of multiple sclerosis came in August 2007, forcing her to suspend the career she had started nearly 20 years earlier with a stint in the Peace Corps, pursuing a life of purpose and a better and more charitable world. “For me, teaching has always been a way of working toward social justice,” she says.
It was the same ideal that carried her through her first 10 years of teaching English at Providence St. Mel, a school in her native Chicago with a low-income student population that had little thought of advancing to college, and enough outside interferences to make good on that forecast. But the teachers worked to foil the pessimism. High expectations, high support was the governing principle. “I learned about that, and how to do that, and why that’s important,” Sheehan says.
She also came to discover the importance of forging human relationships, “the heart of my teaching philosophy,” she says. “You build that first, and things go from there.”
Sheehan had gone on to teach at multiple other schools, and after committing a year to her recovery following the onset of MS, was thinking about a return. She provided homeschooling to a child living in a group home, and did some tutoring of local high school students. “I began slowly adding pieces to what I was doing,” she says.
Browsing around for education jobs, Sheehan found a listing on Indeed.com from Year Up. Intrigued by what she read, she purchased Year Up Founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian’s book on the origins of the program. She was enthralled—by the optimism, the commitment, the humanity. They were values that took her back to why she entered teaching, why she took off for the Peace Corps, and her foundational years at St. Mel. The devotion to high expectations, high support ran all through Chertavian’s text.
“I thought, gosh, this sounds so much like how I started my career,” she says, “the philosophy behind it, believing that these young adults could accomplish these things if we just told them that they could, provided the opportunity and provided the support. It struck me as so familiar and something that I really believed in, and that I know works.”
She was also taken by Chertavian’s insight. She had seen firsthand the collision of business and education, and the shards left behind. “So often businessmen confuse teaching and business and think schools are a business and they’re not.”
Chertavian was different. He knew how to integrate business practices so they could serve education, not thwart it. “He was the first businessman I ever heard of who could really blend these two concepts,” Sheehan says.
She reached out to Year Up’s Chicago site, leading to an 18-month stretch of volunteer work, tutoring business communications. A pivotal moment came when she was asked to teach at a boot camp, an intensive 90-minute session students go through right before they move on to their internship. It was an opportunity to formally teach again, to deliver a lesson to an audience of students.
But Sheehan had reason to pause. Her symptoms had improved, but would her body allow her to stand in front of a classroom and speak at the same time? “It was one of those times of saying, ‘If I don’t try this, I’m never going to know if I can do it.’”
The session was a success and turned into an offer to teach part-time in March 2017. Six months afterward, she accepted a full-time position.
With her career restored, her strength also continues to improve. For the most part, Sheehan goes on about teaching without any attention or deference to her illness.
“When I’m standing in front of a classroom, there are certain times when I’ll get a little tongue-tied,” she says. “People who don’t know me wouldn’t know. I think most people have no idea.”
Sheehan has settled in now, so we’re free to appreciate the perfect convergence of irony and pun in the lift that Year Up gave Sheehan in her first 12 months with the company—which is to say, she received a year up from Year Up, the very promise the company makes to its students. She may not be in the intended demographic, but it doesn’t make the effect on Sheehan’s life any less powerful.
“I wasn’t sure that I would find a place like this,” she says, “get back to doing what I was doing early in my career. Five years ago, six years ago, there would be days when I’d be like: Am I ever going to do anything again? Anything substantial? I don’t feel that way now.”
Sheehan may be settled but she is by no means finished. She intends to take full advantage of the opportunity to work toward social justice again, and to help Year Up “send some lessons to the rest of society about education and who can learn, and how people learn.
“They are taking students whom society is saying, ‘We’re not providing them with good resources. We’re not giving them good schools. We don’t expect much out of them.’ And we can expect a lot out of them. We just need to let them know that. We need to express those expectations and then we need to support those expectations. We need to support those expectations through the human relationship. That’s the heart of it. That’s what works.”