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Nicole Gerber: First Woods Charter School graduate to teach at Woods

By Loyd Little
Posted Friday, January 30, 2009

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Pittsboro, NC - Nicole Gerber, a 2004 graduate of Woods Charter School in Chatham County, is teaching at Woods and is the first graduate of Woods to do so at the 10-year-old charter school.

And at age 22 she can also tell her students about growing up in Zambia, Mali and Benin, among other places. First-hand experiences can fascinate and inform often better than words in a book.

It all began because her father, Daniel Gerber, who had been a Peace Corps volunteer, was working for Africare in international development when Ms. Gerber was young and the family lived overseas.

“For example, we lived in Bamako, Mali, when I was two to six, and in Cotonou, Benin, when I was six to ten. And in Lusaka, Zambia, when I was in the ninth and tenth grades which was when I was thirteen to fifteen,” she explained.

“My dad was by profession and temperament a teacher. Pretty much every night at the family dinner we had a lesson about something. He was always explaining the project, grant writing, how grants were awarded, how AIDS clinics were set up, how water projects came to be, and so forth,” she said.

Ms. Gerber can pinpoint when the desire to make a difference in the world took root: “When I was two, I played with friends in the streets in Bamako. And I realized that my friends owned only one article of clothing.”

Middle school at Perry Harrison

Still, she said, she didn’t realize until she came back to America to go to middle school (at Perry Harrison just down the road from Woods) how lacking many, if not most, Americans were in their knowledge of Africa.

“My classmates at Perry Harrison knew that I had lived in Africa but they thought I lived in a hut and had animals for friends. Most thought Africa was a country and not a continent. They had no concept about real poverty. They didn’t know about colonization or AIDS. I knew that they were sixth graders but I knew about these things and I didn’t understand how they could be so oblivious,” she said.

“So I started educating people. Which earned me a reputation,” Ms. Gerber said, laughing. “By the time I came to Woods for the eleventh and twelfth grades, they were calling me ‘Africa Girl’.”

The future takes shape

And so it all began.

The seeds for coming back to teach at Woods were planted when she was a senior there a mere four years ago. At the time, she was planning to go to college and learn how to create non-profit organizations on a large scale that would teach others about political issues around the world.

“Then one day I was talking to Mr. [Simon] King. He was not principal then but he was my math teacher and high school director. It dawned on me while we were talking that maybe I should have some experience in teaching. And he said, ‘“Well, I would hire you. Would you teach here?’ And I said, “That would be something I would do.’”

Thus, the idea was in the back of her mind all through college at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “And lo and behold by the time I had graduated, Mr. King was principal. What was funny was that when I submitted my application, I didn’t call or contact him first. I just sent it in like any other another application. He called -- or maybe it was an email -- and said, ‘What is this? A joke? Are you seriously applying?’”

“’Yes,’ I said.”

By the way, Ms. Gerber, who turned 22 in 2008, talks fast and it finally dawns on you that she is frantically trying to keep up with the thoughts in her mind.

At George Mason, she had majored in government and international politics with a minor in history. “I placed out of the language requirements at George Mason because I had a wonderful French teacher at Woods, Madame Kristine Little.”

But for “fun” at George Mason, she took advanced French grammar and Introductory Arabic.

(For fun?)

Before going on with her story, it’s important to understand her family’s involvement at Woods.

Her father and mother attended colleges in the Triangle and then her dad’s brother and his family moved to the Triangle and then her grandparents moved here. Ms. Gerber’s uncle, Roger Gerber, was a pioneer in the charter school movement in the late 1990s and has been director of the League of Charter Schools of N.C. The Gerbers were instrumental in the founding of F.R.E.E., a group that established Woods (and other charter schools in the Triangle) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Using her overseas experiences

So Ms. Gerber joined the Woods faculty in 2007.

“My first year was possibly the best situation anyone could dream of for their first job out of college. Usually, your first job out of college is scary and you don’t have a support system. But my first job was not only in the exact same building where I had gone to high school, it was with my former French teacher, my former history teacher [Richie Temple] and my former math teacher and advisor, who was now my boss. And now I’m teaching some of the things they taught me.

“It couldn’t be a better situation for a first job,” she said. “For example, I now get to work side by side with the man who inspired my love of history: Mr. Temple.”

Temple said, “Ms. Gerber is everything that one could ask for or imagine in a teacher.

She has high standards and is extremely intelligent and articulate; she has tremendous enthusiasm and love for her subjects; and most of all, she cares deeply about all of her students and is able to communicate that concern to them as individuals.”

Kristine Little said, “As a student, Nicole brought many gifts to Woods. Her superb intellect, her curiosity and joy in learning, and her deep desire to know and understand and to engage in meaningful discussion, inspired and rewarded her teachers. Now, she is tapping into those same qualities, combined with her boundless energy, to communicate and engage her students in the excitement and joy of learning.”

Large teaching load this year

This school year -- 2008-2009 -- Ms. Gerber is teaching an almost impossible load: 117 students spread across these classes:

-- Two sections of ninth-grade world history (with regular and honors students)

-- Two sections of civics and economics (with regular and honors students)

-- An international relations elective for 10th graders

-- At the same classroom time as the international relations class, she’s also teaching an AP comparative government class. Which means sometimes she goes back and forth between two classrooms!

“Well,” she said laughing, “I’ve managed to have several parallel lessons so that I can bring those two classes together in one classroom for a few days.”

Ms. Gerber uses not only her experiences in life to underline and show history and politics, but uses her own resources: pictures from her travels around Europe as well as a tapestry and paintings from African artists.

“For example, the paintings help my students compare and contrast the different painting styles and subjects from different countries. It helps them understand that Africa is a large and diverse continent. And students love to hear anecdotes. They all ask, ‘What was it like? What were the schools like? What were the kids like?’

‘Considerable freedom’ cited as a big plus

Of teaching so far, she said, “It’s going well. Some of the pluses of Woods include that as teachers we are free to design our own curricula to a large extent. They don’t have to be pre-approved by the administration. I have considerable freedom in what I want to teach and how.”

And there is the smallness of the Woods community, compared to the mega-schools. “Plus, we have great teachers and most of our students love to learn,” she said.

Is it awkward to teach students who are nearly peers?

Ms. Gerber said, “It is kind of difficult because I knew some students from before and because I’m only a few years older than they are. For example, I was a baby sitter to some. They say, ‘Oh, we used to make brownies together.’ Things like that. For some, it’s hard to call me Ms. Gerber and not Nicole. And for some it’s hard for them to draw the line between peer and teacher. And it’s been difficult for me to enforce that line with some of those students. But I’m trying,” she said.

And then she added a critical sentence, “But I don’t think they respect me any less.”

Switched gears in mid-class

Like all good teachers, Ms. Gerber is still learning: “Today, I’m really pleased with myself because yesterday I changed a lesson plan on the spot when I realized it wasn’t working. The kids weren’t getting it, so I said, OK, and switched gears and it worked! And we made a chart instead of taking notes which is what they had been doing.”

She said, “Classroom management is one of the biggest challenges for teachers and as long as I’m aware of it, I’m working on the problem. And, therefore, I’m not too concerned.”

And if you think she has any spare time, check out these other school-related activities. This year, Ms. Gerber is:

· Mistress of ceremonies and co-organizer (with the Woods PTSA) of Café Night

· Offering AP study sessions for civics students. (Students can see her once a week after school to study and prepare for exams.)

· Directing the play “Don’t Drink The Water” by Woody Allen this spring

· Working with Kristine Little on the Woods Alumni Capital Campaign.

· Faculty sponsor for the student Gay-Straight Alliance

· The force behind the all-school presidential election on Nov. 4, 2008

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Nicole Gerber: First Woods Charter School graduate to teach at Woods
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