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Two sisters, two educational journeys, one destination

Two teachers pose in front of student art projects

Sarah (left) and Jessica (right) Tolmie in front of Sarah’s students’ recent art projects.

Juarez high school, a Chicago Public School (CPS) in Pilsen, not only has two ISU graduates teaching there but two sisters! Sarah Tolmie ’15 and Jessica Tolmie ’18, traveling along different paths, recently found their way to teaching positions at the same ISU partner high school.

Sarah Tolmie first connected to urban education through ISU’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP) program, now part of the National Center for Urban Education (NCUE). In 2013, she signed up for the annual Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts clinical trip to Chicago and came three years in a row, experiencing different elementary and high school art classrooms in Little Village. These trips provided a space for her to thoroughly consider teaching in Chicago over time; breaking down preconceptions of urban education. Sarah Tolmie credits Dr. Judith Briggs, ISU art faculty, for initially connecting her to CTEP and sparking her interest in urban education.

A few years later, Jessica Tolmie came to the ISU campus familiar with her sister’s experience in Chicago, knowing CPS was her destination, and additionally recruited into the ISU NOYCE scholarship program by Dr. Rebekka Darner, Director of Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST).

Having grown up in Roscoe, Sarah and Jessica Tolmie both started their college careers at Rock Valley Community College. Neither sister started out as an education major. Sarah Tolmie’s initial interest was art therapy and Jessica Tolmie’s was criminology. Sarah Tolmie was influenced by a middle school art teacher who opened up a classroom for her to volunteer and through clinical experiences in high school and college. Jessica Tolmie switched to science education after taking an educational psychology course, drawn to the collaborative nature of teaching.

The NCUE Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation (STEP-UP) program proved to be a pivotal point for both teachers. STEP-UP, which began in 2010, is an immersive four-week teaching and community internship residency for ISU pre-service teachers with programs in Peoria and Chicago. Sarah Tolmie remembers the rigorous schedule with three different segments each day (summer school in the morning, community internship in the afternoon, and class at night) as making her feel she “could do it.”

Jessica Tolmie agrees, noting, “Your gears are constantly turning all day. The intensity makes you think you can handle being a teacher.” Working “outside your comfort zone,” and subsequently succeeding, gave both sisters confidence as future teachers. The sisters continued their involvement in ISU NCUE programs, later student teaching in ISU partner neighborhoods in Chicago, and taking advantage of the ISU NCUE Induction & Mentoring program for support as new teachers in CPS. They both express that it was a culmination of experiences and moments in ISU CTEP programs that solidified their commitment to urban teaching.

So who influenced whom? When put to the Tolmie sisters, you soon learn that is a complicated question. Jessica Tolmie claims that she expressed her desire to be a teacher earlier on, but Sarah Tolmie set out on her education journey in college first and was a role model for her younger sibling. Jessica Tolmie is an extrovert who found teaching as a natural fit while Sarah Tolmie considers herself an introvert who slowly found her calling in art education. Jessica Tolmie loves science while Sarah Tolmie is a visual artist. Years later, they find themselves professional partners at the same CPS high school.

The Tolmie sisters’ individual journeys drew them both to Juarez high school. Sarah Tolmie transferred to the school in the fall of 2018 after teaching for two and a half years at a CPS elementary school. She was looking for a high school position where she could be part of a department of colleagues, not the only art teacher in the building. She specifically applied to Juarez because of their reputation as “a supporter of the arts.”

Jessica Tolmie applied for an open science position the following year, heavily influenced by her sister’s discussion of the school community as “supportive and safe for students.”

“Principal [Juan Carlos] Ocon includes poems in staff emails and will give inspirational speeches at school-wide professional development meetings,” Jessica Tolmie said.

Both sisters believe that it is important for teachers to find a school that best fits your needs and philosophy, and where administrators create a nurturing culture for staff and students alike.

It is said that you need to find your people where ever you go. It is just as critical to find like-minded individuals as you pursue your educational philosophy. Though different in many ways and teaching in classrooms on opposite sides of the school building, the Tolmie sisters have found ways to support and connect with each other this year at Juarez. They set aside time to meet during their common prep periods a few days per week, and clearly look to each other as a valuable ally. Perhaps there will be a chemistry-art combination lesson for Juarez students at some point in the future.

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