A Conversation with Sylvia Wilson


Sylvia Wilson Speaking

Daevan Mangalmurti and Sam Bisno

For nearly five decades, Sylvia Wilson has served the city of Pittsburgh as an educator, union representative, and school board director. In 2016 she attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Hillary Clinton, and she recently made history by being elected chairperson of ALCOSAN’s Board of Directors. Her efforts to improve the experience of students throughout the district have not slowed down over the years. Ms. Wilson recently visited Obama to speak to the Eagle. Here are some excerpts from our conversation with her.

Daevan Mangalmurti: Why did you decide to become a teacher?

Sylvia Wilson: I didn’t ever want to become a teacher. However, I have had people in my life, from as far back as the third grade, who saw things in me. When I was in high school, I had teachers fighting over me, over what I was going to become as a teacher. And I mean, it was fun, but I never was going to be a teacher. But I went to college and I was married young, and I had a child, and someone said, “You ought to consider looking into [teaching],” and I still didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher. But I was a student at Carnegie Mellon, and we had a program with early childhood education between CMU and Carlow, and in that program I actually had an opportunity to go to schools and work with children, and I did that for a whole semester. For three semesters that was a part of one of my classes, that I spent a morning or an afternoon in public schools in Pittsburgh, working with the teachers and having them tell me what they thought about what I was doing with the kids, and it actually felt pretty good. When I did my student teaching I was at Pittsburgh Public Schools, and things just went well, and I was fortunate to be hired.

DM: What inspired you to make the move from being a teacher, which you were for many years, to being a member of the school board?

SW: Trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do once I retired. Actually, I had quite a few people ask me to run for school board, even while I was still with the district, and they didn’t understand that you can’t work for the district and be on the school board at the same time. When I decided to retire, it just so happened that they did a redistricting of the school district. Sharene Shealey was my board member at that time, and she was not going to run again, and that was just a great opportunity for me to step in and be able to continue to work on behalf of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, just in a different way.

Sam Bisno: You worked with the PFT for a period of time. Has being a member of the board affected your relationship with some of your former PFT colleagues?

SW: I think it has enhanced my position on the school board because I have a lot of knowledge about what goes on in the school district. I have knowledge of people and how processes have been over the years. But I haven’t had anybody say I’ve gone to the dark side by being on the school board. [laughs]

SB: What do you think could be done to make Pittsburgh a better place to teach?

SW: We need to have better principal training. There’s been some pretty poor training for principals over the years, and that’s another thing that Dr. Hamlet and his administration are focusing on, because they understand that. If you don’t have good leaders in a school, you’re going to have people leave. And that’s what happens. And there have been parents who have even asked the district to please pay attention. When a school is stable and all of a sudden everybody wants to leave, you have to look at what the root cause is, and a lot of times the root cause is that they changed the principal.  And over my years of being a teacher and working with the union, I have seen places that were very stable, and the only change was the principal, and people wanted to leave. And when you drill down to find out why, it’s because that principal came in. So I think that there’s always a focus on teachers having professional development, but there’s not been a focus on the principals and how they are trained.

DM: What do you want to do to encourage students from minority communities to seek jobs in education?

SW: At one point in Pittsburgh, there was an agreement between the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the district, and they actually went to the high schools and talked to every high school about teaching. At that time they were encouraging kids to go into teaching and instead of giving scholarships when they first went out, they identified people who, once they got to senior year and had maintained 80% on honor roll, got scholarship dollars in their senior year, and [were] virtually guaranteed a job here in the city. Dr. Hamlet has said, if we have our students now go into teaching, then he’s guaranteeing that they’ll have a job. Now, right now the only thing we have going for us is the teaching academy at Brashear. And the teaching academy there is going to develop some of the kids who are going to go onto college and they’re going to come back, but we need to have more of that. The criticism is that there aren’t enough minority teachers, and that’s because there aren’t many minority students going into education, so if you interest them in high school and then they are identified going into education, then you can guarantee more minority teachers.

DM: Alright, thank you very much.

SB: Yeah, thank you.

SW: Sure, no problem. I’m glad I could come.

We’re grateful to Ms. Wilson for taking the time to come and speak with us, and we plan on publishing more from our conversation with her in the future.