“It takes a village to raise a child,” according to an often-cited African proverb. Sometimes within a village, it takes a family to help nurture all the children. In Southwest Florida, the Gilbert family has deep roots in the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Two members of the Gilbert clan are FGCU alumnae – mother Melissa Gilbert (’08, Elementary Education) and daughter Alissa Gilbert (’19, Elementary Education) – and are working as teachers at Diplomat Elementary School in Cape Coral. Younger daughter Tessa Gilbert is a senior at FGCU majoring in secondary mathematics education, with plans to teach math at the middle or high school level after graduating.
For family matriarch Melissa, the journey to becoming a teacher took 15 years from start to finish. She initially earned an associate degree at Edison Community College (now Florida SouthWestern State College) and was working as a unit secretary at Cape Coral Hospital when she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an educator.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t think that I ‘had it.’ My husband (Todd, a fourth-grade teacher at Diplomat Elementary) not only believed in me, but he knew that I ‘had it’ in me to be a teacher,” she said. “I began my educational career before I began having children. I would take a class here and there. Then I entered the College of Education, pressed forward and put the pedal to the metal, working full time on second and third shifts while going to school full time.”
That demonstration of perseverance inspired oldest daughter Alissa to follow a similar path. “I worked at a property management company as a leasing agent and knew it didn’t feel right,” she said. “After that, I got a job as a substitute teacher and felt called to become a teacher. After watching my mom go through the College of Education program, I knew that’s where I wanted to attend, too.”
Now in her third year as an educator, Alissa said it did not take long for her to realize her decision to make a career change was the right thing to do. “I love being able to make an impact in so many children’s lives. Each child comes from a different background, with a different story. Being able to be a part of their lives for a short amount of time is very rewarding,” she said. “If you have a passion for working with children, I say go for it. While teaching can be hard and stressful at times, it is the most rewarding job there is.”
For sibling Tessa, who is on track to graduate in December, the route to a career in education was more direct. “I feel called to go into teaching. It’s something I have wanted to do since I was in elementary school,” she said. “I have always loved helping people in the classroom, whether it is through tutoring or helping students in my mom’s or dad’s classrooms. Seeing both of my parents teach helped solidify my decision to become a teacher.”
All three of the Gilbert women point to their coursework in the classrooms and field experiences working with area school partners as critical in preparing them for the rigors of teaching. “I have said many times over that Florida Gulf Coast University has the best program for education,” Melissa said. “The College of Education helped prepare me for the long hours I would spend preparing my lessons, grading papers and working with colleagues. When you are finished with your education at FGCU, you are fully equipped to be a full-fledged teacher.”
Daughter Alissa credits the hands-on learning she received while a student with putting her on the road to success as an educator. “I loved every opportunity I got at FGCU, but my favorite thing was going to so many different schools to get more experience,” she said. “I was able to visit several schools in Lee County and Collier County, including public schools and charter schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Getting to work with children at different grade levels helped shape me to be a well-rounded teacher.”
Likewise, current student Tessa calls her field experiences and internships an indispensable part of her education. “During my part-time internship, I was able to receive so much help from my supervisor,” she said. “She helped me improve my lesson planning and my teaching strategies, and she was a great positive support system. Through field experiences and internships, I can use the strategies that I learned in my education classes in a real classroom setting.”
Both daughters also acknowledge the impact that watching their mother’s educational journey had on their own career paths, prompting Tessa to nominate Melissa for the College of Education’s Teacher of Excellence Award at the beginning of this year. “Since she first started teaching, she has worked so hard to be the best teacher she can be for her students. My mom really is a role model for her students and always makes building and fostering relationships with her students a priority. I look up to her as an educator, and I hope to create a welcoming environment like she does in my future class.”
As for Melissa, knowing that her daughters have joined the family business of education is recognition enough. “I love that my girls are choosing to be teachers. It makes me feel very honored that they would choose to follow in my footsteps,” she said. “This is definitely a family affair, and my girls definitely know what they are getting into with going into teaching. They were able to see me go through the process. They knew if I could do it, then they definitely could stay persistent and finish strong – FGCU strong.”