Spotlight: 10 Questions for Vinny Chiaramonte (AL '17)February 14, 2018
Former high school dropout Vinny Chiaramonte (AL ’17) chose a career in education to become the teacher he wished he’d had: “I want to help students see the world of endless possibilities in front of them.” He won Alabama’s 2017-18 Milken Educator Award on November 28, 2017, at R.F. Bumpus Middle School in Hoover.
1. What went through your mind when you heard Jane call your name at your surprise notification?
Vinny Chiaramonte: Is this really happening? That’s a lot of money, like game-changer money, for my family. Why me? Glad it’s me. Wow, what an honor. Gratitude. This is insane!
2. How did your students respond to your Milken Award? What impact has it had on them?
Vinny: Tears, hugs, high fives. They said, “Congratulations, Coach, you deserve it” and “I knew it was you—we all knew once they said a teacher was getting an award.”
My students seem honored to be in my class or to have taken it in the past. Like their teacher has “rock star” status. I think some of them realized just how special a place Bumpus Middle School is. I see pride in their demeanor and smiles.
3. How did you end up in education?
Vinny: It’s a long story. My wife is an outstanding educator and has been since we have been married. I taught for a short period after college and then moved on to work with a real estate investor, but education was in the back of my mind even then.
Anyway, I was driving around listening to the radio, kind of assessing my current life and the long road that took me from dropping out of high school to being a functional contributing member of society. Despite some choices I made when I was young, I found my way out of the darkness with the help of a few key people.
That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks: I need to go back to school get my master’s degree and teach! I remember thinking: What if I could meet students at the critical age in their development and be a positive influence on them? Kids need to know they have value and purpose—we all do.
I became a teacher because I wanted to be the person I wish I’d had when I was in school. I want to be a voice that speaks life into students, helps them see they have value and purpose in this world, and encourages them to push through difficult times. I want to help them fail forward, get up when they fall, reach out for help. I want to help them see the world of endless possibilities in front of them.
4. Who are your role models as an educator?
Vinny: I don’t really have any role models. I asked my wife who she thought my role models might be and her response was the same: “You don’t really look at people like that.” I just want to do the best I can with whatever is put in front of me and treat everyone with respect no matter who they are, where they are or what they do.
5. What memories stand out from your first year of teaching?
Vinny: I feel like I had two first years of teaching. From the year right out of college, I remember the students, many of whom are grownups—we keep in touch on social media. I remember thinking I was a pretty good teacher. More likely I was just young and goofy and the kids liked that.
My second “first year” came after six or seven years out of the classroom. I had earned a master’s degree in education, learned good teaching practices and seen what an educator really looked like. Again, the students stand out for sure. They are graduating high school this year—they grow up quick.
I remember how much I wanted the best for them. There were some kids who needed positive people in their lives. I just wanted to fix them all. I remember crying at my desk after all the students left for Christmas break. I knew I couldn’t fix them, but I did the best I could to listen when they needed an ear, speak life into them whether they were listening or not, and teach them how to learn to help themselves succeed in life.
6. What are students most likely to remember about their time in your class?
Vinny: That I genuinely care about them and will always be someone they can reach out to. That I pushed them to do what seemed difficult at first. That there is nothing they cannot do, nothing too hard to learn, if they put in the effort, stay positive, ask for help, and always remain teachable.
7. What’s your biggest challenge in the classroom?
Vinny: Time. I wish I had more time with each student, more time to teach computer science and create amazing ideas. It is challenging to fit it all in and I always end the semester thinking we could have done so much more!
8. How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Vinny: For sure, some will go to pay off student loans, but I think we need to celebrate and enjoy this rare opportunity. We may take a nice vacation and/or do a little makeover in our kitchen.
9. What would you say to a student who expresses interest in a career in education?
Vinny: I would certainly encourage them. I might ask for their why: “Why do you want to teach?” I would tell them that teaching is the most rewarding thing I have done outside of my family and raising my girls. The impact a teacher has on students is unmatched by most other careers, with the exception of a coach or a minister. It is an honor to teach and there is nothing like the expression on a student’s face when they discover they can achieve what they once thought they could not.
Then I might share this teacher pep talk I wrote and encourage them to read it when they are having a tough day of teaching or questioning their calling to be a teacher. I would say, “If you think you can meet those challenges, then you will be an outstanding teacher, and I cannot wait to see you in action. Go for it, and let me know if you ever need anything. I’m here for you and I will be your biggest cheerleader.”
10. What’s your definition of success?
Vinny: Intentionally build up and empower those around you to make them better. Do the best you can with whatever is in front of you, even in the little things. Love on people and treat everyone with respect. Doors will open and the rest will fall into place.
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