Mastering the Art of Education: Carlena Gatewood cites sheer will, faith, and friends as keys to her success

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Carlena Gatewood works with a student in her classroom at University Prep in the Hill District.Carlena Gatewood works with a student in her classroom at University Prep in the Hill District.

In the summer of 2008, Carlena Gatewood, a single mother and former vocal artist, packed her bags and moved with her two-year-old son, Zion, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, where she knew hardly a soul. While she didn’t realize it then, her journey toward securing a master’s degree in education at the University of Pittsburgh would bring her many sleepless nights, envelop her in the kindness of strangers, and crystallize her career plans into a calling.

The 27-year-old Gatewood credits her religious faith and friends—like fellow Pitt graduate student Chante McBride, a doctoral student in the School of Education—with making it possible for her to complete a one-year teaching certification program in Pitt’s School of Education. Following commencement, she will remain at Pitt to work on her master’s degree in teaching.

A teaching career was far from Gatewood’s mind in 2000, when she graduated from high school and moved to Philadelphia, filled with hopes of building a career in music. She enrolled in a theater arts program at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and began singing in clubs during the evenings.

The allure of a singing career pulled strongly at Gatewood, and in 2001, she found a manager and left college to focus on performing. Soon after, she produced a locally distributed album, released in 2002. That same year, her manager decided to leave the business, leaving Gatewood without support for the sale of her ablum. What followed was a series of professional and personal ups and downs. She continued to perform, supporting herself as a waitress, bartender, photographer, and bank teller for the next few years. Marriage came in 2005 followed by the birth of her son, and then, eventually, a divorce.

Gatewood says it was during her pregnancy with Zion that she realized her priorities had changed. Instead of wanting a musical career, she wanted a formal education.

“My pregnancy helped me realize it was no longer just about me,” she says. “It was about him.”

Gatewood returned to Cheyney on a full scholarship as a communications major. Professors recognized her excellent writing skills, and soon she began tutoring freshmen during weekly writing labs. By her senior year, she had landed a full-time job at a small Christian high school, where she taught criminal justice, college planning, and grammar to students in the 8th through 11th grades.

That same fall, Gatewood volunteered at a Cheyney graduate school fair, and it was there that she met Pitt student Chante McBride, who was representing Pitt’s School of Education. While talking to McBride, Gatewood realized she had never considered pursuing a degree in education, despite her years of experience in the classroom. But, with a baby and a lack of support, she could not envision moving across state to attend school.

McBride, who was also a young mother with a strong faith, told Gatewood that God would bring her to Pittsburgh. Gatewood shrugged off McBride’s comment, but was amazed to learn just a few days later that McBride had arranged for her to visit Pitt. Although impressed with the University’s campus, Gatewood wondered how she and Zion could survive there without support.

Gatewood recalls that McBride told her, “’My husband and I are here to help you.”’ McBride promised to pick up Zion, now 3 years old, from day care and make sure that Gatewood and her son would have everything they needed.

“Chante and her husband didn’t have any reason to do these things for me,” comments Gatewood. “But I felt that God made it clear that I was supposed to go to Pittsburgh.”

Gatewood graduated magna cum laude from Cheyney in spring 2008, and that summer, trusting her faith and the kindness of strangers, she enrolled in the Pitt School of Education’s Professional Year (PY) English secondary teaching certification and master’s program on a full scholarship.

Required to student-teach for a semester, Gatewood has spent her mornings as an instructor at University Prep, a partnership between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and Pitt; attended classes late into the evening; and come home to juggle her responsibilities as a mother and student. This hectic lifestyle left her eager for her graduation from the PY program.

“Zion is obviously very important to me, but I’ve had to stay focused on finishing my program,” she says. “I’m constantly conflicted between being a good mother and being a good student.”

And after her experience at Pittsburgh Prep, Zion is no longer her only child; she says she considers her students to be her “kids.”

“I love seeing the kids do well, and I really will miss them,” she says.

Though she believes she still has a few albums waiting to be created, she is at peace with her decision to pursue teaching as a career.

“The class that was the most eye-opening and beneficial for me was Education and Society. I was both fascinated and devastated to discover how many Americans are not educated,” she says. “The class helped me to realize how important it is to be an educator during these times.”

“Unfortunately, in African American communities, not everyone believes that he or she has the same opportunities as other people. And the truth is—they do. Teaching allows me to step in and say, ‘Wait a minute. It is possible. How do I know? Because I did it.’ I explain to my students that education is possible and it is cool!”

A teacher by nature, Gatewood says she learned her initial teaching strategies by  trial and error in the classroom. Her Pitt education has shown her that many of her strategies are valued in the teaching community.

“Pitt also broadened my mind as to what education is,” she says. “Inquiry-based learning has become very important to me.”

Gatewood believes she would not have been able to succeed at Pitt without the McBride family or her spiritual roots.

“Chante is my sister! I would do anything for her and her family. I feel very blessed to be a student at Pitt. The ideas here are fresh and innovative, and I am proud to say that I attended.”