By Eden Teller
When I walked onto KIPP MN’s campus for my first day of service, I met dozens of new coworkers with delightfully different backgrounds, fields, and senses of humor. It took me a few weeks to realize that I shared a building with someone whose interests mirrored mine to an eerie degree.
Claire Radomski is a paraprofessional who teaches with such ease that you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d been an educator for years. However, if you sit down for a conversation with her like I did, you’ll learn about her unexpected path to the classroom.
Born and raised in Brainerd, MN, Radomski walked onto UW Madison’s campus intending to follow the pre-med track and become a doctor. Midway through her classes, she decided that her strengths were better channeled in other directions: “Organic chemistry blindsided me,” Radomski said with a smile.
I had to put down my pen and confess: I’d also dreamed of being a doctor, but a high school anatomy class had turned me off of dissections a few years earlier than Radomski. Neither of us floundered; instead, we turned our attentions to journalism. She found her niche working at the NPR radio show “To The Best Of Our Knowledge,” while I scouted stories for local newspaper, Berkeleyside.
When Radomski graduated in 2009, public radio was in a tight spot, slashing budgets and often furloughing its employees. She aimed instead for an Americorps position in Washington, DC, serving in the development and communications department of Horton’s Kids, a local non-profit. Radomski quickly found her place planning fundraisers and working with kids on a staff of dedicated coworkers and volunteers. It was also in DC that she first met Alex Wegener, her future husband.
After her year of service, Radomski took on a full-time staff position at Horton’s Kids, but the work quickly became overwhelming. The change from service to staff member appears small, but it’s noticeable in the small, everyday chores of nonprofit work: Once the limits of what type of work you can do are lifted, it becomes easier to take on an ever-increasing workload, as Radomski experienced.
“I burned out super hard,” Radomski said. “Mostly because the staff was young; it was a small organization and we were all doing too much.”
Radomski and Wegener headed back to the Midwest together when a job at a public radio station opened up in Indianapolis. Radomski started as a development assistant and, over the course of her five years there, worked her way up to become director of membership.
“It was a dream job,” she said. Rather than courting individual large donors, Radomski delved into crowdfunding and large-scale membership. “A lot of it was about the psychology of giving, which was very cool,” she said.
The couple’s next move brought Radomski back to her Minnesota roots. It was in Minneapolis that Radomski found a place at MinnPost as director of development. MinnPost, a Minnesota-based news website, had just been founded and was a new experience compared to the larger organizations where she had previously worked.
“It was great to take the skills that I learned at a big organization to more of a start-up approach,” Radomski said.
Soon after moving to Minneapolis, Radomski began volunteering at the Hennepin County Public Library during Homework Help sessions. She soon found herself looking forward to her time with students more than her time at work.
“I felt like I was doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “I had veered off into development, and it was starting to feel like a chore. If I’m going to spend 40 hours a week doing something, I want it to be something I love.”
Radomski found herself faced with a choice: would she continue with development or pursue the path of education?
“I was in my late twenties and I felt like I was at the top of my game,” she said. “I thought, if I don’t change my career path now, will I ever?”
Radowski decided to test the waters by applying to UW River Falls’ graduate psychology program. If they accepted her, she thought, she’d make a final decision.
“I knew I couldn’t do both fundraising and education — it was one or the other,” she said.
From her seat in the KIPP North Star Academy teacher workroom, Radomski looked back at her choice and smiled. Her path to KIPP MN was clear from the moment she decided to follow her passion.
“At Horton’s Kids, we sent all our kids to KIPP DC, and we had our summer camp at their campus,” she said. “We had a good symbiotic relationship. KIPP would be somewhere I already knew.”
These days, Radomski starts her days in sixth grade homeroom, helps out in art class, supervises lunch, and rounds it out with one-on-one time with students in need of extra support. Her schedule continues to evolve as student needs change, too: as of late September, she’s begun to co-teach math. No matter the challenge, Radomski faces it with a full suite of knowledge.
“You wouldn’t think the things that I learned [doing development] would apply here, but organizational skills, teamwork, it all crosses over,” she said. “The more places you work, the more you see how it all overlaps.”