Wendy Falb began teaching in high school, offering private flute lessons to children. Photo by Michael Buck
Wendy Falb found her passion for teaching at an early age.
When Falb was a high schooler in Hudsonville, the band director approached her to ask if she would be interested in teaching private flute lessons. Falb, the executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan, hadn’t even taken formal lessons herself when she was asked to help teach. But she agreed.
“I quickly learned I just loved it; I really loved working with the kids,” she said. “They would come to my parents’ house, and I would teach them and I went on to direct the school play and loved that, as well.”
Falb graduated and pursued a degree in secondary education, English and music at Calvin College with plans to become a teacher. Instead, she found she was jealous of her classmates who were continuing their education at graduate school and decided to work toward a master’s degree from Boston College.
During her time at Boston College, where she also taught, Falb’s interest in educational theory continued to grow. She returned to the state to teach and get her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. She received honors for her teaching at both universities.
But when she was 31 years old, Falb was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to step away from her career and focus on fighting the disease. She successfully recovered, but a second bout with cancer waylaid her again at 34. When her mother died, Falb decided to stay home and take care of her ailing father and young children rather than jump right back into teaching.
However, those tragedies helped shape Falb’s career trajectory going forward.
“Coming up against death with my bouts of cancer and losing my mother, as well as the education I received from grad school in the history of our country and race theory, all those experiences gave me a profound sense of what I wanted for my children’s education,” Falb said. “I wanted to take part in the structure that supports vulnerable children in our community — I wanted to be part of the public school system, and I wanted to live in that community and have my children get that type of formation, as well.”
Falb and her husband chose to send their children to Grand Rapids Public Schools, and in an effort to stay connected and get involved with the community, she ran for the GRPS school board, a seat she has held since 2009. She currently is in her second stint as board president.
While serving on the GRPS board, Falb came to realize her own background in education gave her the ability to analyze and effectively articulate her position.
“I knew I was an effective advocate and also could think through the complexities of competing parties and interests and historical policy — how it’s worked on things,” she said. “It was really gratifying to see my educational training impact practical, real-life immediate politics.”
Falb’s dedication to improving education in Grand Rapids impressed then-Mayor George Heartwell, and a few years ago, he recommended she apply for a job with the literacy center. But while her qualifications and recommendations were in line for the position, she needed to do a little persuading when it came to the interview process.
“I wasn’t a very traditional candidate and (Steelcase executive) Faye Richardson-Green, who’s just tough, was on the interview team,” Falb recalled. “I was working it as hard as I can, and Faye said to me, ‘I’m still struggling with the fact that you’ve basically been a glorified volunteer for the last 10 years.’ And looked me right in the eye, tough, like Faye can be.”
However, Falb had cooked up a perfect response.
“‘If you mean I haven’t gotten paid for my work, that’s accurate,’” Falb said. “And Faye just grinned, she loved the way I answered it and afterward told me I killed the interview.”
As executive director of the literacy center, Falb has continued to use her experience as an educator and passion for the industry to fuel the nonprofit toward its goal of educating adults who read below a ninth-grade level and second language English speakers.
Though she had not had English as a Second Language experience, she said her time at the literacy center only deepened her desire to spread literacy skills across the region, as well as her respect for those who come in with a desire to learn.
“Our tutoring program here, the tutors learn just as much as the learners because it’s all walks of life; you’re both impacted by the interface,” Falb said. “Powerful relationships form here, so it’s really been gratifying to lead on educational policy because I think I have insight about it.
“I’ve continued to learn a lot about how powerful structural racism is in our community and how much that impacts education in our community and how much it impacts the experience of the students to the impacts on the institutional aspects, like funding.”
Falb said one of her main motivating factors both on the school board and at the literacy center has been just seeing firsthand how doable the work actually is. Though the barriers can be high, she was surprised to find how easily it came to her to be able to effect change from a position of power.
“I really admire leaders who are so passionate and powerful — from teachers and volunteers here to other leaders in Grand Rapids — they really recognize their importance, and they’re not cynical or sitting back,” she said. “I love partnering and surrounding myself with staff and partners in the business community, education and social sectors. I just enjoy seeking out those leaders with vision and drive and finding a way to collaborate with them to get something done.”
While much of her work comes at the top-down level, Falb said she also has found a great deal of satisfaction from her interactions with the learners. Every staff member at the literacy center is required to do some tutoring, and the executive director is no different.
“I think it’s always key for a leader to be on the ground,” Falb said. “I admire those CEOs who go down on the line and know all aspects of their business. I think that’s when you really create a solid vision and create an energy from the ground up. Tutoring gives it back to us. It’s really invigorating and moving and grounding — and I get caught up with (minutia) like everybody else — so it’s really grounding to interface with the people we serve and recognize their strengths in the face of these barriers that they face.”
When she has the chance to work directly with the learners the literacy center is designed to lift up, Falb said she gets a grander perspective on the works she’s doing in the community and why it’s so important to continue to push toward those goals.
“I feel pretty humbled when I think about what I bring to the table,” Falb said. “Yes, I bring a lot to the organization in terms of financial help, fundraising, programmatic design and collaborations with multiple sectors. But I think in the organization, the volunteers working here support the learners better than I do.
“I’m always learning more than my learner.”