Sylvan Learning has a remarkable knack for developing talent, in both its students and its staff. No better examples of the latter exist than Jennifer Bellestri and Krista Martin, two former Sylvan instructors whose passion for education has helped them thrive in their careers with the brand. Though the road to franchise ownership was winding, both women were able to find inspiration in their work to keep achieving, leading by example for the students they continue to serve.
“My undergraduate degree is in psychology, but my family always told me I should be a teacher,” Bellestri said. “When I was in graduate school, I began substitute teaching part-time and realized that teaching really was for me. I changed course and became a certified special education teacher, but when I graduated, the job market was very competitive. So, I started working at Sylvan in the interim.”
Bellestri explained that Sylvan’s small group setting provided her the chance to impact students on a daily basis, one of the main reasons she was initially drawn to teaching. After she became the Director of Education at the center where she was working after just three months as an instructor, Bellestri knew her career with Sylvan had the potential to be every bit as fulfilling as a traditional teaching role would. Over the next 25 years, Bellestri established herself as a Sylvan center director and eventually worked her way up to owning her own center in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. In the few months since she became a franchisee, not much has changed for Bellestri in how she approaches her daily work.
“A value we have as a company and I have personally as an owner is to deliver on the promise we make to our students and their families,” she said. “That’s what drives day-to-day business. I may be working more behind-the-scenes now, but when I’m within the four walls meeting families and working with students, my approach is still the same.”
Across the country, Krista Martin grew up in Pennsylvania in a place she described as “somewhere where everyone who lived there was from there.” Education had always been a safe, fulfilling space for her, but it wasn’t until Martin was in graduate school that she fell in love with teaching. She moved to Virginia after graduating and got a teaching job, only to stumble upon Sylvan Learning when she took a job as a part-time math instructor looking for extra cash.
“The more familiar I became with the structure, the more I realized Sylvan was a brand I could get behind,” she said. “Being able to see results on my students' faces when things click and the positive influence and appreciation from families really made me want to build a career with the company.”
Martin was working for a very successful Sylvan franchisee in Maryland. Amid the center’s good business, Martin’s ambition took root and she developed a marketing plan to better the center’s local marketing practices and approached her boss with it.
“I told him that in addition to teaching, I’d love to pursue these avenues to become a more prominent part of the community through our marketing efforts,” she said. “I asked him to give me a shot, and he did.”
That risk was the first domino to fall for Martin. After taking on the task of revamping local marketing, a director position opened at one of her boss’ franchise locations that Martin was able to seize. She eventually left the Mid-Atlantic for New England, working as a part of a team of center directors at Sylvan in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Roughly three years later, now as franchisee of that same location, Martin has been able to use the insight gained from serving in numerous roles within Sylvan’s structure to her advantage in her own center.
“I love being able to zoom out and see the bigger picture,” she said. “As a center director, I was heavily involved in internal operations. Now I can look at the business as a whole and identify potential opportunities to maximize revenue and trends in the community for us to fit into and have a bigger presence. I’ve begun collaborating with my entire staff, down to the part-time instructors, to learn what is and isn't working and take advantage of their suggestions.”
Where Martin discussed the advantages her Sylvan journey has provided on the macro level, Bellestri emphasized her understanding of the micro as a complementary edge.
“I love the way Sylvan gives us the chance to form intimate daily connections,” Bellestri said. “We make a difference by building students’ confidence and helping them understand who they are as learners. We are responsible for finding new ways to employ the Sylvan curriculum and have the freedom to do whatever we can to make an impact on each individual student.”
Despite the countless students the women have had an individual impact on, each dialed in on one specific relationship that has characterized their Sylvan experience.
“When I first started with Sylvan as an instructor, I was performing an assessment for a student who clearly didn’t want to be there,” Bellestri said. “This 10-year-old was so adamant about not participating that he ran out of the center and climbed a tree to avoid the assessment. It’s impressed in my memory because I had to literally talk him off of a ledge.”
The student eventually climbed down and begrudgingly took the assessment and became a Sylvan student not long after. Bellestri said he came to the center for close to a year and made great progress, eventually moving on in his schooling. Then, years later, the student paid her a visit.
“When the same student was in high school, he stopped by Sylvan and introduced himself, asking me if I remembered when he climbed a tree,” Bellestri said. “We laughed about it together and he told me that he was doing well in school and thanked the center for our help. With Sylvan, it always comes back and I’ll definitely never forget that moment for illustrating very early on the impact of our work.”
When contemplating the most rewarding part of her Sylvan experience, Martin said, “There were two years where I worked elsewhere before coming back to Sylvan. I think I needed that mental space away from the brand for it to really hit home I wanted to grow my career here.”
Martin then told the story of a family she worked with in Portsmouth. “I took the initial inquiry, assessed, enrolled and taught this student upper-level math and SAT math, essentially serving as the family’s one-person stop with the brand,” she explained. “Shortly after I had left teaching at the center, I got an email from the student’s mom with a video they had taken.”
In the video, Martin continued, the student was sitting in front of four baseball hats, each with a different college on it. He then smiled and picked up the Temple University hat to announce his college decision.
“We had talked about Temple as a prospective landing spot for him based on his desired major, community, and everything else he was looking for in a college destination,” she said. “His mom wrote in the email that the school would have never made the list if it weren’t for me and Sylvan. That really illuminated for me how many doors Sylvan opens for our students and affirmed the ‘why’ behind what we do.”
For Bellestri, the most rewarding part of her experience with Sylvan is finding ways to problem-solve with families. “We’re a resource for the community and that means a lot,” she said. “Sylvan is looked to as a leader and a brand that can make a difference.”
Though there are difficult days and her job isn't always easy, Bellestri said she maintains her passion by keeping perspective.
“There's always one thing that happens during a bad day that makes you smile and ready to come to work tomorrow,” she said. “That's my mantra: one thing every day to keep me going. In 25 years, it hasn't failed me. If you live your passion and values, life has a way of rewarding you for that. I love owning a business that lives my values.”
To learn more about Sylvan Learning franchise opportunities, visit www.sylvanfranchise.com.