As CPS prepares to close a record number of schools, the fate of students and communities is in question.
Even training by master teachers didn't prepare Kyle Miller for year 1
"I'm here. I'll be right there," yells Gretta Steadman, a 3rd-grade teacher at Kohn Elementary, as she breezes past Room 608 and into her own classroom next door to put away her belongings.
It's 8 a.m., and she has promised to meet with Kohn's new 3rd-grade teacher, Kyle Miller, before school starts at 8:45.
Sabrina Anderson, the school's reading specialist, will also sit in.
Once settled, Steadman begins. "You mentioned you needed an idea for language arts. Take the basal [textbook] and the lesson plans and work on parts of speech for the first 10 weeks," she tells Miller.
"I know this is a foreign language to you right now," she adds, "so I'm going to make you a list."
Miller nods and thanks her, and they move to his other concerns, including how to maintain a grade book and classroom management.
By the end of September, Steadman and Miller will have had seven meetings like this one. This is Miller's first teaching assignment, and he thought he'd be prepared. He spent last year in a classroom as part of his training at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a CPS professional development school staffed by master teachers. (See Catalyst, May 2003.) "I got to see what happened from start to finish," says the 32-year old. "I was able to learn about best practices."
Since his arrival at Kohn, however, Miller has been challenged by issues that have nothing to do with best practices, such as grading, filling out report cards, pacing lessons and managing classroom behavior.
"Even with all the things I learned last year, it can be overwhelming sometimes," says Miller.
Indeed, the first year of teaching, particularly in an urban setting, often makes or breaks a new hire. It is not uncommon for new CPS teachers to leave the system for suburban districts, private schools or quit teaching altogether.
Under CPS' mentoring and induction program, called GOLDEN, Steadman became Miller's mentor the second week of school. The hope is that with support and guidance, he will remain at Kohn and in the public school system.
A mentor's job
Steadman, who has been teaching for six years, vividly remembers her first year. "I felt alone and isolated. I was an emotional wreck," she recalls. "I took the entire summer after my first year to prepare myself for the next year. By my second year, I started helping new teachers any way I could because I know what I went through. That's why I decided to mentor Kyle when I was asked."
By mid-October, Steadman had not yet attended a mentor training class. "It has been hard to get a sub," she explains. "We're working on it."
At Kohn, lead mentor Dina Everage tried to pair each of the school's six new teachers with a veteran from the same grade.
Steadman says she sits down with Miller about 30 minutes or more each day to talk about his problems. She sometimes looks into his classroom to see how he's doing. Teaching next door, she'll pay a visit if the noise level gets too high. "I don't do it often, and I look from a distance and talk to him about it later," she says. "I don't want the kids to lose sight of who is in charge."
That's important for Miller because one of his biggest concerns is managing his students' behavior. "I am struggling with classroom management," he says. "The challenge for me is learning what is acceptable behavior. What's an acceptable level of noise? How do I encourage my kids to raise their hands when they want to talk instead of yelling out, which is instinctively what they want to do?"
Steadman's advice during one of their meetings: "They will test you. You are going to have to set an example with a few of the students to show you are not joking. Then, I will help you with grouping. You can get a lot out of small-group instruction."
Later, Steadman praises him and reports that while his class can still be unruly, it is getting better. The new teacher also worries that he is not managing his time well enough to allow him to adequately cover every subject each day. He thinks he spends too much time on reading and math. "I need to get myself a timer," he says.
Miller says he doesn't know what he would do without Steadman's assistance and the support of other staff members. Before pairing him with Steadman, lead mentor Everage would check in with Miller every day to see if he needed help and even gave him her home phone number. The school's Direct Instruction coordinator, Shannon Shockley, also checks in daily to see if he needs help. And reading specialist Anderson checks once a day to see if everything is going okay.
"Everyone I work with at Kohn has been very helpful," Miller says. "They have gone out of their way for me. They told me they are committed to my having a successful year."
Reality of teaching
Miller, a Rolling Meadows, Ill., native, received his bachelor's degree in business communications from Roosevelt University, and before going into teaching, spent 12 years in a variety of positions at Motorola.
His last stint was in human resources. "I did a lot of volunteering in that job, and I realized I was getting more fulfillment out of the volunteer work than the job," Miller explains.
So in January 2002, when there was a possibility he would be laid off, he started looking for another career, and kept looking even when his Motorola job became secure. In July 2002, he signed up for the Academy program, which results in a master's degree in elementary teaching from National-Louis University. He was placed in a 7th-grade class the first semester and a 3rd-grade class second semester. "I feel [it] prepared me for handling the urban environment," he says.
But Steadman believes Miller's experience did not fully mirror the realities of urban teaching.
"As a new teacher, you feel like you are going to do all these wonderful things that you learn in school, and you are going to change everything," says Steadman. "But the reality is he had three teachers in a classroom [at the Academy]. They touch on classroom management, but not much. Now he's all alone, so the techniques don't turn out like they did when there are three adults in the classroom."
The demographics are also different. The student population at the Chicago Academy was a mix of Latino and Polish. Kohn's population is almost 100 percent African-American.
"Yes, culturally, it is different," says Miller, "but good teaching is good teaching. The practices I learned there were helpful, but the environment was different."
Sticking it out
By the end of September, Miller was still struggling with classroom management, and Steadman goes to bat for him to lessen his load. For instance, Miller has 20 boys and two girls and many of his students are repeating the 3rd grade. "That many boys together spells trouble, and will create a chaotic classroom," says Steadman. "And because many of his kids have been retained, they are not motivated. I'm talking to the principal about this so some of his kids will be staffed to other classrooms."
Steadman says that during her first year, she had 30 students and 27 had been retained—15 of them twice. "That's been the history of teaching. They tell you in college that you will get the worst class."
But Miller plans to stick it out. In addition to the Kohn staff, he is able to turn to fellow Academy graduates. "I talk to one about three times a week, and I have good relationships with the other new teachers there, too. We've gotten together Friday evenings."
Also, the Academy has pledged to support its graduates for five years and assigns a staff member to meet with them at least five Saturdays a year.
"We all have our days," says Miller. "But when I have them, I reach out and talk to someone."