Fast-track program allows mom to fulfill a dream

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At first glance, it would seem that the Golden Apple Teacher Education program is a home-grown version of Teach for America, attracting hard-charging over-achievers who have caught the fever of community service and are ready to toss high salaries aside. Its roster tilts heavily toward professionals, including a former law partner and an Annapolis graduate who left a lucrative career at General Electric. But it also includes Caterina Plummer, a 33-year-old lab technician who always wanted to teach and finally switched into teaching because of the money.

After completing her yearlong GATE internship this summer and returning to Schurz High in August as a fully certified teacher, Plummer is now at home with her youngest child, born last winter. Yet she proved her mettle as an intern, earning rave reviews from students and mentors despite the stress of an unexpected pregnancy.

Plummer, a 1983 graduate of Kenwood High School, says she always wanted to be a teacher and always enjoyed science, especially biology. Education runs in her family, too; both parents are university professors.

But for years, she deferred her dream in favor of day-to-day responsibilities. After her first year at the University of Chicago, she got married. After another year at U. of C., she transferred to Roosevelt “because I was married, and I was working and it seemed like a better school for me.” She graduated with a degree in biology and then took just one graduate course in education. “I was just kind of overwhelmed by the large number of courses I would have to take” to become a teacher, she explains.

Plummer took a variety of jobs, including lunchroom supervisor, elementary school substitute and, most recently, a lab technician and plasma packer at Life Source, a blood bank.

“I used to work in a basement room surrounded by freezers,” Plummer notes. “I still get a stiff neck when I walk in one.” Even so, she liked the job because its flexible hours suited her life as a mother of two. But she didn’t like the salary, in the low 20s.

She’d also never lost the desire to teach. In 1996, she applied to Northeastern Illinois University and was accepted, but she withdrew at the last minute. “I was discouraged by the number of years it was going to take,” she says. “I was gonna be doing it one or two classes at a time for four years. At the last minute, I suddenly realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Two years later, an old friend told her about GATE. Again Plummer was reluctant. This time, though, her high school English teacher, Golden Apple winner Judith Stein, talked her into applying and wrote her a recommendation. Plummer was one of six applicants who made the cut for GATE’s first cohort of high school math and science teachers, meeting strict academic and personal requirements.

Though Plummer had exceeded the required 3.0 college GPA, the application process was “grueling,” she recalls. “They had us write six essays, and I am not an essay person,” she says. Then she went through the challenging Haberman interview. (See Catalyst, March 1998.)

The day after she learned of her acceptance, Plummer discovered she was pregnant with her third child. But she kept going, and GATE supported her.

The first summer, she taught biology at Amundsen High School under the guidance of Gloria Harper, another Golden Apple-winning teacher she’d had at Kenwood. “After class was over, she’d give me pointers,” Plummer recalls. “She lent her perceptions to us when we looked at our students. And she was very free with her resources—she gave us copies of activities we could use the next year.”

The summer after helping Plummer learn the ropes, Harper smiles warmly when asked about her former student. “Caterina was my star,” she says.

But the road to stardom was long and hard. The un-air conditioned classes didn’t sit well with the early stages of pregnancy, and teaching by immersion was a bigger challenge than Plummer had expected. “The eight weeks were really intense,” she recalls. “There were at least three times when I thought I was going to quit.”

Moral support

Moral support from her mentors and fellow interns pulled her through. “I had Ms. Stein, and I had Ms. Harper. If I hadn’t had them, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Plummer also credits GATE with creating an environment where interns could air their struggles. “They worked really hard to foster an atmosphere where we could share. When I felt like I was going to quit, I was able to share that with them, which was unusual for me,” she observes.

At the end of the summer, Plummer found a job at Schurz High School in Irving Park. When she interviewed, she was told she would be teaching biology, her specialty, but, once hired, she learned she would teach earth science instead. “Earth science I’m not so comfortable with,” she says.

Plummer’s first year was not a happy one. “It was a nightmare when I first started. I would just be so depressed,” she recalls. “I was either grading papers, so I couldn’t be with my family, or I wasn’t grading papers, and I wouldn’t get it done.”

However, it appears as though she was able to leave these stresses at home. When Catalyst visited her classes a year ago, every student interviewed praised her teaching.

“For being a new teacher, she’s pretty decent,” said Antonio Ortiz . “People don’t really disrespect her.”

Plummer’s actions that day bore out Ortiz’s observation: She gently but firmly nipped a potential altercation in the bud, quietly talking to each student involved and sending them off to opposite ends of the room.

Many students praised Plummer’s ability to explain concepts and her use of hands-on activities to convey ideas. Activities and discussion—not lectures— are cornerstones of GATE’s preferred teaching methodology. “She makes learning fun,” said Andy Bhairoo, adding that not many people cut even her last-period class.

Asked how this year’s earth science compares with last year’s biology, Tabitha Cummings rolled her eyes and sighed in gratitude. “Oh, God, this class is way, way, much, much, much better than last year.” Cummings explained that last year, she spent much of her time copying from the board, while this year she is learning through activities like examining rocks.

Several students singled Plummer out for her efforts to track their progress. “She’s the only one of my teachers who gave me a progress report,” noted Hector Gonzalez.

During the school year, the six GATE interns met biweekly for seminars focused on their teaching and relevant education topics. Interns have input into the flexible course syllabus.

At a seminar last November, Plummer and two other interns took turns showing videotaped segments of lessons they had taught. Northwestern instructors Sylvia Smith-Demuth and Brian Reiser and Golden Apple winner Jim Pudlewski joined the interns in offering feedback.

Plummer’s video clip captured a lesson on categorization and classification, one in a series of lessons related to minerals. Students had brought in common household items, from Pringles to toothpaste, and were asked to brainstorm ways to classify them into groups. “The point was to get them to look at nutrition labels and see if there were minerals in there,” Plummer explained.

The group spent about 15 minutes questioning Plummer and making observations and suggestions. In the end, it praised her lesson for fostering discussion and offering a creative, real- world avenue into the skills of generalization. However, it concluded that the objective of the lesson was not clear enough. “You were trying to accomplish two things, how to think about categories and to learn about minerals. There wasn’t a clear goal for the categories,” observed Northwestern’s Reiser. For a revision, he suggested creating “a way to get them to defend their categorization scheme against some criteria.”

Hard on herself

Plummer, as usual, was hard on herself. “This is actually pretty bad,” she observed. “I didn’t realize how bad.”

Another key piece of support during the year is regular observation from GATE staff, especially Pudlewski. Plummer, like other interns, gives him rave reviews. “Jim is a genius,” she says. “Scientifically, he is just one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. He was a wealth of information. I just found that so useful.”

She also notes the balance and broader view his perspective provides. “Any time he watched an activity, even if it bombed, he would find all the good stuff in it,” she notes. “He was very attentive to everyone in the classroom. Afterward he would point out to me, ‘It seemed like this student was having trouble.'”

Although Plummer’s time at Schurz was shortened by maternity leave—she was off from mid- January through mid-April—she completed the year with flying colors, passing her portfolio and independent research projects. With those assignments under her belt, she received her full teacher certification and a job offer from Schurz.

“At Schurz, they loved her,” says Pudlewski. “She was doing a great job.”

“Being off on maternity leave was kind of cool, because it gave me a chance to regroup,” says Plummer. And having the baby forced her to work smarter, not just harder. “I had to become more efficient. I couldn’t spend time there after school the way I had before she was born.”

At the end of a full year of teaching, GATE participants must submit portfolios to win a four-year alternative certificate, valid only in Chicago. In GATE’s first year, the portfolio had to include two units of instruction lasting six and eight hours, video segments, case studies and reflective essays.

Plummer, who readily admits she leans to a seat-of-the-pants teaching style, says that at first she thought the portfolio requirement “was horrible.” Through it, though, she says she learned “the importance of reflection and self-assessment, as well as peer assessment. In the end, I did it and was graded very well on it.”

After a summer full of agonies about child care, Plummer reluctantly agreed to start the school year at Schurz. “I was thinking I didn’t want to disappoint anybody,” she explains.

But child care difficulties persisted; after four weeks as a fully certified teacher, Plummer decided to call it quits.

“They broke up all my classes,” she says, noting that Schurz is so strapped for science teachers that all her colleagues were taking overtime classes “even before I left.”

A valuable experience

Plummer describes her GATE experience as “extremely valuable.” She credits the program with helping her resolve a question that plagued her in her early days of assessing students—balancing the need to reward effort with the actual academic achievement students earn. “I have put a lot more emphasis on achievement,” she says. And it influenced how she started off the new school year before going back home. “I held them more accountable this year than I did last year.”

“I always felt like teaching was instinctive,” says Plummer. “It’s not just instinct, it’s hard work. GATE gave me a lot of tools I could [use] in the classroom.”

The program taught her valuable personal lessons, too. “Overall, I would say I learned that when I couldn’t go any farther, I really could,” she says. “I got more faith, and I was able to go one more day. That was a huge lesson. There were times when I really could not see my way to tomorrow. But I got there, and I did it.”

Plummer plans to resume her teaching career after a year at home with her youngest. Already, she is subbing two days a week in elementary schools.