New teachers get a helping hand

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Corina Pedraza, 23, will never forget her first day as an elementary school teacher. As a history major, she had not even been a student teacher. And then she was hired the day before classes were to begin.

“I was placed in a 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade class and a 4th-grade bilingual class, and I didn’t have a clue,” she now recalls with some humor. “It was horrendous.”

Pedraza received her bachelor’s degree in history from Northern Illinois University, but she always wanted to teach; so she obtained a state bilingual certificate. Jungman Elementary School in Pilsen welcomed her, assigning her to co-teach the mixed-grade class during regular hours and the 4th-grade bilingual class after school.

“It was a chaotic first week,” she says. “I had no idea how to make lesson plans, and I knew nothing about school policy or how to have a parent-teacher conference.”

But Anne Barry, a 26-year CPS veteran, is getting her and two other new Jungman teachers, Betsy Brown and Alma Valdes, through the year. Barry is one of 120 veterans chosen for a pilot mentoring program for new teachers in the Chicago public schools; 350 applied.

“The mentoring program is the best,” says Pedraza, who graduated from Seton Academy High School in South Holland and plans to get her standard teaching certificate. “My mentor had a lot of helpful tips. We got started right away on how to create lesson plans, how to assess students, how to evaluate yourself, how to go through the grading period and how to do parent-teacher conferences.”

Barry, 55, said she has always enjoyed helping new teachers and signed up when the system announced it was searching for mentors. She attended three training sessions at the beginning of the school year and received an extensive “Partnership for Professional Practice” guide book covering topics from parent-teacher conferences to offering constructive criticism. She receives a $1,500 stipend for the extra work.

“There’s no set time,” says Barry. “I try and see them once a week, and they know they can come by anytime. I like the flexibility.”

Mentors and their charges meet monthly to go over the guide book and share experiences. The sessions are facilitated by education professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is overseeing the pilot.

“This is my second year teaching but my first in the Chicago public schools,” says Brown, 25, who received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Iowa after graduating from Lyons Township High School in LaGrange. “I taught pre-school in Ideal Elementary School in Countryside. When I got to the city, everything was different. The building was larger, and the kids had uniforms.”

As a new teacher, she says, “You’re surrounded by people with a lot of experience who seem flawless. The program makes you feel like you’re not alone. We’re always guided; we’re not coming in and having a gab session.”

Valdes, 48, co-teaches 2nd grade, conducting lessons in Spanish for students who are not fluent in English. She attended Mexican Teachers College in Mexico City and taught 25 years in Mexico City. Here, she has a state bilingual certificate. “The mentor helped me learn about the Chicago school system,” she says. “But lesson plans and those things are pretty standard everywhere.”

Principal Fausto Lopez believes the program benefits the mentors, too. “Senior teachers can be role models for new teachers, and they can reflect on what they practice.”

He adds, though, that the program has an ironic disadvantage: “You get better trained teachers who leave. We have heavy competition with suburban schools that can pay better. But if they stay, you can get better-trained staff.”

Recruiting conference:

Recruiting New Teachers, Inc, a non-profit organization, is holding its 6th National Pathways to Teaching Careers Conference in Chicago April 2-5 at the Chicago Renaissance Hotel. For more information, call (617) 489-6000 or visit the group’s web site: http://www. rnt.org.