New teachers sink or swim

Print More

The Chicago public school system hires some 1,200 teachers every year, sending beginners—roughly three-quarters of that total—into tough settings with the expectation that with little support, they will perform with grace and skill. It’s a false assumption. Many novices look back at their training and complain it was insufficient—too lofty and out of touch—for the challenges they face.

The support they receive on the job proves inadequate. “This is a sink or swim model,” observes Michelle Parker, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “New people are expected to perform like 20-year veterans, which doesn’t happen in other professions, like law or medicine. It’s stupid.” Lately, authorities in Chicago and Springfield, following a nationwide trend, have taken steps to institute a period of induction, or an apprenticeship, for new teachers. Meanwhile, education colleges have begun to adjust their programs to give their students more hands-on experience before they hit the hard realities of city schools.

For a schoolteacher, lunch is a luxury. For Christine Etapa, a beginning 6th-grade teacher at McKay Elementary School in Marquette Park, it doesn’t exist. Breakfast is all.

Normally in the early morning hours before students arrive at her third-floor classroom, Etapa downs a container of yogurt and a banana, but on a wintry morning in January she has stopped on the way from home for a fast-food croissant. It’s not yet 8 a.m. as Etapa munches the croissant at her crowded desk. It will be her only food until dinner.

Aside from eating, Etapa uses the extra time in her room to plan the hours ahead and to meet with parents and students who care to stop by. Few do.

At 9 o’clock, a flow of 6th-graders starts coursing through the door. “Hats and coats in the lockers,” Etapa tells the children, all members of her homeroom. “Some of you guys have been lax about that.” Suddenly, Etapa, a thickset woman of 45, notices that she’s missing half her normal coterie of students. “Hey, where is everybody?” she complains. “We need to get to the business of the morning.”

Soon the stragglers materialize, but it will be hard to get through the business not only of the morning but also of the entire day. Etapa, a devoted 1st-year teacher with a sterling academic record and plenty of experience with the public schools, has found her debut season an exercise in frustration. She’s wrestled with how best to reach her students; she’s switched her instructional style and achieved but mixed success. There’s been only a thin lifeline to her colleagues, the McKay principal, the education college that she attended and the Board of Education itself.

Etapa’s experience is common. “It’s tough, tough going at first,” says Genevieve Lopardo, the education dean at Chicago State University, Etapa’s alma mater. “The schools in Chicago are fraught with problems. Likely as not, there’s no one to mentor you along. You can only have great respect for the beginner.”

After her first month at McKay, Etapa went to see her doctor for a checkup. She’d lost 20 pounds. “What have been you doing, dieting?” the doctor asked. “Nope,” replied Etapa. “I’ve been teaching.”

To be sure, Etapa operates in a setting with built-in problems. Fully 92 percent of McKay’s predominantly African-American students come from poor homes. The average 6th-grader at McKay reads, writes and computes far below state norms on the IGAP tests.

The school is so overcrowded that some 400 kids from the neighborhood are bused to outlying schools. The nearly 1,100 who are in attendance are divided among three sites: the original school, an unused section of a nearby Catholic facility and some classrooms in a synagogue. In the original building, where Etapa works, the need for classrooms has subsumed the library, the computer lab and the teachers lounge. The music teacher has set up shop on the stage of the auditorium; the speech teacher occupies the projection booth. It’s no wonder that the Board of Education has scheduled McKay for an ample addition.

Though Etapa’s own classroom is worn, she’s made the most of the space. A bright bulletin board reflects the winter season, with penguins and snowflake trim. The stuff of social studies is prominent—a travel poster from Egypt, a pyramid atop a cabinet and four globes spread about. Since McKay lacks a standing library, Etapa has compiled her own book collection, placing it in a corner; book reports are due three times a month, and an incentive program gives the best readers coupons to Pizza Hut, which picks up the tab.

Eight Macintosh computers line one wall. The best spelling homework is posted with stickers and comments attached (“Super Job!” “Love it!”). One chart lists the children’s birthdays. Another notes the “fines,” or penalties, associated with not doing homework, with fighting in class or with failing to wear the McKay uniform—a white top, blue bottom and black shoes. A hamster the students have named Mickey scurries about in his cage.

“OK, let me have your homework,” Etapa announces at 9:10. The youngsters, seated at desks pushed together in groupings of five, make moves like they are foraging for the short assignments in English, math and spelling, but only half the children hand anything in.

At McKay, the upper grades are departmentalized, meaning the youngsters shift between various teachers for different subjects. Etapa’s specialty is social studies. Over a day, she instructs 120 6th-graders in the past and particulars of the eastern Hemisphere, in addition to covering library, handwriting, spelling and some math and science for her homeroom.

Within minutes, Etapa starts the kids making what will become copies of Egyptian scrolls. They are to glue a flap of tissue paper on a toilet-paper roll and then decorate it with their name in hieroglyphics. “This tissue is much like the texture of papyrus, which is all they had to work with in the Nile Delta,” Etapa explains, as the youngsters get busy with their scissors, glue and markers.

During the first academic quarter, Etapa taught social studies from a textbook, having the students read chapters out loud in class and then take multiple-choice tests on the content. But the approach proved disappointing; at report-card pickup night in November, few of the children had passing grades. The situation depressed Etapa (“My goal in life isn’t to flunk 100 kids,” she says), and she switched to a more progressive, hands-on approach. “Now we do thematic units, art projects and ditto sheets,” she reports. “We play Jeopardy, and I tell them stories. I still give multiple-choice tests, but they can use their notes.”

The new strategy has gone only so far. Using aluminum foil and glue, each student made an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. That was a success. Another project had the youngsters craft an amulet from a frozen-orange-juice lid, but only one child brought in a lid. Over the Christmas break, Etapa assigned a report on an individual god or goddess; only a third of the youngsters turned in so much as a paragraph, and the deadline’s been extended.

“No matter what you try, you can’t get much interest in the projects or in the question and answers,” Etapa laments in January. “The get-up-and-go isn’t there, and that’s upsetting.”

Using science kits, she has conducted all-class experiments, such as seeing which dish detergent produces the biggest bubbles or testing the acidity of various liquids with cabbage juice as the indicator. “Though the kids like the experiments, it’s more because they can get into groups and talk,” Etapa says.

Her largest problem is keeping control over the class. She says a few troublemakers will excite the rest of the students, forcing her to settle everyone down via “classroom management”-in other words, old-fashioned discipline.

“RaShawn! Tamara!” Etapa shouts at two girls who are making a ruckus instead of doing their scrolls. (The children’s names in this story have been changed.) “In your seats, please. I am waiting …” The teacher has just seconds to spend helping another girl with her scroll before Larry, a beefy boy, starts making a disturbance. “Larry, I see papers in your hand that have nothing to do with social studies.”

Reginald, a short boy, stops measuring his scroll in favor of pestering his neighbors, among them George, a handsome lad in a Boss sweatshirt. “Reginald is social and very popular,” Etapa has related. “He can get the other kids going at the drop of a hat. He’s not a bad kid—he’s just silly. George is another story. My assumption is he doesn’t know how to read. He does no classwork, no homework, nothing. It’s like he’s given up.”

The period is ending, and the class is drifting toward chaos. “Everybody put your materials away,” orders a harried Etapa, her voice becoming shrill. “Whose tissue paper is that? Listen, you will not get another piece of tissue just because you’ve been careless.”

“When I was a little girl and we played games, I was always the teacher,” relates Etapa, who grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and attended public schools. Her father, a maintenance man, discouraged her pursuing a profession, and so after business college she became a computer operator at Illinois Bell, where she met her future husband, Byron.

The couple, married in 1971, settled into a small brick house in Brighton Park, and Chris quit work to raise four sons. “It was important to me to be home when my boys were young,” she says. “That meant we never lived in the lap of luxury, but we were never hurting either. I’d do odd jobs to help out, like cutting lawns and puttying windows, and I always clipped coupons.”

Once the Etapa boys were enrolled at Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy, the local public school, Chris became involved with the PTO. “People would stand around the door after dropping off their children, and Mrs. Etapa would talk with them,” recalls Jane Weldon, the principal at the time. “She had great interest in the school, and the other parents developed a respect for her.” Soon she was the PTO president; then she served in a series of teacher aide positions. In her penultimate incarnation, she tutored youngsters and briefly took the helm of classrooms for teachers who needed relief.

In 1987, Etapa enrolled in college part time. With credit from Daley College and Roosevelt University, she entered the education school at Chicago State to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Her schedule included survey classes and methods courses; she particularly liked a reading methods class for the no-nonsense style of its instructor, Dean Lopardo. Etapa’s classroom observation, a requirement for an education degree, took her into a variety of settings, from Curie High School to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She did her student teaching for Turner-Drew Language Academy in Roseland.

Student teaching, performed over a semester in both a 2nd and a 6th grade, amazed Etapa. “I never realized how all these little personalities sitting before you can influence your teaching,” she notes. “You sketch out a lesson, but then you have to get it across to the kids, and the best-laid plans go awry.”

Yet she seems to have risen to the occasion, relying heavily on the hands-on approach preached heavily at Chicago State “as a way to reach ‘the auditory and tactile learner,'” notes Etapa. “Chris was very creative,” relates Donna Tarbunas, the 6th-grade instructor who oversaw her. Tarbunas remembers how her charge brought in a wheelchair and had the students use it on the playground to better understand what it’s like to be handicapped.

Emerging from Chicago State in June 1995, Etapa was confident in her abilities. She’d been raising her sons, weathering a divorce from her husband, holding down her job at Gunsaulus and earning a 3.95 grade-point average at Chicago State, “and all without a bead of sweat on my head,” she laughs. She’d passed the basic skills and elementary education tests required for state certification. During the summer, she took three workshops on teaching science (the source of the kits she utilizes) and another workshop sponsored by the Chicago Tribune on harnessing the paper for current events.

While Anthony Forst, the current principal at Gunsaulus, wanted to hire Etapa, he was constrained by circumstances; his only opening for last fall was for a bilingual resource teacher, and under strict teacher integration rules he could not add another white teacher to his staff. So Etapa went hustling elsewhere. At a job fair the Board of Education ran at Malcolm X College in late June, she passed her resume to Alan Berger, the principal at McKay, who called her in. “I was doing a lot of hiring because I had 16 vacancies,” recalls Berger. “The principal at Gunsaulus was very enthusiastic about Mrs. Etapa, and so I hired her.”

She faced her 6th-graders for the first time wearing a white blouse and a navy-blue jumper, her version of the McKay uniform. “With four boys, I hadn’t bought white in years,” she says. “There’s nothing like your first day, because despite all the background you’ve had, now you’ve been thrown in the pot and you’re all alone.”

At 9:55 Etapa’s homeroom exits, and in comes another class of 6th-graders, who toil on their scrolls with considerably more care. They are followed, at 10:30, by a class of hellions, prime among them a short-haired boy named David. David complains that he has no tissue paper, and when Etapa directs him to sit in her “library,” he flashes a wicked imitation of her to his classmates, who laugh uproariously.

Etapa’s irritation grows as she finds few youngsters concentrating on the task at hand. “We did a dry run on these scrolls yesterday,” she says, “but some of you are doing this your own way, or not at all. This is not Burger King. You can just slap these together, but that’ll be reflected in your grade.” Etapa reminds the students that tomorrow is the last chance for them to submit the god or goddess reports. One boy offers that he doesn’t know where his local public library is.

Etapa explains that the ancient Egyptians believed a person’s spirit could recognize a body after death only if it had been mummified. David is staring off into space. By the time the bell rings, however, he and another boy are playfully slapping each other. Etapa shepherds David down to meet with an assistant principal.

After yet another unruly period, it’s noon, and an aide comes in, affording Etapa her one break of the day, a coveted 20 minutes. “This is the time when I gather my wits,” she comments. She also takes the opportunity to hit the bathroom, yet she avoids the cubicle-size teachers’ lounge situated near the boiler room because it gets smoky from cigarettes.

In general, Etapa’s interaction with colleagues is cursory, save for the 6th-grade math teacher, Christine Lindahl, whom she seeks out for counsel. Etapa rarely sees Principal Berger. “When I go to check my mailbox his door is usually closed, which means he doesn’t want to be disturbed,” relates Etapa. “I’ve talked to him a handful of times since I’ve been here, and that’s it.”

McKay is in the midst of preparing for its science fair, and after her break Etapa has a bunch of students, in pairs, present their projects. Some submissions detail experiments Etapa has previously conducted with the whole class. Others show no “testable question,” the key factor in any acceptable science project. Two girls give a presentation that’s near to incomprehensible.

It falls to Jeaneen, a pretty girl and one of Etapa’s better pupils, to reverse the downward trend with a project entitled “How Bleach Reacts with Acid in Aspirin.” Jeaneen, speaking for her partner, delivers a fine explanation of her procedure and results, and her display board is clear and concise. Recognizing the real thing, the class applauds her.

After a hurried lunch in the McKay lunchroom, more youngsters present their projects, and then Etapa makes some remarks: “When you are a scientist, you have to follow directions carefully, because the amount you put in has a lot to do with the reaction you’ll get. One other comment. Now I may be wrong, but I think in many cases one partner seems to be doing most of the work. That’s okay if it’s agreed upon, but if it’s not—and you’re doing all the work—you’re not necessarily doing your partner a favor.”

Homework gets assigned. At 1:50, the students go off with another teacher. Etapa takes a preparation period until the academic day concludes, using the time to straighten up her room and grade papers. Although school lets out at 2:30, Etapa’s attention to the children continues.

As a Board of Education social center, McKay offers after-school classes for students who stay late. Depending on the day of the week, Etapa coaches spelling or organizes arts and crafts and games for 5th-graders.

On the way home she may stop at the library or a teachers store for materials. She looks everywhere for free offerings (“I’m a real garbage-picker”), but she often pays for this and that—$36 for a case of ditto paper, $17 for black-line copying masters relating to Black History Month, a few dollars for the whistles and candy she awards each Friday as prizes for attendance and uniform compliance. During the fall, Etapa spent so much on photocopying that she asked her sons to give her a table-top photocopier for Christmas. And that’s what she got.

By January, Etapa’s own outlay for classroom extras totals $600, a goodly sum given that she earns $29,000 a year and that the board affords only $50 per class for instructional supplies.

Back in Brighton Park, Etapa prepares supper for herself and the three sons still at home, now adolescents, plus a nephew in residence. Hectic schedules mean it’s rare for everyone to sit down and eat together. Etapa has scaled back her studies toward a master’s degree in teaching, lightening her evening routine; now she prepares lessons and phones parents until 10 o’clock. “Sometimes I’m calling because homework hasn’t been turned in,” she says, “and sometimes it’s for discipline. Most parents are pretty nice to me, and after a phone call, there’s usually a big improvement. Soon, though, it’s back to normal.”

During a quiet moment in January, Etapa frets about her students: “They aren’t bad kids, but their attention span is short. I have to repeat myself a lot, and because of all the chattering I’m not sure what they are getting. The papers they turn in aren’t very good. There are behavioral problems, and learning problems that have never been diagnosed. There’s a lot of transiency. Kids come and go. Things never settle in.

“Though I’d like to run a relaxed classroom, one with humor, the atmosphere I face doesn’t really allow that. If they’d just cooperate for a week, they’d see my true teaching style, but as it is, I’m spending so much time and energy controlling them.”

Chicago State has a support program for its recent graduates, regular gripe sessions and access to mentors, but for Etapa the offerings have been too little and too late. For moral support she frequently calls up Vivian House, a friend and Chicago State classmate who is also weathering her first year teaching. “Chris worries about whether she has problems reaching her kids because she’s white and they’re black,” says House, who is African American. “I reassure her. ‘It’s not you,’ I tell her. ‘It’s that these kids don’t have high expectations.'”

Christine Lindahl, Etapa’s confidant at McKay, began teaching in 1989, and she recognizes her friend’s difficulties as those of the novice: “The kids know you’re new, and they’re going to try everything they can to push you. They can sense when they’ve gotten to you, just like they sense that you care. So you have to develop tricks to deal with the feisty ones, to discipline without getting mad. You have to build a reputation. Chris is doing that, slowly.”

By the time April comes, the situation for Etapa has improved. Her classes have completed more projects, making mummies, stamps and Egyptian headdresses. A field trip she arranged to the Field Museum was particularly meaningful. “That day the kids told me what they’d been studying made more sense to them,” she relates.

There are concerns, though. The board’s embrace of Direct Instruction, a rote teaching method, disturbs Etapa, since it flies in the face of the less regimented techniques she’s relying on. Her out-of-pocket costs for supplies have risen to $1,300, and another academic quarter looms ahead.

Berger has told Etapa she’s doing well, but that she needs to pay more attention to discipline and attendance. “This year has been a learning experience for her,” says Berger, without going into detail.

A more involved Berger now helps Etapa distribute candy and prizes to her best-behaved pupils in a monthly ceremony that doubles as a math lesson.

Looking back, Etapa feels some factors could have made a difference in her ability to cope. She wishes the classroom observation she did at Chicago State had been more active. “You basically just sat there, never taking control,” she says. Grateful for Lindahl’s assistance, Etapa nonetheless feels she would have profited from guidance from a mentor-teacher, “someone with experience, who knows the pitfalls to avoid.” The idea of an induction period—an apprenticeship for new teachers—appeals to her.

In the end, she remains cautiously hopeful about her prospects: “Last fall, I was questioning my abilities. Is this what I went to school for, I asked myself. Now the kids have calmed down some, and I’m not having to constantly say, ‘Be quiet.’ I feel I’m making headway. I’m more confident that I’m actually teaching them something. Anyway, this better work out, because it’s a little late to change course.”