Police officer reverses course on teaching

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Twenty years ago as a student at Lindblom High, Ladesta Skulark was chosen to counsel elementary school students. After her experience, she swore she would never be a teacher. “I was with them 23 hours a day,” she recalls. “By the end, I was like: No, no, no—I don’t ever want to do that.” Today, Skulark is cooking up chemistry labs at DuSable High after completing a master’s degree in education under the Teachers for Chicago program.

Skulark enrolled in TFC in 1997, after 12 years with the Chicago Police Department and a year-long stint as a substitute in CPS elementary schools. She joined the police force with the idea of going into forensics, but ended up spending her career as a beat cop. In 1994, she finally went back to school to complete a bachelor’s degree; she graduated the following year with a major in chemistry from Chicago State University.

“I was a little unsure of where I wanted to go with that,” she says. So she took a year to work as a substitute in the schools her two sons attended, Wacker Elementary and Westcott Elementary. Her job performance won the attention of regular teachers, she says, who asked, “Are you going into teaching?”

“They let me know about TFC,” says Skulark. Getting into the program was no picnic. Nearly 800 people applied in 1997-98; Skulark was one of 115 accepted.

Her transcript and essay passed muster; and she made it through a rigorous interview. Clearing those hurdles made her a finalist and gained her admission to a preparatory course called Urban Teacher. “We still had to take a class before they got to the final 100,” she relates. “There were about 200, 250 of us who took the Urban Teacher common course.”

In the end, acceptance is influenced by the needs of the schools that request TFC interns. “This year, we had a very small number of high school [requests],” says Pam Sanders, coordinator for TFC. “So this year, if you only wanted to teach high school, you had a hard time.” Applicants must provide first and second preferences of grade level; sometimes they say “no” when offered their second choice.

The six-week Urban Teacher course, taught in 10 sections both day and night over the summer, is the only formal preparation TFC interns get before they’re assigned their own classrooms of kids. It focuses on curriculum planning and methods of teaching, with a strong emphasis on cooperative learning. Every intern must develop a unit of instruction and spend one full day in a school. Other topics include discipline, how CPS works, parent and community involvement and handling stress.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Skulark hoots with laughter when a reporter asks whether the Urban Teacher course prepared her for her first year of teaching. “No!” she exclaims. When the gale of mirth subsides, she adds, “OK, I mean, not me personally. You have to look at the background that I come from. I could see it just touching the tip of the iceberg for people who haven’t been exposed to inner-city children. It didn’t help me because I was always around inner-city children.”

Skulark says her substitute days were more helpful. “That was the rude awakening,” she says. As for Urban Teacher, “I was like: None of this applies. It’s not even like this,” she says with another belly laugh. Summing up her first year of TFC, she says, “They put us in the fire, baptism by fire. They put us right in.”

Skulark isn’t the only intern who would have liked more experience before being thrown into a classroom. Last summer, TFC added an optional weeklong school internship to address the issue, and 42 interns observed and assisted summer school teachers. Pam Sanders notes, however, that some applicants can’t afford to quit their day jobs early to spend that much time in a school.

With her science background, Skulark found herself in high demand when it came time to place interns. “Mr. Mingo went out and recruited me,” she recalls. (Charles Mingo is the recently retired principal of DuSable.) “I was one of the first eight notified I had a placement.”

Reliable source

DuSable has long relied on TFC to fill teacher vacancies. “There’s like eight of us here.” And once finished, they often stay. Science department chair Eugene Stampley was an early graduate of the program.

Asked how she survived her baptism by fire, Skulark points to peers and mentors. “I had a lot of outside help, a lot,” she says. “What really helped me the most that first year was my classmates. The ones that all went to DuSable. We were all really close. We were like a warm family, welcoming.”

She adds that interns encourage each other to bid for the same school. She and her first-year colleagues persuaded one of their number to join them at DuSable by saying, “Come be with us. You can wear blue jeans and sneakers and put your hair in a ponytail and just work.”

Skulark says DuSable is among the most hospitable schools for TFC interns. Camaraderie and after-hours socializing are encouraged. “This is the best one as far as atmosphere, family atmosphere,” she observes. “Other places, they will talk every now and then, but we get together every week after class.”

“But now we’re past that stage,” she continues. “In our second year, people start to branch off.”

In addition, Skulark developed new connections by supervising extracurricular activities. She coached softball her first year and girls’ track her second.

One morning last February, physical education teacher Jerry White, who coaches boys’ track, stops by her room three times to discuss coaching and kids and just to chat. Although Skulark’s mentor teacher, Tom Seidis, is sidelined at home with an injury, she checks in at lunchtime with Stampley for a quick hello.

Sense of humor

Skulark’s sense of humor carries her through many challenges of urban teaching. A few seconds after the first-period bell has rung, she stands in her empty classroom, arms flung wide, telling a reporter, “You see! The tardy bell has rung, and I have no students.”

When the first two arrive one minute later, Skulark hands them today’s “bell ringer,” or opening activity, a worksheet on balancing equations. It keeps the class occupied while she checks in with recent absentees to arrange ways for them to catch up on missed assignments.

During today’s lesson, students dissolve a sliver of magnesium ribbon in a weak solution of hydrochloric acid. Every student has a set of goggles, but there aren’t enough gloves to go around.

Skulark alternates between warning the class of the dangers of playing with acid and persuading nervous students to handle the test tubes without gloves. “You don’t need gloves if you pay attention,” she reassures them. She issues instructions calmly and confidently: “If you spill your acid, do not panic. Just move away from it and call me.”

While writing up his lab report, Quinton Covington takes time out to rate his teacher. “She teach us a lot of different stuff. We do like hands-on. We learn more when we’re doing the work,” he observes. “She likes to teach us. She push us to learn, too.”

Revolving door

Cedric Ramsey’s experience points to the effects of teacher shortages in science. “I had, I think, six different physics teachers last year.” In chemistry this year, thanks to Teachers for Chicago, he will have only one. Of chemistry and Skulark, he says, “It’s hard, but she help us. She teaches us. I learned more in here than I learned in physics last year.”

Afterward, Skulark says the biggest problem she faces is “we don’t have fire—the gas leaks.” She tried ordering alcohol burners, “but it’s not the same. It’s really hard to do a chem lab without fire.” She’s in the process of inventorying all the chemicals in her supply closet. “These chemicals are older than me—and I’m 40,” she quips.

Despite the challenges she faces, Skulark is impressed with her students’ efforts. “I was really shocked how the ones who made mistakes went back and did it again without my telling them to,” she observes. “They really wanted to make theirs work. They wanted their [results] to look like everyone else’s.”

Skulark acknowledges her police training comes in handy for classroom management. “The students wonder how I can control them so well,” she notes. At first she didn’t let them in on her previous career, but now she jokes about it with them. “They say to me, ‘Ms. Skulark, you look like the police,'” she says. “You make me police you all the time,” she wisecracks in return.

Months later, Skulark takes a moment on a day off to reflect on her TFC experience. Most valuable for her was “probably the exposure to so many other educators and being able to adapt and be open, to share ideas and be able to change those ideas to fit your scenario.”

She acknowledges that, like many teachers, she thought at first she knew best. “We’re all teachers, right? We all want our idea to be the best one,” she observes. But thanks to the exposure she’s had to so many new ideas through TFC, she says, she’s become more open to them.

She’s also become more flexible in offering help to other teachers, saying, “Hey, use it if it can help you. This is what I can do with it, but change it to fit with your scenario.”