Washington fills up on interns

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On an early afternoon in September, Ayanna Mitchell, a Teachers for Chicago intern who teaches 2nd grade at Harold Washington Elementary School, is away at Chicago State University. Traina Tucker, her TFC mentor, has taken over her class. Smiling cheerfully, the 16-year veteran appears to have slipped in without missing a beat.

On closer inspection, though, it’s clear she’s broken into a sweat; perspiration streaks stand out on her cheeks. Only minutes ago, Tucker was helping another of her interns with a child’s crisis. “He freaked out,” Tucker says of the child. “I don’t know why. So my mentee was freaked out, and I had to go help her while I was covering this classroom.”

Tucker is one of four TFC mentors at Washington, a school of about 700 in Burnside, and Mitchell is one of 14 TFC interns—on a faculty of 31. As a pilot program for TFC, Washington has far and away the largest number of interns at any one school. While some school leaders would shudder at having so many teachers-in-training, Sandra Lewis, principal of Harold Washington, has rolled out a red carpet for them.

“I love it, I love it, I love it,” she raves. Teachers for Chicago, she says, is “making all the difference in the world. … The thing I liked was that the teachers wanted to be in teaching and that mentorship was a part of it.”

In her 11 years at Washington, Lewis has filled her teacher vacancies with care. Similarly, she chooses mentors with care. “If you’re gonna have someone mentoring, they ought to be good,” she observes. “They ought to be the best ones you have.”

Typically, the best people don’t want to leave the classroom, she says, so she has to do some coaxing.

When Lewis first approached Tucker, for example, Tucker said “no.” Eventually, she relented, reluctantly. “For the first three months I didn’t like [mentoring] because I missed my children,” she recalls.

Over time, though, she began to see the positive effect she had on the fledgling teachers. “Eventually I felt needed,” she says. “They started to ask me to come in the classroom and teach a lesson or answer a question.”

Lewis and TFC require the mentors to report weekly on their interns’ progress, following a detailed checklist of points to watch for. In the three years that Lewis has welcomed Teachers for Chicago, mentoring has seeped into the bloodstream at Washington. It’s hard to spend more than two minutes at the school without walking into a mentoring moment.

For example, Tucker takes over the 2nd-grade classroom of brand-new intern Conmeka Madison while Madison observes a reading lesson taught by a second-year intern. Later, Tucker tells a reporter that Madison’s observation was the first outside her own classroom. “I have taught in her room so she could see, but now it’s time to let her go out. She needs to be exposed to other people, too.”

But Tucker continues to model instruction for her. At Madison’s request, Tucker introduces a writing lesson from the Power Writing series, a highly structured set of exercises for beginning writers. “I just gave her the book last week, and she didn’t quite know how to introduce it,” Tucker tells a reporter. While Tucker writes an outline on the board, Madison sits down with a boy in the back of the room and supervises his work, answering his questions while watching Tucker teach.

Tucker asks the students questions and praises each response with enthusiasm. She also leaves room for Madison to take the writing lesson and develop it her own way, telling the class, “Your teacher may do it a little differently. By the time Friday comes, you’ll have your own story completed.”

Teachers for Chicago stresses cooperative learning and encourages discipline that praises and rewards good behavior rather than reinforces negative behaviors with teacher attention.

Tucker puts these methods into action at the end of the lesson, taking a moment to reward the students for their attentiveness. She adds five points to the team scores on the board and takes an extra moment to recognize a boy who has been struggling with discipline. For today, he is seated alone and earning his own points; with the latest additions, he’s near the top of the class. “You’ve been doing marvelous today,” she tells him. “You keep up the good work, and I’m sure you’ll be back with your group soon.”

The phone rings—each classroom at Washington has one—and Madison gets it. As it turns out, it’s the boy’s mother. “Could you tell her how good he’s being today?” Tucker asks Madison, who does so quietly.

Mentors help out in the tough times, too. Sixth-grade teacher Michelle Navarre and her class have been having a rough day—students have been talking out of turn and haven’t been paying attention. Navarre encourages the class to refocus by asking each student to stand, say his or her name, and pledge, “I am ready to get it together!”

Despite giggles from students, the pledge works pretty well, and the class moves on to revise individual writing assignments. But a few minutes later, Navarre’s mentor, Joe Mayes, stops in to deliver an old-fashioned, stern lecture about the importance of respect.

First-year intern Marlene Brown says mentor Mary Barnes has been especially helpful in the area of classroom decision making. As Brown considers various possibilities in a given situation, Barnes helps her envision the likely consequences of each course of action; then Barnes asks, “Now, which do you think is better?”

“She takes you under her wing,” says Brown, a former paraprofessional who worked with autistic students and now has her own special education classroom. “She doesn’t throw you to the sharks. She almost guides you through so you can’t make a mistake. I get full support.”

The four mentors at Washington are among this year’s citywide crop of 58 who supervise TFC interns throughout CPS. Chosen by principals, the mentors attend a week-long summer training session sponsored by TFC and monthly daylong workshops throughout the school year. The summer training focuses on the practical strategies mentors need to help their interns, such as techniques for observing and giving feedback. A steering committee of mentors sets the agenda for the monthly workshops, which give mentors the opportunity to express concerns as they arise.

Mentoring isn’t just a one-way learning experience. Tucker says her interns have taught her new ways of teaching, especially team-teaching. For example, in September, TFC interns Daniel Baker, Rhonda Miller and Cassie Halloran took a science lesson on states of matter—it had children make ice cream—and turned it into a three-class, team-taught project. The lesson was one of some 9,360 the school system has developed for every day of every subject at every grade level.

“I always worked by myself,” says Tucker. Seeing 90 kids working together at one time was a shock. “How could they get all these kids?” she asked herself. But seeing it has inspired her to give team teaching a try. “I would love to get together with my coworkers and do something like that.”

Baker and Miller, both second-year interns teaching 2nd grade, have classrooms next door to each other. Their collaboration includes even the mundane yet essential task of washroom supervision. Baker takes the boys from both classes, and Miller takes the girls.

Mentor Cassandra Jefferson, now in her 30th year of teaching, also has picked up some new tricks. She saw Miller using a can full of popsicle sticks, each with a child’s name, to decide which student to call on. As each student spoke, she removed the stick with his name, ensuring a student who had not spoken would be called on next.

“I thought that was good,” observes Jefferson. “You know how sometimes a teacher will call on the same people over and over. More children were able to speak. When I go back in the classroom, I can use these ideas. It’s a learning process both ways.”

In addition to her mentoring duties, Tucker oversees the school’s book room and is analyzing last year’s Iowa test results by teacher. She is impressed with the scores of last year’s interns. “Most of them got close to a year’s gain,” she says.

Lewis views TFC as a tool for developing “a kind of school you want to be in, where teachers are helping each other.”

And teachers agree. “It’s coming alive, and I see it,” observes Tucker. “now everybody’s friendly and collegial.”