Reporter turned teacher offers tips and advice for first-year peers

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Leslie Baldacci

photo by John Booz

Leslie Baldacci

In 1999, Leslie Baldacci, a 25-year veteran reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times, quit her job to go back to school to become a teacher. Five years later, Baldacci, a 5th- and 6th-grade social studies teacher at Dixon Elementary in Chatham, talks to CATALYST Associate Editor Debra Williams about what new teachers need to stay in the system. Baldacci recently published a memoir, “Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom: Courage, Hope and Learning on Chicago’s South Side.”

Q: Talk about your first year of teaching at a school in Roseland. In your book, you say you did not get much support from the school’s administration.

A: It was difficult. I was 45 when I did this, so I could deal with it. Frankly, it was harder for me to deal with the disrespect from the children, which was something I was not used to. But I was determined. Plus the children needed me. My 2nd-graders had been through four teachers the year before. They were a mess when I got them.

Q: What do new teachers need to keep them teaching in their schools?

A: When a new teacher comes in, they need someone at their elbow, another grownup, helping them get into their routine. I so wish that I had had a student teaching experience with a generous and capable leader teaching me. Teachers leave because we grow discouraged and we lose faith in ourselves. We need extraordinary support not to lose that faith.

Q: Do new teachers need something else besides a mentor?

A: Time for planning. Time to observe another classroom in the same grade level with an experienced teacher. They need those friendships that reach out down the hall and say, “Let’s have your kids read to my kids.” They need to see some creative connecting of the schedule to see how we can make things work better if we work together. And sometimes they just need someone to listen.

Those relationships are hard to build because we can never go out to lunch together. We can never talk on the phone. We can barely go to the bathroom. We basically come to our job and spend the day with children by ourselves.

Q: Talk about the importance of principal support for new teachers.

A: Leadership is everything with a school. It sets the tone. A strong leader encourages teachers to do what they do in impossible situations.

Q: What advice can you offer to new teachers, especially if they are at schools where they don’t feel supported?

A: They can repeat this mantra to themselves: “I work for these children. I’m here to serve these children.” I encourage teachers to support each other. Reach out. Ask for help from your other teachers. They want to help you. Buy the expensive stapler—the kids break the cheap ones. Sing every day.

Q: In the classroom or outside the classroom?

A: Wherever you need to.