Facing reality

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It’s the end of August 2010. A group of Illinois State University teacher candidates has just been transplanted to Chicago for a program that will put them in Little Village and Auburn Gresham schools for an entire school year.

The candidates are “teacher interns” at ISU’s Professional Development School program in Little Village. The university was one of the first nationwide to pioneer the model in the mid-1990s, offering teacher candidates a longer, deeper immersion in the schools where they student teach. It also offers on-site coursework for candidates and professional development opportunities for both the interns and current teachers.

The program in Little Village, which started at Eli Whitney Elementary in fall 2005 and is now in six schools (five in Little Village and one in Auburn Gresham), is one of ISU’s newest and reflects an emerging trend in teacher education: hands-on experience in urban classrooms. It is the university’s only professional development school program that provides students with housing and activities that immerse them in a specific community.

According to a study of ISU graduates published in 2007 in the Journal of Teacher Education, those who went through a professional development school program (which the university also offers elsewhere in the state) were significantly more likely to embark on a teaching career and stay in the profession than those who went through traditional student teaching.

The Little Village Professional Development School program, like STEP-UP, is part of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, a federally funded program that aims to prepare top Illinois State University teacher candidates to work in Little Village and elsewhere in CPS.

During the first semester, the interns are in schools three days a week, with the other two days spent in seminars and classes on teaching methods. This year, the interns divided their first semester roughly equally between Little Village and Auburn Gresham, then returned to spend their second semester student-teaching in Little Village five days a week.

The program has drawn praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At an August 2010 White House summit, while discussing efforts to make teacher education more hands-on, Duncan highlighted ISU’s housing in Little Village as “absolute cultural immersion” that leads teacher candidates to want to come back and serve the community.

For the interns, coming to the city means frank discussions of safety. During a walk toward the Central Park stop on the Pink Line—part of a lesson about the city’s transit system and the neighborhood’s important bus routes—Dakota Pawlicki stops to point out tagging on the viaduct that divides Little Village, a Latino community, from North Lawndale, which is predominantly African American.

“This, the five-pointed crown, is a symbol of the Latin Kings. Any time you see K attached to a gang sign, it means [that someone could kill] members of that gang,” says Pawlicki, Illinois State’s coordinator for the program. “If I see GDK, it means if I’m a Gangster Disciple, I could be at risk of being killed.” He points out the 26K on the wall: Anyone who is a member of the “26” gang is not safe in the area.

Pawlicki’s larger point is that gang violence is a reality in students’ lives, and in the community, and the interns need to understand that reality. But he also cautions against fear. Earlier that afternoon, he told a story about a group of Indiana University student teachers who lived in a high-crime area of Rogers Park on the North Side. Frightened by the stories of one resident, who showed up to a police beat meeting and convinced the crowd that everyone congregating in a neighboring park was a drug dealer, the student teachers stopped going out after sunset.

“I really want to warn you against that kind of mentality,” Pawlicki says. Realistic questions about which blocks to avoid can spiral into overblown anxiety.  “One block will turn into four, will turn into these people, will turn into this community.”

At the Pink Line stop, the teacher interns buy fare cards, then pile onto a bus headed back south. They sigh with relief: The bus is air-conditioned.

“We’re getting off at 26th and Lawndale, so when somebody sees that flash up there [on the bus’s screen], yank on the cord,” Pawlicki says. Once they get off, everyone in the group heads to a Mexican restaurant, Nuevo Leon, for lunch.

 “I’m going to explotar (explode),” says teacher intern Michelle Smith. “I don’t think I’ve been here 24 hours, and I’ve already eaten six tacos. This is going to be a problem.”

Several days later, at the end of the orientation week, Pawlicki tells the group to “put your teacher hat back on.” It’s time for a question-and-answer session with Little Village teachers, a chance for the teacher candidates to meet people who were recently in their shoes and glean tips on how to be successful in the classroom and the neighborhood.

There is the usual advice—show up on time, dress well, treat the whole year as a job interview. But concern over possible large class sizes is palpable in some of the questions. “How do you manage a class of 35 kids?” one intern asks. (Last summer, large class sizes were expected because of the district’s severe budget problems.)

The teachers offer several strategies, but concede that not all of them will work. “If you know all the students’ names and you know something interesting about them during their first week then you have that connection,” says Gary Elementary 5th-grade teacher Jessica Aranda.

Aranda tells the interns that members of the community will notice how they dress and what they do around town.

“I often end up walking to school with my students,” Aranda says. “When they see you outside the school, they start seeing you as a human, not just a teacher. It’s like, ‘Oh, she buys Coke.’”

When the panel is over, Pawlicki gives each teacher intern three index cards, and tells everyone to write down their three biggest fears about the year ahead, then say them out loud.

The fears vary: Will I be organized enough to get things done on time? Will I click with my cooperating teacher? “I’m worried my Spanish isn’t going to be ready for my 1st-grade bilingual kids,” one woman says.  Half a dozen hands wave in the air, showing agreement.
“I have never gotten up in front of a class of people. When I have to start taking over, I can’t picture myself pulling this off,” says another.

“Those of you who know me, know I’m a perfectionist,” confesses a third. “I know things are not going to go well, and I know I’m going to have bad days, but it terrifies me.”

Pawlicki closes the activity by telling the students that “this week, you have met a bunch of people who have been telling you, warning you, informing you—people who have been really good at freaking you out.”

“You will continue to meet people who will do a double take and say you are crazy” for wanting to be a student teacher in Little Village, he says. “But the whole goal of this is for you to become yourself. Take all the information you get, and decide for yourself. If you can live here, and fall in love with the city, that’s the idea, because then you will want to stay here and teach.”