In the Classroom

For new teachers, school support can make the difference between staying or leaving

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A second-grader in Wayne Township works on a reading assignment.

A purple graduation gown casually hung against a wall in the front corner of Mandi Beutel’s second grade classroom at Chapelwood Elementary School, almost like an afterthought. Like she might’ve had it dry-cleaned and just forgot to take it home.

But this one, scavenged from Goodwill and strung up near her 1998 college diploma and honor cords, was there to set the tone for the first-year Wayne Township teacher’s classroom. Just like Beutel overcame obstacles to get to college and her dream career, she wants her kids to know they can, too.

“I want the kids to see what it looks like,” Beutel, 35, said. “It’s not for me, it’s for them, so they can see it, so it’s tangible. You can hold it, you can touch it, here you go.”

Beutel made the switch to teaching from a successful career in healthcare, and she had no qualms about leaving. Her school played no small role in her dedication to a job many might argue is harder to be in than ever: lately there have been complaints abound about inadequate pay, emphasis on high-stakes tests, and increasingly, challenges attracting new teachers to the profession and later, keeping them there.

Recruiting and retaining teachers are issues at the forefront for many schools across the state, as well as legislators and policymakers, as some school districts continue to report difficulty filling teaching jobs. Although the data on whether the state is seeing a true teacher shortage is inconclusive and doesn’t span every region or subject, it’s real for many Indiana educators.

But none of those things made Beutel think twice about going back to school to earn her license — and she credits Chapelwood’s many supports for new teachers for helping her feel stable and successful after just a scant few months on the job.

“I wanted to fulfill my purpose and my calling in life,” she said. “I left a career with a salary that I’ll probably never see again as a teacher, but every day I walk through these doors, there’s purpose and meaning in coming to work every day.”

A plan to support new teachers

Chapelwood’s first-year teachers are expected to hit the ground running once they’re hired over the summer, but they aren’t expected to do it without help.

Principal Heather Pierce said new teachers won’t know, in some cases, what grade they’ll teach until after they’ve gotten the job, so every second of planning time before school starts is precious. The school helps teachers get started writing grants for classroom materials and working with community partners to build class libraries and other stockpiles of supplies.

“Teaching is hard, I can remember my first year,” Pierce said. “It’s just a hard thing to go from theory straight into practice. There’s no in-between. You’ve got to be ready day one. Whatever program a teacher comes from, the expectation is so high, and we don’t have the flexibility of figuring it out.”

Veteran teachers are available to meet with new teachers and share tips and strategies for planning lessons and keeping their classes in order. The school tries to be open to whatever the teachers say they need help with and address as many needs as possible before kids come into the picture.

After the first few weeks, teachers have two years to participate in a program where they spend a total of 32 hours taking classes about acclimating to the job, said Shenia Suggs, an assistant superintendent in the district.

These are all intentional steps, Suggs said, to make sure new teachers don’t feel like they’re being cast out on their own while still motivating them to actively learn and grow as teachers. Leadership academies and other “cadres” split up by grade level and subject area with built-in mentors are other ways teachers can collaborate with their colleagues and find new ways to contribute in their school.

“It’s really, again, having the mentorship in place,” Suggs said. “And meeting the very specific needs as teachers tell us they need those and helping them through those processes.”

And interwoven in the discussions, plans, goal-setting, observations for evaluation and mentor sessions are chances for feedback, Pierce said. Beutel said she was surprised by the time her assistant principal took to help her understand what she could do better.

“He provided the kind of feedback that I want to give my students,” Beutel said. “He told me positive things and things I need to work on. I left his office feeling like I’m going to be a better teacher because of his support and his feedback.”

Finding someone to turn to for advice and help

Beutel’s classroom is a lesson in organized chaos.

Kids were chattering at their desks after a lively song-and-dance session to review vowel sounds one morning earlier this month. But when she called out their tables (all named after colleges and universities), they quietly went to sit at the front of the room.

The tables with the squirmiest kids were the last to go.

“Waiting on one person,” Beutel called out. “Waiting on two people.”

About 30 minutes later, at precisely 10:44 a.m., Beutel had wrapped up her lesson, lined up the students and sent them off to a 10:45 a.m. music class. Her classroom management was more about method than attitude. As he lined up, one little boy ran up to Beutel and grabbed her around the waist in a quick hug.

But it took her work, and help, to get proficient at leading a classroom of children.

“I had a mentor in my student teaching,” Beutel said. “She was the best teacher I have ever been around in my entire life. I text her every day just asking her to help me. She’s on maternity leave right now, and she’s still helping me.”

Mentorship has already been highlighted, both nationally and in Indiana, as a critical way teachers say they can best help new teachers.

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s 49-member panel that is examining teacher retention and recruitment listed it as a top priority. Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, also mentioned the merits of expanding such programs at an almost eight-hour legislative study committee meeting last week looking at whether the state is experiencing a teacher shortage and, if so, how to fix it.

Beutel looked to her building mentor, Nicole Caulfield, to help her tailor her math lessons for a kid who’s way ahead. He could add double- and triple-digit numbers in his head while she was teaching the rest of the class to add up numbers to get to 10. She said in college, she learned what to do for kids who were struggling, but there was less focus on those who needed more challenging work.

“I didn’t know how to differentiate for him to help him succeed,” Beutel said. “So Nicole and another coach came and met with me and showed me tools I could use to help him. He now gets his own customized packet for homework.”

That support, along with weekly team meetings, casual discussions and help developing new lessons, made Beutel’s first 10 weeks go more smoothly.

“(Caulfield) has been a blessing, that’s the only word I can use to describe her,” she said. “I know I can approach her and she’s not going to judge me.”

Keeping teachers happy so they stay put

Giving new teachers a good start is important, but sometimes a harder question for school districts to answer is how to keep their best talent from looking elsewhere.

Pierce said she knows much of the answer rests with her and other principals and the environments they create in their buildings.

At Chapelwood, Pierce said she hasn’t had a problem hiring, and she hasn’t noticed a decline in the quality of teacher applicants. Typically, she’ll see about 25 to 30 teachers applying for a position. Suggs said it helps that Wayne is located in a populated city where pay is fairly high — $41,112 for first-year teachers.

“I will say I think it’s because where we’re situated in the city, in an urban area, we’re near the airport,” Suggs said. “The level of candidates I think have been as good as they’ve always been. But I can see why in outlying areas that would be probably harder for them.”

Across the district, Suggs said she is still looking to find a teacher with a math, science, technology or engineering background who can take on special project-based courses.

“Those positions are going to be really hard to fill, and there’s not many candidates,” Suggs said. “Those numbers are real … we might not have 25 to 30 candidates in the future, and that’s a little concerning for me because here in the urban area we are competing with lots of school districts who are doing a lot of unique things.”

Districtwide, Wayne Township saw about 10 percent turnover among its teachers from last year, and just three left Chapelwood, Pierce said.

To combat poaching by other schools and districts, Pierce said Chapelwood has made great efforts to build a positive school culture — one where teachers feel like they have freedom in their classrooms, time to work with colleagues and opportunities to grow and move up the career ladder without having to leave the classroom and working directly with students.

“I think that’s what keeps people happy in their jobs and keeps them coming back, knowing they’re making a difference,” Pierce said. “They know they’re growing, and they know what they’re doing is appreciated, and I think if we can keep up with those things, I know we’ll keep them in the long run, I really do.”

Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of 5th graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an 8th grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a 4th grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play everyday,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with 4th grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“…They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with 7th and 8th graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–2019 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”

Future of Teaching

Five award-winning teachers talk recharging over the summer

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame celebrates his 2017 Golden Apple Award with his students

As Chicagoland students rejoice at the end of school, teachers also approach the summer with excitement – to be able to relax and recuperate from a busy school year.

Chalkbeat talked with five recipients of the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching to hear about what they do over the summer to recharge for next school year.

The award is granted by the Golden Apple Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting school leaders and teachers. It honors outstanding pre-K-third-grade teachers in the Chicago area, granting recipients a paid spring sabbatical at Northwestern University, in which they can take any course they choose, and also lifetime membership at the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, in which they mentor prospective teachers and help shape education reform efforts in Illinois and nationally.

PHOTO: Meghan Dolan

Meghan Dolan

“Third grade is a benchmark here in Chicago Public Schools, so there’s a lot of pressure put on students to pass. And that pressure we take on as teachers.

“In the summer, sometimes [to recharge] it’s just getting enough sleep, because during the school year, I stay late at work and I come home and I do work. So, [I am] just doing nothing and sitting and watching a TV show – and actually watching it. Even right now, I’m writing notes to my students as I’m watching TV.

“I feel like my mind is freer and, like, when I’m at Target, I’m not like, ‘I need this for my classroom,’ but I can just go to Target and be like ‘oh, I need this just for me.’

“[During the school year,] you work so long, you work at school and then you come home and work and also on the weekends. Just being able to tell myself, ‘hey it’s OK to take a break.’”

Meghan Dolan just finished her 15th year of teaching. She’s a third-grade teacher at Palmer Elementary School in North Mayfair, and she co-teaches reading and math. She previously taught second grade and K-3 special education in Dubuque, Iowa, and Ferguson, Missouri. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2018.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame

Fitzgerald Crame

“This year was a special year because I was participating in the Golden Apple sabbatical. I got to take any class that I wanted at Northwestern University, and one of the classes that I took was a photography class. For the rest of summer, I will continue to take photos.

“I have a philosophy that students should see the world through different lenses and appreciate the wonder that’s around them. Working through this photography class, it forced me to do the same for myself. Through the lens of my camera, I had to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed and all that to see the world differently. It just reaffirmed my ideas that there’s still wonder in the world. I didn’t have to go anywhere, I just had to change the angle of the lens to see the different light, and that just simple idea helped refresh me.

“I noticed as I took this photography class that I had always taken photos of my daughters and used a selective focus so that the background would blur out and the subject would come forward. But I forced myself to use a deeper focus so everything in my photos was sharp focus, and that made me appreciate the surroundings and appreciate every little detail.

“As I progressed through the class, I took a photo of a mural and my wife walked in front it. She was a little blurred out but the picture was still just so much more interesting with her in it, and then I realized the importance of the characters within the settings, not just the settings themselves. The characters – that’s what I was so interested in. It reminded me that no matter where you turn your lens, no matter what you take a picture of, that person is living this incredibly vibrant life with their own settings and their own backgrounds and their own stories.

PHOTO: Fitzgerald Crame
Fitzgerald Crame’s photo of his wife in front of a mural

“And that reminds me as a teacher that every one of the 31 students that are sitting in front of me is the focus of their own photo, or the protagonist of their own story. It helped me appreciate them as characters within their own settings. It’s something that drives the teachers. Like, guess what? They’re living a life as vibrant as the one that I’m living and they come with all these traits that I have to understand better.

“It’s seeing the world through fresh eyes.”

Fitzgerald Crame has been teaching for 22 years. He has taught fourth grade at Edison Regional Gifted Center in Chicago in Albany Park for six years, focusing on STEM and project based learning. He was awarded the Golden Apple for Excellence for Teaching in 2017, and he was honored as a Symmetra Classroom Hero in 2018.

PHOTO: Lisa Buchholz

Lisa Buchholz

“Teaching is like two jobs, almost. Your day job is your time with your kids and your night jobs are your planning and preparing. There’s only so many hours in the day, so in the summer, because I don’t have to be teaching kids, I can just fully focus on planning.

“I’m such a nerd.  I have an ongoing folder of ideas for class projects or activities that last all year long. I bring this folder home and read through the ideas I’ve collected so that I can add a new one for the next school year.

“This summer, I’m very excited to begin an ‘integrating notebook.’ I’m a fan of integrating concepts between subjects because this can help make content more relevant for students. This school year, I kept notes all over the place about times I integrated content.  [For example,] while reading a ‘Fly Guy’ book by Ted Arnold to the class, I realized I could tie it into the engineering design process and review the steps in that process as I was actually reading that book for a character study. Sometimes integrating is planned and sometimes you just seize the moment. That’s the beauty of the elementary model where one teacher teaches the same kids for all subjects. We can do that kind of integrating.

“Even while out and relaxing with my family, I’m like a mad scientist and have to keep a notebook with me at all times because family activities give me great ideas for classroom activities.”

Lisa Buchholz has taught for 27 years. She’s a first-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She first starting teaching preschool while in college, and since graduating, she’s taught in the same district. She’s taught first, second, and third grades, having spent the most time teaching first grade. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching in Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Daneal Silvers

Daneal Silvers

“It’s reaching out in both ways – spending time as a mom and a Chicagoan, and then also I’m reaching out as a teacher.

“I have two younger kids and as a teacher, there’s not as much time to be a parent or to be a chaperone and spend that kind of day time with the kids, like how a lot of other parents can. So in the summer I spend a lot of time with them – taking them to the park, going swimming with them.

“Also, every summer, I get to work meeting my new group of kindergartners. I reach out to my new families through surveys, orientation, and one-on-one interviews.  At Edison [Regional Gifted Center], we welcome 28 new families into kindergarten from all over the city. Since these families are not all coming from the same neighborhood, it’s essential to build a sense of community at school right from the first moment.

“In this way, my teaching feels cyclical rather than linear, because there isn’t a clear end, so I don’t always feel I need to refresh or recharge, but just move into the next part of the cycle.”

Daneal Silvers has been an early elementary (kindergarten and first grade) teacher for 10 years. She also teaches at Edison Regional Gifted Center. Her early-childhood curriculum emphasizes exploration of the concepts of peacefulness, empathy, grit and growth mindset. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Teaching for Excellence in 2018.

PHOTO: Carrie Garrett

Carrie Garrett

“I have a group of teaching friends and colleagues and get together at a friend’s house that has a pool and we just spend the time talking about the year, talking about memories. Those conversations, when they revolve around school, definitely help me reflect on what I’m doing and what else I need to be doing to be a better teacher. And, being in the sun and the pool helps too.

“There are times in my school year when I feel very defeated, and I feel like nothing I’m doing is effective. The thing about teaching is that any day it could be anything. Sometimes I do get frustrated with a mandated curriculum or mandated assessment that I have to give. Other times the frustration comes when you have a student that you have to advocate for and everything that you bring to the table and you know would be best sometimes isn’t necessarily the path that they choose for the child. There are processes that need to take place before the child can get the help that they need and it’s frustrating from the teacher perspective because the process can be very lengthy and time-consuming.

“That’s why my time at the pool with my girlfriends is so valuable to me – the connection that you have with the teachers that you work with or just teachers in general is so powerful, because when I do feel lost and frustrated, and I don’t know if I can teach any longer, just being able to voice your feeling and your frustration to a fellow teaching partner really helps you talk things out and get you back up on your feet.

“That’s the teaching process. You’re going to get knocked down, and hopefully you can stand back up, take one step at a time, push right through. And then the magic happens, and you were wondering why you ever thought why you couldn’t do it.

“When I first began teaching, I didn’t take the small successes, I was always looking for the big things. Now, teaching for as long as I’ve had, I know that there are a lot of things during the school year that can weigh you down. Sometimes you really just need to think, ‘did I do something that made a difference in at least one of my students’ lives today?’ Then in the summer,  you look back on that and you see so much growth.

“You sit back and think, ‘wow this whole time I thought we weren’t going very far very fast, but look at where we ended up.’”

Carrie Garrett just finished her fourth year of teaching first grade at Lynne Thigpen Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois. Before that, she was a reading specialist, a fourth-grade teacher and a fifth-grade teacher. She was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence for Teaching in 2018.