Northern Illinois Teachers' Commentaries

Rockford, IL –
Jan Booth - commentary aired 9/2/03
Jan Booth has been teaching elementary school in Northern Illinois for more than 27 years. She also leads teacher training seminars.

Transcript: For teachers, "back to school" elicits a curious mixture of uncertainty and anticipation.

As a long standing fifth grade teacher, I have what I think are probably typical feelings about going back to school. Sure, there's the regret of giving up the freedoms of summer - a slower pace, sleeping late, more time to play with my dogs, being able to read more than two pages of a book before nodding off. There are also the inevitable nightmares that can start as early as July. These play out as variations of being late or having no control over a roomful of wild ten-year- olds.

But regrets and nightmares dissipate quickly as I begin to prepare lessons for math, social studies, reading and the rest of all the subjects I will teach. I find it stimulating to design new ways to engage students in areas they may not find particularly intriguing. Tweaking old activities with more active strategies is a gratifying way to keep me engaged, too.

Academic subjects often end up taking a back seat to real life, however. This thought sets my mind to drifting from lesson plans to tougher questions.

Which of life's challenges will my kids be facing this year? Divorced or ill parents? A lack of social skills? Ridicule from peers? How will I help them learn to cope with these and many of life's other curve balls?

I wonder who and what will make us laugh? Last year we giggled and guffawed until our sides hurt with future stand-up comics and creative rewritings of song lyrics from the 60s and 70s. Only a ten-year-old could get away with turning the famous Doors song "Riders on the Storm" into "Dingoes in the Sun." How will I insure that laughter is a daily occurrence in our classroom?

How will my colleagues survive? I am fortunate to be in contact with many of the best teachers in the state because I also teach workshops for educators. Like kids, they all carry their own personal worries. I wonder what added toll will be paid by all of us in the face of higher class sizes, ever-increasing societal demands and expectations. We also face severe budget cuts and increased pressures to standardize the art form of teaching and learning. How can I support my fellow teachers?

And then there's the most important question of all: what really matters? What is the most important thing I can give to my kids? This is an answer I believe I have, and it has nothing to do with state goals, higher test scores or standardized curriculums. The most important thing I have given and will continue to give to my kids is my honest self. They need to see all sides of the real me - happy, silly, down-in-the-mouth, crabby, exhausted, calm, exhilarated. They need to see me struggle with questions, analyze difficult tasks, work through problems. They also need to see me hug friends, hold my temper, appreciate an especially delectable brownie, laugh out loud. They need to be with a teacher who knows and shows what it means to be a lifelong learner, intellectually, socially and emotionally.

In time, my questions will be answered. My kids will arrive, we'll get through those first day jitters together and another school year will commence. I hope I can teach them to enjoy the journey. So on that note . . . let's get back to school!

Jackson Potter - commentary aired 9/3/03
High school history teacher Jackson Potter is starting his first full year at a tough school on Chicago's South Side.

Transcript: I have good reasons to feel unsettled about the upcoming school year. I had a couple of fights break out in my room last year. Another time, a student called me a stupid bitch for asking her to be quiet. One time I tried to get students to present their papers about a Middle Eastern country in front of the class. But this failed in one class because a handful of students refused to be respectful to others. They didn't take the assignment seriously and interrupted their classmates. When you have that many kids acting up, you just can't discipline them by writing them up. You have to find a creative way to do it.

So that's how I spent my first months teaching. It was stressful to say the least. And I had to find a way to relax.

This summer, I took a train ride across country to Los Angeles and Colorado springs. The slow pace of the train was good therapy. I was able to appreciate the low-key ride toward my destination knowing full well that I had all that time to enjoy myself. It was a relief not to have a Monday morning of classroom activities to worry about for the foreseeable future. I could zone out for the first time in six months.

However, even on the train ride I was reading a book about the history of slavery in North America. I was reminded of my obligation to become a better teacher for the fall and to increase my expertise in the basic things I wanted students to know about.

Being a first year teacher made me very aware of my deficiencies in how I approach any variety of issues embedded in history. I found myself thinking a lot about what it was I really wanted to convey to my students. What was important to me and to society at large? It's a big task!

Another big concern that I constantly thought about was the issue of discipline. When I entered my school midyear last January, I walked in fully aware that there were problems. I just didn't think I'd have such a hard time dealing with them. Being a white teacher taking over a well-respected veteran of 30-plus years who's an imposing black man and basketball coach, set me up for difficulties. All of my students are black. The vast majority of them live in low-income households, with only one parent. A good number of them live in group homes or are assigned to a home by the Department of Children and Family Services. Another large group of my students is teenage mothers.

To prepare for the plethora of extenuating circumstances is way over my head. But kids are kids, and at the end of the day they want to be entertained and romanced. The object is to engage the kids 100 percent of the time, but realistically that's just not gonna happen.

So I spent much of my summer reflecting on how to take my classroom and make it a more interesting place for me and for them. Each class may be a room full of kids who are out of control, but I know that there will be those special moments when I'll see the light bulb turn on in a student.

So I guess that's how a teacher in my situation would brace themselves for the inevitable stress of teaching students like mine. Ultimately, that is the beauty of teaching and why I will keep doing it for a while. I deeply appreciate the challenge to make life interesting and viable to myself and others. To create a deeper understanding of the people and the events around you. Every moment where I see a child engaged in something that captivates them is overwhelmingly meaningful to me. Also the ability to share my values and in turn receive my students' values on any number of issues will always keep my interest.

Perhaps teachers can easily be compared to gamblers. We never know what to expect but the rush we get from the memory of past successes, and the always palpable possibility of failure, is too exciting to resist.

Ms. Harris - commentary aired 9/4/03
Ms. Harris teaches at an elementary school in a struggling Chicago neighborhood. She often deals with daunting discipline problems in her classroom. For this reason, she's hoping for a transfer to another school and it's why she goes by just her last name.

Transcript: I remember the anxiety and excitement I felt as a young child at the beginning of every school year. Then, my biggest worries were: will I get good grades, and will my teacher be mean. Now 25 years later, I'm just anxious. How many things can I squeeze into my 20-minute lunch break? Will I get lost in the mountain of paperwork? And now that I'm the teacher, will I be mean enough?

Yes, the concept of a mean teacher threw me for a loop too that is until I became a teacher. This is my third year teaching. I did two years over in the fourth grade; that was rough the constant fighting, bickering and belittling.

One thing I remember from my education courses is my teachers saying Don't smile at the kids until December. I thought this was strange and horrible advice. I had witnessed too often the harshness that young children are subjected to. I wanted to be nice, like my teachers were. When I remember my teachers, I remember them smiling. My first grade teacher even played music for us in the classroom. I remember doing the rock in a long line with my classmates at the Brookfield Zoo in the second grade But now that I think about it, after the second grade, I don't remember my teachers smiling, except on rare occasions.

Maybe I'm paranoid and totally wrong, but I think my students took my welcoming smile as a sign of weakness and permission to ack a damn fool. My first year teaching was spent in a state of disbelief. I couldn't believe kids could be so disobedient and hard-headed. There were so many fights about He said my mama it was ridiculous. I spent so much time dealing with discipline issues, that all my wonderful ideas for teaching were just that ideas.

When I talked to the school disciplinarian about my frustration at not being able to teach because of the mountain of discipline problems, she told me that If you are thinking about leaving, do it now, before you do some damage to the children. This felt like a slap in the face because I was working at the school nine, 10 or 11 hours daily (we only get paid for six hours). I was a new teacher, so I was still energetic and enthusiastic and full of ideas, trying my best to get these children to learn. If anything, I felt damaged. There was so much to do, so much to try and I couldn't. I just couldn't.

My colleagues helped me put things in perspective. Several had been teaching in the area for 30 or more years. They spoke with a fondness of times when there was actual cooperation between the community and school. They were also witnesses to the decline of the neighborhood. They reminded me that there used to be recess and walking field trips to the neighborhood library, now no longer allowed because of shootings in the area.

I began to better understand where my student where coming from. Sure we lived in similar areas, but under different circumstances. My mother was a stay-at home mom not a mom on house arrest. My daddy worked and came home to us. Once, a student told me that she couldn't do her homework because they were shooting around her house. I told her truthfully, that they shoot around my house too and I still have to do my work. Then she told me that they were trying to kill her daddy. Nobody has tried to kill my daddy. I couldn't imagine being nine and worrying about that. I excused her that time, because I didn't know what else to do.

As I prepare for the school year, I have to keep in mind these different circumstances. When I plan my lessons, I'm not really a teacher; I'm a mom who's conning her kids into taking medicine disguised in juice. In order to prevent You dirty! fights, my class will learn to hand wash their uniform shirts. This is actually a science experiment to determine which soap works best. I get really excited about other sneaky projects for my students.

Despite all the prep work, I was psyched and ready to teach fourth grade again. I was ready to be firm and focused. At the end of the year, I would be proud of the children's accomplishments, as well as my own. I was ready to rock as a fourth grade teacher, but at another school. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, I'm back at my old school. This year I have second graders and once I see their bright and eager faces, I will have to resist the urge to smile--at least until December.

Sharon Smaldino - commentary aired 9/5/03
Prof. Sharon Smaldino use to teach in public schools. Now she shows teachers in training at Northern Illinois University how to integrate technology into their classrooms.

Transcript: I've been a teacher for many years. The start of school has always seemed to me to be an exciting event. It's a time to start new things; to begin new adventures and to meet new people. Starting school is also a time to get back into the routines that are a natural part of being a teacher.

When I first started as a teacher, I had the chance to work at the same school where I had completed my student teaching the previous spring. So, the trepidation of a new beginning was abated a bit. Still, meeting my students for the first time as a real teacher made me feel nervous and worried that I'd do the wrong thing. I wanted to do my best, to help the children optimize their own potential. Well, I learned that the children felt the same way as I did. They wanted to do their best, but were nervous because I was the new teacher in school. It turned out to be a memorable year for us all: we learned to relax and to enjoy ourselves. We discovered the wonders and challenges of learning together.

Over time, I moved into special classrooms, with students who needed more attention and more direction. I found the setting to be similar to that of my regular classroom because of the desks and chairs, but the students were so different in many ways. They wanted to do their best, but often did not know how to begin. They lost the joy in learning. You see, my students were in a residential program for socially and emotionally disturbed youth. They hated school, they did not enjoy learning, and they did not know how to meet the challenges of learning. They did not find learning to be an adventure.

These students were in this program because of their behavior, and they did return to their own schools when their behavior had improved. One thing that I believe helped them to focus on their strengths as learners was the introduction of the computer. I used to lug my personal Apple IIe to school everyday. The students loved the opportunity to work on the computer, even though the school did not have many programs for them to use. I found a way to connect learning with their interest in the computers and not only did their behavior improve, but they also actually improved academically.

Was I overwhelmed? You bet! I could not imagine a more nerve racking experience. But it was also an exciting adventure. I learned quickly that in teaching you are not alone. You have colleagues who understand the roles and responsibilities of a teacher. It is a profession of wonderful people who work very hard to do good things and who wish to participate in the learning adventure with their students and with young professionals.

Now I am a teacher of teachers, which is a very different type of experience. But, in reality, the first day of school is very much the same as when I started teaching all those years ago. I am excited and nervous. I want to do my best. I want to help students find the joy and excitement of teaching, the same way I found it. And, I want them to understand their role as a guide for their students in their quest for knowledge. The first day of school is a great day because it is the first step in a new adventure for everyone.

Let the adventure begin ..