Rookie CPS teachers learn quickly in fast-moving district

  • Special education teacher Christine Cuartero teaches an 8th grade language arts inclusion class at North River Elementary in Albany Park on September 17, 2013. ( Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
Special education teacher Christine Cuartero teaches an 8th grade language…
September 25, 2013|By Mick Swasko, @swasko | RedEye

About 35 seventh-grade students stared at Christine Cuartero on her very first day of school. She had expected questions from the class at Philip D. Armour Elementary in Bridgeport—just not the ones she got.

“ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Who are you dating?’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘What are you doing with your life?’ ” she recalled the students asking. “Almost like, ‘What are you doing here?’

“You kind of come in with that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed feeling, like this is it, this is what I’ve been working toward [since college and student teaching], this is where I need to be. But then those questions come and that’s when the nerves start. Why are they questioning me?”

As the 24-year-old Lakeview resident goes into her second full year of teaching, at North River Elementary in Albany Park, she’s now able to answer her students about why she chose a teaching career. But it didn’t come without struggle the first year.

The question of “why” weighs on many young Chicago Public Schools teachers beginning their careers now. Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for a week and a half. The district recently closed 49 schools, and more than 1,000 teachers lost their jobs amid budget woes.

The constant headlines about the district’s struggles and the mounting pressure for students to perform well on increased testing are all Chicago’s freshman teachers have ever known. Last year, CPS welcomed about 1,500 new teachers, and many whom RedEye spoke to said they find the job personally and professionally rewarding.

This year’s crop of freshman teachers is learning to block out the noise and focus on their students—something they learn quickly, though not always easily. Those just one or two years removed from their first time leading a classroom say in the critical first year, there’s no lesson plan for the education of a new CPS teacher: They just have to learn fast.

“By providing a high-quality education that prepares them for college, career and life, teachers can have a transformative impact on their students’ lives, closing the achievement gap and positively influencing the trajectory of their futures,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement responding to RedEye’s request for comment on new teachers. “Our goal as a district is to support and empower our teachers on this journey.”

An entry-level educator with a bachelor’s degree makes about $49,600 in the first year. First-year salaries can go up to about $56,500 based on education level, according to the newest Chicago Teacher’s Union contract.

Dan Zummo, 23, of West Town, is entering his second year of teaching.

“They may be reading at a [lower level], but in terms of social understanding, my students are brilliant,” said Zummo, a math teacher at Fenger Academy High School in Roseland.

Zummo said he’s learned a lot. Though his education at Illinois State University focused on urban teaching—as did his student teaching and mentorship experience—he said nothing can prepare a young teacher for his or her first real day in the classroom.

In his first year, he typically arrived at school around 7 a.m. and stayed hours after the final bell to plan lessons. When he left at 6:30 or 7 p.m. each night, he always found the parking lot still full. For any first-year teacher, he said, particulars like transitions between activities, getting the class to pay attention, grading and getting paperwork to his superiors all are details that have to be carefully thought out.

“Teaching takes so much energy and time,” he said. “It’s insane. It’s not necessarily hard work; it’s the small things.”

The work doesn’t end in the classroom. Katy Spencer, 24, of Palatine, is in her second year of teaching at Carl Schurz High School in Old Irving Park. She said she spends her three planning periods per day talking to students who come to spend their lunchtimes with her. Much of the time, class work isn’t the topic of discussion.

“There’s no stability at home whatsoever,” she said of conversations she’s had with some students. One student’s stepparent is in jail; another has a mother who is on drugs; some have problems with their significant others.

“Mostly it’s just listening. I don’t have the answers,” she said.

She said that many times, she is the only constant pillar of support in a student’s life. During her first year at Wells Community Academy High School in West Town, she had to learn not to get too emotionally involved. She used to go home and break down over some of the things she heard from her students.

She still struggles, but she said listening to her students has become the most fulfilling part of her day.

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