This article is part of an ongoing Catalyst Chicago series that will follow minority teacher candidates through their student teaching experience, job hunt and first year in the classroom.

Angel Torres worked overtime to complete his student teaching.

Torres’ work day began when most people are asleep: At midnight, he started his overnight shift as a senior service technician for People’s Gas, helping the Chicago Fire Department and other public service agencies respond to calls about gas-related fires and explosions.

At 8 a.m., when Torres’ shift ended, he headed to Ames Middle School for his student-teaching assignment.

 Sleep?  “Whenever I can, I guess,” Torres said during the school year.

The grueling routine is now over, and Torres–along with fellow student teacher Michael Vargas, profiled in the first installment of “Becoming a Teacher” –are both catching up on sleep. 

But with the district’s budget woes and the labor unrest surrounding the Chicago Teachers Union contract negotiations, the two men face an uncertain job market. Torres, who recently graduated from Northeastern Illinois University through the Grow Your Own program, hasn’t yet begun to apply for jobs and is taking a summer class to finish an English teaching endorsement.

“I am trying to make myself more marketable,” he says.

Hiring in CPS typically takes place later than hiring in other school districts in the region. In fact, late hiring has long been a factor that, according to teacher educators, hampers the ability of CPS to attract top teaching talent. One educator has said that late hiring “allows the suburbs to cherry-pick” the best teachers and faulted the district for not holding teacher career fairs until the spring.

Yet CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler says that the current hiring process “enables us to attract an excellent talent pool of prospective teachers.” The hiring timeline depends on student enrollment projections and the Illinois General Assembly’s budgeting process, she adds.

“Suburbs typically are funded with a greater percentage of local property tax dollars than is CPS, thus making their hiring timelines less reliant on state appropriations,” Ziegler says.

Teachers who do find jobs face potential layoffs if enrollment on the 20th day after the start of the school year doesn’t meet projections. It’s another phenomenon that has been problematic in CPS, although the impact has lessened in recent years: Last year, 167 teachers were cut and 86 of them were re-hired in other schools, according to CPS.

At Ames, his supervising teacher suggested to Torres that he also practice teaching other core subjects besides his primary assignment, 7th and 8th-grade world history. The experience will make him more versatile, he says, and prepare him for potential jobs teaching lower elementary grades or self-contained bilingual classrooms–in both cases, teachers must teach all subjects.

Given the shortage of bilingual teachers, Torres will have one advantage in the job market as a bilingual candidate. But teacher supply statistics from the Illinois State Board of Education show that in fall 2010, social science teaching jobs were among the most competitive, with more than 28 graduating teacher candidates competing for each open position.

Meanwhile, Michael Vargas has begun his job search by networking and “trying to use any connections I’ve made, to try to get someplace that’s a good fit.” Over the summer, Vargas plans to drop off resumes in person.

“It’s about marketing,” he says. “I graduated with 300, 400 teachers. That was just at my school [Northeastern Illinois University]. It’s a pretty deep pool. You’ve got to do anything you can to highlight yourself.”

Vargas says he also is putting in time to help Grow Your Own, which focuses on increasing diversity in the teaching workforce by training candidates who already have ties to underserved communities, in its ongoing battle for funding. “Since I’m at work, I can’t take the trips down to Springfield. But I’m calling legislators,” he says. “It gets to the point where they already recognize your voice.” 

Anne Hallett, the director of Grow Your Own Illinois, says that funding is slated to be cut from $2.5 million to $1 million in the coming fiscal year. She expects candidates will still be able to have their tuition covered, though.

“It’s a one of a kind program that generates an enormous amount of excitement around the country,” Hallett says. “We just hope we can make sure the legislature feels the same way.”

Helping students become ‘investigators’

Torres earned an associate’s degree before he enrolled in Northeastern Illinois University in 2005 to pursue his teaching goal. Seven years later, he graduated.

As a student teacher, he initially struggled with classroom management. But over the course of the semester, Torres says he learned how to share the classroom with his students by moving from a teaching model that relied on lectures to a model based on discussion. Doing so helped keep his students more engaged in lessons—a key factor that can curb misbehavior.

“I needed to be more aware of the amount of time I was spending either presenting a lesson or speaking,” Torres says. Too much time on either one would keep students from becoming “investigators” of the material, he says.

At the start of his assignment at Ames, in Logan Square, Torres’ greatest fear was that he wouldn’t be successful helping children learn. But he soon discovered that teaching was the easiest part of the job.

The toughest challenge was adjusting to an environment in which his ideas about what school should be like did not match the reality on the ground.  

“There are always things you would like to do to benefit children and the [CPS] administration plays a major role in creating obstacles,” he says. His observation is that students miss out on deep learning because instructors teach to the test—a complaint that many teachers have voiced because of the pressure to raise standardized test scores.

A case in point: 8th-grade students who don’t know how to structure an essay or spell simple words. “Schools have lost the art of [teaching] writing,” Torres says. To make matters worse, Ames serves 7th– and 8th-grade students, who come to the school from five different elementary schools—which makes it tough for Ames teachers to align their teaching and coordinate with students’ previous teachers.  Plus, Ames has one fewer grade than most middle schools and a shorter time to get them ready for high school.

Torres was also frustrated at the reality of bilingual education on the ground. Ideally, students would receive an increasing percentage of their instruction in core subjects in English as their skills grow in their new language. But at Ames, he says, limited resources forced students to be placed in English-only classes, “scattered throughout the school,” before they were ready for it.  

Not an outsider

Torres has long seen first-hand, from other vantage points, how schools can fail students. Born and raised in Humboldt Park, he had a less-than-positive experience at the neighborhood’s Clemente High School.

“They wanted you to graduate, but what you were going to do after that wasn’t their concern,” he recalls.

His son’s experience in school was similar, and solidified Torres’ desire to become a teacher. “When my son was in school, no one was actually guiding [him and his peers] in a positive direction,” Torres says. “Many kids need a good role model, and they can’t find one in the streets.”

Now, Torres lives just seven blocks from Ames. At 47, he’s the last of six siblings to graduate from college. He has five children, ranging in age from 7 months to 26 years old, and three grandchildren.

His background, Torres says, will allow him to be especially effective in reaching out to male students. Latino male teachers are among the most underrepresented group in the teaching force.

“I try to make that my objective, to reach out to the boys who come from [single-parent] homes,” Torres says.  To connect with them, Torres talks about sports. And when students ask about his 9 years in the military, the explanation is simple—and likely a reason that many teens in the community can relate to. “I was trying to find a way to go to school, and they offered to pay,” Torres says.

Torres, who found out about Grow your Own from an aunt who saw him struggling to continue financing his education, hopes to stay at Ames.

“If I don’t have the opportunity to stay at Ames, the neighboring schools that send their students to Ames – if I can get into one of those, I would be happy, as long as I get to stay in the neighborhood,” he says.

Torres adds: “I need the students to see that I am part of the neighborhood, not an outsider coming in to make money and leave. You need to try to make changes, not pull your resources out of the neighborhood.”

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