Last year, while finishing an education degree at Northeastern Illinois University, Tom McMorris student-taught at Goudy Elementary School in Edgewater.

“I was with a man I’d rate as a fairly bad teacher,” recalls McMorris, a former dancer and waiter. “The guy gave me the room from the beginning. The kids were used to partying, and I had been trained on structure. I had no direction. My mentor would either leave the room or sit at his desk and read papers. I was left on my own.”

The 34-year-old McMorris, son of a school principal and a dance teacher, represents the cutting edge among novice teachers today—older, eager, a career-changer. (The average age of teachers new to Chicago public schools this year is 32.) Yet McMorris says that to some extent, he was hobbled by an education that shortchanged him in hands-on experience and nitty-gritty information.

‘Too much theory’

Under Illinois law, a prospective elementary teacher first must complete 71 class hours (roughly 24 semester-long classes) in general work in English, history, math and science, including 18 hours in a minor area of concentration. That done, a student is admitted to the education school, normally in the junior year, with the standard prerequisite of a C+ academic average.

From there on, a student focuses more narrowly, taking both theoretical and how-to courses. An elementary-ed major must take education courses totaling at least 16 class hours, including five hours of student teaching, plus 100 clock hours of observation in a classroom. That’s the minimum; most colleges demand 30 hours or more in education preparation. The formal classes embrace the history of education, the philosophy and psychology of the discipline and methods of imparting reading, math, social studies and science.

In addition, state law mandates that prospective educators must take three semester hours of information on special education. Beginning in July 1997, students desiring to work in a middle school will also have to take six hours in a junior-high subject. High school majors face deeper requirements in their specialties, such as math or history.

Many alumni say the worth of any education regimen depends largely on to what degree the professors take a utilitarian approach. Consider Thom McMorris. In his opinion, the North-eastern professor who taught him curriculum and instruction bogged down in minutia. The woman whose province was “classroom management,” or discipline, was a follower of Madeline Hunter, the late principal of a much-touted laboratory school affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles. A key Hunter concept is signaling, or heightening classroom participation by having students respond to questions with signs, such as thumbs up or down. “If I used signaling with my kids, they’d laugh their heads off,” insists McMorris, who now leads a 6th grade at Kilmer School.

On the other hand, McMorris delighted in Harvey Barrett, a longtime junior high instructor who teaches science methods at Northeastern. “My whole point is hands-on,” says Barrett, who makes sure his pupils get in front of the class nine times over a semester to do experiments and activities. “With me, they build up a thick portfolio of material they can take with them. They complain about me at first, saying I’m a sadistic son of a bitch, but in the end they come around.”

Sharon Murphy, a DePaul alumna and a 1st-grade teacher at Oscar Mayer School, faults her university studies for emphasizing the need for heavily detailed lesson plans. “Those are unrealistic,” says Murphy. “As a classroom teacher, you might have five minutes during the day to do a lesson plan, and it’s better to keep it short, both for your own sake and so a substitute can follow your path.” Patricia Moreno, who teaches a bilingual 3rd grade at Saucedo Magnet School, rates the educational theory course she took at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) as useless (“it was all memorizing facts”), yet she treasures the reading-methods class that left her with storybooks she photocopied for later use.

Student teaching the ‘best part’

Many education deans admit to the problem of relating curriculum to practice, a difficulty caused by a faculty too far removed from classroom realities and often reflected in student evaluations done on—and shared with—professors. “Ninety-eight per cent of my faculty has had classroom experience, but the experience probably hasn’t been recent,” admits Lopardo. “They [Chicago State professors] do less application than I would like.”

“Certainly some faculty are hyper-theoretical and don’t connect with what students get when they hit the classroom,” says Victoria Chou, associate dean for academics at UIC. “But then you have students who are plain fearful of theory.” Adds Loyola’s Roemer, “We are a research institution. It would be an abdication of our calling if our faculty didn’t work on theory, but that always has to be tested against what works—and doesn’t work—in practice.”

Classroom observation, commonplace in a student’s junior year, can range from passively watching a seasoned teacher perform to doing small-group tutoring. While observation is sometimes done in one school—all the better for feedback and support—often a student shifts among several venues. Sharon Murphy, for instance, hung out at six elementary schools in completing her observation.

Then, normally during the second semester of senior year, comes student teaching, which often proves the best part of education school. Students function under a classroom teacher, chosen for teaching experience and a willingness to serve, and usually compensated with a tuition credit for one course at the host university.

Moreno spent a semester with a 1st-grade teacher at Saucedo who had her tackle a thematic unit on amphibians and reptiles—combining science, social studies and language arts—and gave her valuable tips on working with groups. Sharon Murphy, who student-taught in a 5th grade at Copernicus School, says she got to do “a full range of everything.” The realization that 5th-graders are already dealing with gangs, drugs and premarital sex prompted Murphy to seek a primary setting for her first real job.

But as with Tom McMorris, an unfortunate pairing can torpedo the value of student teaching. Lyle Zimbler, a 7th-grade teacher at Saucedo, labored under two teachers at an annex to the Avondale School while studying at Northeastern. The math teacher suited him, but a social studies instructor had a sobering effect. “When I tried to put kids in groups of two or three, she said no,” recalls Zimbler. “She said it was contrary to what was done in schools, which isn’t true. She wanted things done in a very structured way, and if you didn’t go along with her she shut you down.”

A university has several remedies for a mentor-teacher who comes up short—from counseling the person to ending the relationship abruptly—but, with a diploma so close, students mostly just muddle through.

Toward the end of the education sequence, a prospective teacher sits for a set of criterion-referenced exams required for state certification. The tests were authorized in 1985 and instituted three years later as part of a nationwide push toward ensuring the competency of teachers. The first exam, on basic skills in reading, writing, math and writing, “is designed to find out if you’re a reasonably well-educated college graduate,” says UIC education professor Steve Tozer. On the second exam, you have a choice of one of 53 subject-area tests, ranging from reading to Russian; the most frequently taken subject test is elementary education.

The certification exams post a high pass rate—94 percent of those sitting for the basic skills exam are successful. A diploma, a recommendation from your college and a $30 fee ($4 for subsequent annual renewals) is all that’s left to make you a state-sanctioned teacher.

Experiments underway

But you’re not yet a real teacher. “It takes 8 to 12 years for somebody to excel in the classroom,” figures Michael Carl, Northeastern’s education dean. “Right away our graduates deal with problems of isolation, loneliness, time demands and day-to-day dealing with the kids that will drive many of them out of the profession. Many don’t last.”

Local colleges have been taking steps to better prepare their graduates for real-life rigors. At Loyola, the field-experience part of one instructional methods class dispatches its students to tutor at Goldblatt School in West Garfield Park. Roosevelt University is experimenting with having its methods courses taught in schools—so far, Jackson Language Academy on the Near West Side and Collins School in Schaumburg. Northeastern has been brainstorming about redoing its curriculum, including the addition of “more intense field work,” says Dean Carl.

With $200,000 in grants from the Joyce and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations, Chicago State has placed 25 juniors into the year-round Van Vlissingen School in Roseland. Van Vlissingen is tough turf. The reading scores of its 770 poverty-stricken students are low enough to put the facility on the state’s educational “watch list.” The school was once attended by Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, the notorious 11-year-old who killed his teenage neighbor in 1994 and was himself killed in a gang execution.

On most mornings, the Chicago State students tutor or conduct small-group lessons under the eye of Van Vlissingen’s mentor-teachers. The teachers are paid $1,200 a semester extra for their effort; the students receive an annual stipend of $1,000 to minimize their outside employment. At 10:30, Chicago State professors conduct required courses in a classroom reserved for the university. Every Friday, the classroom turns into a daylong reflection session. “We talk about what went wrong and what went right during the week,” relates Sandra Westbrooks, the professor who coordinates the project.

Patterned after the model of the medical internship, the program resonates favorably with its participants. “When I was in nursing school, we had a practicum where you had training in the morning and then did actual treatment of patients,” says Regina Alexander, a former nurse. “That’s what this is. You ask yourself, ‘Is this going to work with the students?’ Well, if it doesn’t, you can talk out the errors and then do things differently so you don’t lose anybody.”

Van Vlissingen Principal Jacqueline Carothers says the Chicago State presence “has raised the self-esteem of our entire facility.” But some mentors say the students are with pupils only an hour and a half a day, not long enough to make much difference. “They may teach a lesson, but they’re following my lesson plan,” remarks 3rd-grade instructor Carolyn Murray. “The kids are a captive audience. I’m not sure how useful that is.”

After three semesters at Van Vlissingen, the Chicago State students will do full-scale student teaching at one of five schools. Chicago State Dean Lopardo dreams of making such apprenticeships more widely available.

While UIC lacks anything as ambitious as the Van Vlissingen initiative, the college still tries to maximize the urban, in-classroom experience. For the past five years, all UIC student-teaching placements have been in Chicago public schools. “We can do more good in our own neighborhood than sending students to suburbia,” comments Victoria Chou, associate dean for academic programs. (The public schools are now hiring more graduates of UIC than any other college or university, toppling Chicago State from its long-held roost.)

At UIC, observation, at least during senior year, occurs in the same school where a student will student-teach. “It’s like we arrange a marriage, and we make sure it’s a good and lasting one,” says Michelle Parker, a professor who oversees student teaching and observation.

Tom Skordalos did both his observation and student teaching at Spry Community School in Little Village. “I really got to know all the kids,” says Skordalos. His mentor-teacher, Edgar Retana, had Skordalos present lessons on Hispanic immigration, math via manipulatives and current events. Retana, a Hispanic who had grown up around Spry and felt a special mission to work at the school, also tested the idealism of Skordalos, whose roots are Greek. “You can step back from the community, but these kids can’t,” cautioned Retana. Skordalos emerged committed to teach among the poor, and by spring had landed a position instructing bilingual kindergarten at Spry.

Students like Skordalos meet with Parker every Wednesday afternoon over the course of a year to decompress. “These kids are so tired, they sit down and their eyeballs roll back in their heads,” says Parker. “I always kibitz with them, kid them and get them laughing.” Then they ventilate, discussing lesson plans, discipline, personal technique and more ticklish subjects. “Once we had this big debate about gangs,” recalls Skordalos. “The issue was, do you say gangs are wrong? The suburban people said, ‘Yes, you say it’s wrong.’ But another field of thought said that kids should arrive at their own conclusions. It all boiled down to individual philosophies.”

The No. 1 difficulty for Parker’s student teachers centers around discipline. “Many of our students go into a school thinking, If I’m just friendly with the kids I’ll be fine,” comments Parker. “That’s naive.” One result of the seminars is to arm students with venerable techniques to control a class, such as dimming the lights, counting to three or fingering your nose.

But in the end, thinks Parker, “students can only go so far, because no matter what, they are always occupying someone else’s classroom. Once they have 30 six-year-olds to themselves for six hours a day, that’s when the rubber meets the road. And that’s different, no matter the quality of their training. Then they’re on their own.”

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