Earl Williams Credit: John Booz

Earl Williams’ parents were both teachers. But when he chose a profession, Williams decided not to follow in their footsteps and stayed clear of education. Instead, he earned a degree in engineering and accounting.

Years later, however, Williams took an opportunity to tutor at a junior college—and discovered that he really enjoyed the very task he had vowed to avoid. “I got the bug,” Williams says with a laugh. “I got such a good feeling from tutoring.”

That experience spurred him to enroll two years ago in National Louis University’s program for alternative teacher certification. Williams earned a math certificate and landed a position teaching freshman algebra at Manley Career Academy. Now, he is one of eight teachers from alternative programs at the West Side school, which has 58 classroom teachers.

Manley Principal Katherine Flanagan says teachers from alternative programs, who are typically in their late 30s to early 40s and have substantial work experience, bring several pluses to the table. Like Williams, many have math or science backgrounds and can fill teaching slots in hard-to-staff subjects. “I get the fewest resumes for math and science,” Flanagan says.

Years of work experience outside education gives career-changers an advantage when it comes to showing students how to connect academics to real life, Flanagan says. And working through alternative programs has served to ease the stress of hiring by adding an extra layer of candidate screening, she adds.

‘I tell them don’t give up’

Williams, who is 44, explains how he uses his life experience to guide his students and show them how to work harder. His students, noting Williams’ extensive knowledge of math and the multiple degrees he holds, at first questioned whether he was telling the truth about being a former CPS student.

But Williams, who attended Lindblom High and earned his bachelor’s degree from DeVry University, told them that he, like many of them, struggled in high school until he learned to work harder and identified his style of learning. Williams uses that experience to help students discover their learning styles.

“I was a visual learner. I need that to make learning come alive for me,” says Williams. “Some of my kids struggle with the same kinds of things. But I tell them they can come to understand math, just like I did. I tell them as long they don’t give up, they have a chance.”

Science teacher Felix Egharevba, who also earned his certification through the National Louis program, says working as a physician helps him teach his students how what they learn in the classroom works in real life.

“I have practical experience and know the theoretical aspects, so I pull it all together when I teach,” says Egharevba, who stills puts in two days a week as a family practitioner at West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park.

Streamlined hiring

Flanagan’s introduction to alternative certification programs came through Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, who sent her a special education teacher through a program called Facilitating Accelerated Certification for Educators (FACE). FACE (now called First Class) is a joint program of the University of Illinois-Chicago, Roosevelt University and the Associated Colleges of Illinois. Its goal is to produce certified teachers in special education, another shortage area.

Flanagan later hired others from the now-defunct Teachers for Chicago, which operated as a partnership among CPS, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Golden Apple Foundation and local teachers colleges. When Teachers for Chicago shut down, she continued to work with Golden Apple.

“I went from one program to another. It was a good way to do it,” Flanagan says. “It is such a struggle to interview a lot of people. Plus, I knew these interns got great support and I thought I could take them, supplement what they were getting and create great teachers.”

Officials from the programs also took the extra step of calling to ask about vacancies.

“Fred Chesek would call and say ‘I’ve got two math and science teachers, do you want them?’ and I’d tell him ‘yes,'” she says, referring to the former coordinator from Teachers for Chicago.

Flanagan is up-front with teachers about the challenges of teaching at Manley, whose students face problems of poverty, crime and gangs on a daily basis. She tells teachers they must push and prod students to perform their best, and explains to career-changers that teaching is very different from working in the business world.

“I tell them there is no piped-in music here, and no air conditioning,” Flanagan says.

Williams agrees. “This is the longest and hardest job I’ve ever worked. I put in more hours here than I did at the corporate level,” he says. “I know I work 40-plus hours. There is no way to do everything in the six-hour day.”

Learning to manage students

While career-changers have the benefit of maturity and work experience, that is no guarantee they will be able to handle unruly students. As with virtually every new teacher, managing a classroom is often a big hurdle.

Egharevba says although he learned a lot at National Louis about some essentials—such as assessment, evaluations, curriculum development and modifying lessons for students with special needs—he was at his wit’s end about how to get his classes under control.

“I have an accent and the kids took advantage of that,” says Egharevba, who is from Nigeria. “I just stood up in a staff meeting one day and said, ‘If anyone has had my kids, I need help.’ For the first week, everyone came into my classroom and helped me. It took about two weeks for me to gain control. My advice for new teachers: Don’t act like you know everything, don’t be afraid to say you need help.”

Flanagan says she tells all new teachers, ” ‘Don’t smile until Christmas.’ I also tell them you can’t be nice. We are not missionaries. You have to be tough.”

To help new teachers develop classroom management skills, Manley began a program last year in which veteran staff show newcomers what to expect by role-playing as problem students.

The veterans chew gum in class, talk back to the new teachers and turn their backs on them while they talk. To defuse situations, teachers may learn to ask a disruptive student to step out in the hall for a talk or use other methods to defuse situations.

Egharevba has learned how to manage his students and decided to stay beyond his program requirement.

“I think if [teachers] have a good experience in a school, find a school that is nurturing and get the professional development they need, they will stay,” says Flanagan. Word about the school’s supportive environment reached one teacher from the FACE program and spurred her to apply for a job at Manley.

Indeed, Flanagan says Egharevba has stayed despite being courted by other schools because of his background and experience as a science teacher and a doctor.

“I asked him, ‘How did they find out about you? I’m not going to let you out of this building,’ ” she says with a laugh.

Williams, too, says he is not interested in leaving. “I like what I’m doing and I don’t see changing anytime soon,” he says. “I’ll stay for as long as they will have me around.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.

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