In 1994, Elvira Torres was one of the first freshmen enrolled in Bowen High’s teachers’ academy, a school-within-a-school that has since closed. Torres won a Golden Apple scholarship and graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. After teaching special education at Fermi Elementary in South Shore, she returned to her alma mater to teach at Chicago Discovery, one of four small schools housed at Bowen. Torres, now teaching in south suburban Lansing, talked with Associate Editor Debra Williams about the small school experience and why student accountability is important.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
No. In grammar school, I wanted to be a pediatrician. I went to the teachers’ academy because it was a school-within-a-school and my mom thought it would be safer. I started becoming interested in teaching.
Tell me how your experience at Bowen made you want to teach.
The teachers took a keen interest in me and always pushed me to excel. If summer camp was available, they suggested I fill out an application. I was chosen to go to a golf camp, and I had a teacher who pushed me to go for a computer competition. I remember going on field trips [related to education]. Having teachers that wanted to see [me] succeed really helped steer me in that direction.
Did your students know that you were formerly a Bowen student?
Yes. It helped me in my classroom management, because I knew some of the tricks kids would try to pull. I know that there are probably drug deals going on in the bathroom and what would happen in the locker rooms.
Sometimes we would talk about how they could stay safe—for example, don’t go to the bathroom during class time because there may be a gang initiation or drug deals going on and you don’t want to be there when that’s happening. I warned them about staying away from the windows because some kids would throw rocks and they might get hit because there are no window screens.
I gave them my insight and the students thought, ‘Wow, she really understands the life we live.’
What should colleges of education teach their students to prepare them to teach in urban districts?
One, have internships in the districts. Also, we had a workshop in our [suburban] district about students in poverty and the rules schools have that kids do not understand. For instance, we need to communicate with the kids that, ‘Maybe your mom is telling you it’s okay to fight, but if you’re in school, there are consequences if you choose do that.’
You also mentioned accountability.
I have a concept of tough love [with students]: I expect a lot from you. I don’t feel sorry for you. I might feel bad about your situation but what are you going to do about it? In my experience, tough love and holding students accountable is what matters. Sometimes I think teachers feel so sympathetic toward students that they forget to hold them accountable.