City's new teachers get lesson in survival

Support: Baltimore schools hope to retain more new hires by teaching them what to expect in the classroom.

August 04, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Tamara Toles listened to nuggets of wisdom from veterans of middle-school teaching in Baltimore: Other people's trash can be your teaching materials; don't expect the copy machine in your school to actually work; and don't ever, ever go into your classroom without a lesson plan unless you want to be eaten alive by 13-year-olds.

This isn't what the 23-year-old heard in her college courses, but city school officials are hoping the dose of reality will help her survive her first year of teaching at Chinquapin Middle School.

For the first time, the city school system is offering a four-week training course this summer along with the customary one week of orientation before school begins Aug. 30. The training is optional; only about 200 of the more than 400 recently hired teachers are participating.

No other jurisdiction in Maryland offers more than five days of training to new teachers, said Ronald Peiffer, an assistant superintendent for the State Department of Education.

In the past, Baltimore's newest teachers have often left the school system in droves after a year or two, complaining they didn't get enough support or advice from principals and teachers. They have told stories of walking into a school ill-prepared to deal with a multitude of behavior problems and of having no advance information about what textbook and curriculum they will use.

"They belong to us now and we are going to make sure they stay with us," said Joan Hammonds, a 28-year veteran of city schools who is helping prepare teachers. "We deal with the real world."

From 8: 30 a.m. to 2: 30 p.m. five days a week, the new teachers practice writing lessons, watch the teaching techniques of a veteran and discuss issues as sensitive as union job actions and as mundane as what to hang on classroom walls. Several experienced teachers take turns in each class, offering different viewpoints.

Teachers have gotten dozens of tips on finding supplies. Tennis balls, often thrown away by health clubs, can be cut and stuck on chair legs to keep them from squealing.

Posters can be scavenged from used signs at office supply stores.

And those foam peanuts used in packaging make excellent math manipulatives -- educational jargon for the pieces of plastic, wood or just stuff that students can group together to learn to count, multiply or make patterns.

Perhaps the most useful advice came in the first week. For four days, teachers were taught how to deal with children who have behavior problems. Arrange desks in your classroom so you can see every student to cut down on bad behavior. Tuck the trash can under your desk or it will become a basketball hoop. Set down classroom rules on the first day.

The new teachers learned a system for maintaining order by teaching students to use hand signals. Holding your hand up means you are paying attention and quiet; holding your forefinger up means you want to be called on.

None of this was part of Toles' formal education. "What I learned in college was a lot more theoretical," she said.

Toles had lots of choices when she graduated from Delaware State University in May. She was offered teaching jobs in Howard, Harford and Baltimore counties as well as the city of Arlington and Fairfax and Alexandria counties in Virginia. All offered a starting salary of about $28,000, so she chose to teach at a city middle school. "I was a product of the city schools and I wanted to give something back," she said. She likes having her parents close by, although she said she recently moved into her own apartment.

Her teaching internship was in a rural school system in Smyrna, Del., where students are less streetwise and have more parental support than in Baltimore.

"I was pretty much spoiled," Toles said. "I had a computer in my classroom and my teacher supply cabinet looked like Office Depot. Now I am going to have to be resourceful."

Veteran teacher Bertha Knight told Toles and a group of language arts teachers that if they don't require all students to stop talking before they begin teaching a lesson, the room will soon dissolve into chaos. It may take several weeks to get students trained to be quiet, she said, but it will pay off down the road.

One piece of advice was given over and over: Never go to class unprepared. "If you are not prepared, they will eat you alive. They can smell that a mile away," said William Hellen, a Patterson High School teacher.

"Can you imagine a surgeon going into the operating room without the patient's chart?" asked Knight.

Middle schools can be chaotic, and all new teachers will have trouble controlling students, Hammonds acknowledged. She said she is trying to get her charges to see that no matter what problems break out in the hall, they must let their students know that once they enter their classroom they will have to get serious.

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