For new teachers, 1st test is Monday

Commitment: Young participants in Teach for America pledge to work for two years in teacher-poor systems such as Baltimore's.

August 26, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

For Camika Royal and Davina Wu, basic training is over. On Monday, these brand new teachers will join the perennial battle of middle school, where the stakes are high and the conflicts are eternal: Homework vs. Hormones. Discipline vs. Disruption. Wisdom vs. Wisecracks.

And with as many as 40 students per class lying in wait, even the most careful lesson plans are sure to be tested early and often.

"I'm really excited," Royal said. "I feel like there's so much that I don't know, so that will probably put me at a disadvantage. But I've been wanting to teach for a couple of years. Children are really my passion, and I want to see what I can do for them."

So, at 7: 45 a.m. Monday, Royal will be teaching English in room 214 at Robert Poole Middle School in Hamden. One floor below, Wu will be holding forth on social studies in room 106.

They're among 52 new arrivals to the city schools this year from Teach for America, the program founded a decade ago by a college student to provide fresh legions of teachers to the country's undermanned fight to improve public schools.

The selective program -- only about 800 of 3,100 applicants were accepted from last year's crop of college graduates -- offers jobs and help in paying tuition bills in exchange for a commitment to teach at least two years in a school system short on teachers. Paid for by donations and federal funding, Teach for America is part of AmeriCorps.

In Baltimore, one of 13 school systems participating nationwide, the newcomers also get to work toward a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins University, with courses on Tuesday nights and Saturdays.

The first Hopkins class this week taught a lesson that could make it tough for the new teachers to sleep this Sunday night, on the eve of the new school year.

Be careful about the first impression you make, they were told, because some students decide then and there whether to even show up for class from then on.

"If you don't care, they know it," Wu said. "They can tell from the moment you walk in the door."

"I'm trying to find a way to convey firmness while conveying caring," Royal said. "I'm trying to navigate that, because I don't want to come across as too strong or too weak. But I do plan on letting them know that it is my classroom, and when they're in it they're my children."

Add to that challenge the turbulent peculiarities of middle school students, and Wu and Royal figure to have their work cut out for them as beginners.

Remember what it was like

"I've had a lot of flashbacks, thinking about what it was like coming up through middle school," Royal said. "I want to be listening to what they're saying, to be sensitive to that changing time in their lives."

Wu said, "I remember feeling like I wasn't understood, that I wasn't listened to.

"But we're really not that far removed from them," she added, prompting a giggle from both of them, "so I hope I'll be sensitive and attuned, and able to adjust to each child."

Wu, 22, who grew up in New York, discovered Teach for America at a career open house in November during her senior year at Columbia University. Up until then she'd been planning on medical school, but the long years of extra schooling and the seeming lack of teamwork in the profession led her to consider a switch to teaching -- especially once she was hooked by the missionary zeal of Teach for America.

Royal, 21, had been gearing up to be teacher, but the program appealed to her longtime desire to help out in a needier district, such as in her hometown of Philadelphia. As the editor of her college literary magazine at North Carolina Central University, now she's excited about starting a writing club this fall at Robert Poole.

This year's Teach for America corps got its first training in Houston, where members spent four weeks in July teaching summer school students in the grades and courses they'll be teaching this fall. Baltimore's contingent arrived here Aug. 4 to get acclimated to the city and find places to live.

In the first class at Hopkins, instructor Sue Small, coordinator for the Master of Arts and Training program, wasted little time in demonstrating a teaching technique. When the scheduled class time of 4: 30 p.m. rolled around, many of the Teach for America students were still milling and chatting. Small ignored them and began talking.

They got quiet in a hurry.

"Is ignoring a good teaching technique?" she then asked. The consensus answer: Sometimes, and the answer can depend on your audience. Tactics that work on eager graduate students might fall flat on fidgety middle schoolers.

Trouble is inevitable

Which brings up a tough question for Royal and Wu. How will they handle the inevitable troublemakers?

"I tend to like troublemakers," Royal said, meaning not the dangerous sort but the wise-cracking kind, the ones who, like Pied Pipers, can either lead classmates astray into anarchy or toward greater attention and participation.

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