The teacher's teacher

Mentor: Rookie instructor Lisa Jacobs receives counsel from an unexpected source.

November 03, 1999|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Lisa Jacobs didn't learn everything she needed to know in kindergarten.

Luckily, just as she was getting off to a rough start in her first job, her kindergarten teacher showed up to give a little welcome advice and guidance.

As an idealistic new teacher at Baltimore's Montebello Elementary School, Jacobs quickly discovered the difference between classroom theory and practice. She felt ill-prepared for the classroom's unruliness and the long nights spent learning a new curriculum.

Just getting 20 squirming first-graders to sit still, let alone follow a lesson, proved harder than she had imagined. Some of her pupils could barely spell their names. Others refused to stay in their seats. The 25-year-old Towson University graduate tried to remain patient, even as she kept having to interrupt herself to restore a semblance of order.

Then, as Jacobs began to have second thoughts about a teaching career, Carletta Booth-Briscoe arrived on the scene as a mentor. A retired pro with years of experience, Briscoe also happened to have been Jacobs' first teacher.

"I couldn't believe it. It was like divine intervention," Jacobs says of the partnership, which was provided under a mentoring program created this year by a group of retired Baltimore teachers and principals called Retired Teachers Advocating Change Today.

Their goal is simple yet significant: to help young city schoolteachers survive a first year that can be so exhausting and frustrating that it becomes overwhelming.

"It's really just good having her here," says Jacobs, a little wearily but with a smile. "Sometimes, she's able to say something that I haven't been able to think of. Classroom management is my big issue. She's been helping me, and it makes things less stressful."

Briscoe is equally pleased to share her strategies with the young teacher. She immediately remembered Jacobs, despite the 20 years that had passed, as the bright, eager kindergartner who wanted to grow up to be just like her.

"Certain students, they just stand out," Briscoe recalls. "Lisa said to me, `I want to be a teacher like you.' She would gather children around and read a story. Her mother volunteered in the classroom, and I was real fond of both of them."

It's been less than a year since the 53-year-old Briscoe retired after 31 years of teaching kindergarten at General Wolfe Elementary in Fells Point. As she was packing away her classroom materials, she heard about the mentoring program.

A challenging job

All too often, new teachers come out of college, determined to make a difference, only to quit, disillusioned, after a short time on the job. Last year, the city schools lost or dismissed 358 teachers after only one or two years.

This year, the school system hired 800 new teachers -- and it's trying to make sure they get support and advice to cope with everything from disruptive classrooms to unfamiliar curriculums.

That's why several days a week, Briscoe goes to Montebello Elementary, a large, brick school overlooking Lake Montebello in Northeast Baltimore. Montebello has a long history of achievement, but like many city schools, it is now on the state's failing list. It is one of 53 elementary schools at risk of being taken over by the state unless they improve pupil performance on Maryland's yearly standardized tests.

"To be frank, I was quite apprehensive about the mentoring program at first," says Helen Shelton, the new principal trying to turn the school around. "I was apprehensive about too many people telling our teachers what to do. I started to relax about it when I saw the relationships building between the mentors and mentees. It's really working out well."

Tricks of the trade

Briscoe usually brings along a bag full of goodies -- jump ropes, Lego toys. They're just one trick of the trade, a way to persuade pupils to behave. Briscoe knows plenty of others: how to place a soothing hand on a restless 6-year-old's shoulder, how to persuade a disruptive boy to stay quiet during a timeout, how to get two giggling girls to pay attention.

Quietly, without drawing attention to herself, she shows Jacobs ways to get the children settled and focused on their lessons. Just as important, she is there, ready to listen and sympathize when Jacobs has a bad day.

"I was so discouraged one day, I said, `I might have to quit,' " Jacobs says. "She said, `Don't let these children run you out. You are the teacher.' "

Those words made Jacobs reconsider. She wants to make it, and her kindergarten teacher is constantly telling her she can.

"I feel she is a good teacher, and will be better, when she learns a few things," Briscoe says. "I know. I was there, and I made it."

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