Excerpt: The Big Switch

October 01, 2003 8 min read
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A former journalist makes the switch to teaching.

In 1995, as part of a reform effort, control of Chicago Public Schools was given to Mayor Richard M. Daley. Leslie Baldacci, a journalist for 25 years who had written extensively about education, fired off a column in the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, in essence: OK, Mr. Mayor, fixing the city’s schools is now your responsibility. But a few years later, after improvements had been made, Baldacci decided, Now maybe it’s my turn. So she became one of 100 “interns” in Teachers for Chicago, a two-year alternative certification program allowing people to switch professions and help the city’s most needy schools. Baldacci, who is the mother of two teenage daughters, is still teaching, and she recounts those first two trying years in Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom: Courage, Hope, and Learning on Chicago’s South Side (McGraw- Hill). Year one, spent with 7th graders, was a near disaster, as Baldacci developed close ties with her students by bending bureaucratic rules. Soon put on “remediation,” she found herself, on the first day of the 2000-01 school year, teaching 2nd graders.

This year, I would be the tallest one in the class, I realized as I gathered my new students. Several children’s parents handed them off to me directly and introduced themselves. One little girl was handed to me screaming and crying, clinging to her sister who needed to get to 6th grade. I told the little one not to worry, that we’d have fun and I’d take good care of her until her sister came to get her at the end of the day. She was as tiny as a fairy and quite inconsolable. I finally picked her up and carried her in, sobbing on my shoulder. She hardly weighed anything at all. The baby oil from her face and hair made a blotch on my shirt, above my heart.

The children were eager to get to work. We started our day on the rug, sitting in a circle, telling our names. We then read a Sesame Street story about the first day of school and created a new story called All About Us on sentence strips that we hung across the front of the room. Our room has ten boys and nine girls. We love to read! Our favorite food is pizza. Our favorite animals are cats and dogs.

We went over the rules and assigned classroom jobs. I thought lunch time would never come. We started smelling the food around 10 a.m., but our class somehow pulled the last lunch shift, 12:15, a full hour later than the other 2nd grades. By 11:30, the children were complaining of stomachaches and headaches because they were hungry.

So we had a bathroom break and bought time with a little ballet. I had everyone stand with one hand on the back of their chairs and showed them first position. I put on Otis Redding’s “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” and we started our ballet lesson with demi pli and grand pli. We turned and did them the other way, “just like in a real ballet school.” Then we did tendu and degage. When we finished one side, I asked, “What do we do next?”

“Turn around and do it the other way, just like in a real ballet school,” Hakim called instantly.

“You are absolutely right!” I said, daring to think that this year was starting off pretty well.

Ballet and Otis tided us over until lunch time, but I realized we would need daily snacks if we were to survive all year on this schedule.

At lunch, I sat down with my student sat the table, which teachers are not supposed to do for some reason having to do with our contract and our 2:30 dismissal. Teachers and staff want to get the hell out early, so on the books, our lunch time is 2:30. During the children’s lunch period, we are “on duty.” Someone decided that being “on duty” meant we stand like prison guards. I decided being “on duty” meant sitting and eating as a family and learning table manners. I always sat down with my 2nd graders.

“Who made you that good lunch?” I asked Mario, the only one with a lunch from home.

“I made it myself,” he said.

“What do you have?”

“I have a sandwich, a juice box, some chips, a pudding, and cookies. And I have a spoon for the pudding.”

“That’s a good lunch,” I said.

“Here,” he said, handing me a chip.

“Thank you,” I said.

After lunch, about 1 p.m., the secretary came on the intercom and said that a Channel 2 news crew and the principal were on their way to our classroom. The year before, a news producer asked three different times to come to my classroom. I refused every request. Why invite disaster? But she had phoned the night before and asked again. I figured, How bad could 2nd grade be? So I told her to call the principal in the morning. I gave him a note to expect a call from the producer, but I was astonished to learn via intercom that he had agreed with the provision that the children’s faces not be shown. It would have been much easier to say no, there is too much going on the first day of school, which is the truth. Instead he said, “Why do you do these things to me?” as if I spent my days thinking up ways to exasperate him.

My new mentor came along with the three TV people. She worked with children on one side of the room while I worked on the other. We reviewed alphabetical order and did some more reading. It was nerve-racking to have the visitors and the camera in the classroom. I felt certain that in the excitement and intensity of day one, I was a blithering idiot. I dreaded watching the piece on TV that night.

At the end of the day, I walked the children out and waited with Natasha, my little fairy, for her sister. She held my hand. Hers was tiny but strong. The new interns staggered out shell-shocked and made their ways to their cars. I felt their pain. I later managed to get home without driving past my own house, an improvement over last year’s first day.

I called Teachers for Chicago headquarters to let the leaders downtown know that the TV piece on “fast-track teachers” was scheduled to air on the 10o’clock news. I left a voice mail with one of the men who had been my point person on media in the past.

My own TFC liaison called me a few minutes later. At first she was congratulatory, but it quickly be-came apparent that she was furious that I had called her partner, who was not my liaison.

“Why didn’t you follow the chain of command?” she demanded.

“Well, I’ve always dealt with him on media issues,” I said. “He asked me to keep him updated on anything media-related I did while in the program.”

“I wonder if you called him because he is Caucasian. Maybe you feel more comfortable with him.”

The conversation, already confrontational, had now taken a turn that left me sputtering, stupidly, “What?”

“I wonder if you called him because he is Caucasian,” she said.

“That is ridiculous,” I said. “I called him because he had asked me to keep him updated on media things. Are you suggesting that I am a racist?”

“Don’t try to put words in my mouth,” she snapped.

“Well it sure sounds like that’s what you’re saying. Is that what you think”

“This is not about me,” she said. “This is about you.”

The conversation was going in circles. I felt sick and off-kilter. I apologized for my thoughtlessness, and told her that in the future I would follow the chain and that nothing like this would happen again.

“Oh, I’m sure it will,” she said.

“Oh come on, that is totally unfair,” I argued. “I said it wouldn’t happen again, and it won’t happen again.”

“We’ll see,” she said, hanging up on me.

Back on the shit list, I thought, and it’s only the first day of school.

I was heartsick about the way this thing had broken, mainly because there was some validity in what she said. Why had I called the white man (the “Caucasian”) and not her? Was there more to it than the fact that he had been my point man on media? In my previous career, I’d dealt almost exclusively with white men in power positions. That was the power structure I cut my teeth on. That was what I was familiar and comfortable with. I had worked for and with white, black, and Latina women and been an editor myself with authority over men and women of all races. But always, white men held the highest power. Had I failed to learn a key lesson about operating in my new profession, which was vastly matriarchal and minority (yet with a white man in the top position)? It seemed terribly complex and confusing, more than I could grasp on the first day of school.

It was arrogant to proclaim, “I am not a racist,” without taking time to think, Am I? I searched my heart with questions about racism. I didn’t have all the answers. I liked people for who they were. My favorite downtown liaison was Frank Tobin, not just because we are neighbors and I’d known him longest, but because he seemed to be a kindred spirit. He was the reason I’d walked through the door of the program in the first place. He had used the words “vocation” and “social justice,” the same words I had secretly carried in my heart as an unseen hand seemed to propel me in a new direction. He was always encouraging and kind and always took time to talk to me. Just that week, he had mailed me a wonderful article from Harper’s magazine about the failure of public education being a government conspiracy to keep in place a service industry of undereducated people in dead-end jobs.

Then again, maybe it was easier to feel close to him because his feedback was positive. The most encouragement I ever received from my liaison was that she felt I had “the potential” to be a good teacher. She never said I was doing anything in particular right. She never sent me articles in the mail she thought I’d enjoy.

I wondered whether my sin was vanity rather than racism. Maybe I connected better with people who affirmed rather than criticized me, which is human nature.

In the end, I was grateful to my liaison for forcing me to face that ugly question. She was not kind and we did not love each other, but she was a good teacher to me that day. She opened my eyes. She taught me to question my motivations and alliances. She made me think. I left it at that for the time being.

I had a case of nerves all evening. By 10 p.m., I was in bed, hiding under the covers. The piece aired after the first commercial. I peeked out and watched it with one eye. To my immense relief, it was fine. Thanks to skillful editing, I was not a blithering idiot.

No more media, I told myself. I would not do anything but teach those 2nd graders to the best of my ability, every day for the rest of the year. It was best to lie completely low, fly under the radar. I was still in remediation, after all, and my fate lay in the hands of my liaison and the principal, both of whom I’d managed to piss off on the first day of school.

Excerpted from Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom: Courage, Hope, and Learning on Chicago’s South Side, by Leslie Baldacci. Copyright 2003. Reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill.


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