Interview: Making the Switch

November 01, 2003 4 min read

In 1999, Chicago Sun-Times writer Leslie Baldacci left her 25-year career to join Teachers for Chicago, an alternative certification program, and eventually, to teach in one of Chicago’s neediest public schools. Baldacci, who is still teaching, recounts those first few years in Inside Mrs. B’s Classroom: Courage, Hope, and Learning on Chicago’s South Side (McGraw-Hill). Career Coach recently interviewed the former journalist (by e-mail) about the lessons she’s learned as a teacher.

CAREER COACH: Can you talk a little about your experience in the Teachers for Chicago program: How prepared to teach did you feel coming out of the program?

LESLIE BALDACCI: Teachers for Chicago was an alternative certification program that took people from all walks of life who had undergraduate degrees, and put us right away into our own classrooms while we earned our master’s degrees in education at one of eight participating universities. We were assigned a mentor, an experienced teacher who was relieved of classroom duties in order to assist, support and model teaching for four TFC interns at the school throughout the year.

I was woefully unprepared for the administrative duties of a classroom: attendance records, report cards, lesson plans, curriculum planning. (Not to mention the other recordkeeping task that comes with the job: innocuous things like lunch tickets and receipt books.) I would have been far better prepared if I had been a student teacher in the traditional sense. I would have learned better classroom management skills if I had been able to observe an experienced teacher for an extended period of time. It would have been valuable to sit down with an experienced hand to better understand planning and curriculum, and organize activities. Instead, I learned everything from my own mistakes.

CC: When you got into the classroom, where did your greatest source (s) of support come from?

LB: My greatest sources of support were veteran teachers. They were generous and kind. They kept me going. The hero of my book is one of these extraordinary women. Surprisingly, the children also kept me going, including some of the very ones who tried to run the train off the rails every single day. Mark Twain once said he could go a month on one good compliment. One sparkle of connection with a student would sustain me in the hardest times.

CC: What mistakes did you make those first few years?

LB: My greatest mistake, the thing that took me longest to learn, was how to prevent a simple dust-up from escalating into a full-blown situation. My administrators stressed control. Control is very subjective, at times completely overrated. Connections, respect, caring--these things count for more than control by itself.

CC: In your book, you say you “understand why a third of teachers quit after three years.” Can you explain what you mean by that? Also, how have you managed to stay in the profession for longer than three years?

LB: I understand why a third of teachers quit after three years because three years are just baby steps in teaching. It is a complex, delicate craft. At the three-year point, teachers may feel discouraged because they are just starting to feel competent. I am just now feeling capable and I’m starting my fifth year in the classroom, my third year of teaching the same grade and same subject. I now know what comes next, and I understand the nuances of my pre-teen age group. The other discouraging part for new teachers is the paperwork. I cannot bear to think of recertification. Why do we hammer the most educated segment of our society with so much paperwork and regulation that has nothing to do with teaching or learning?

CC: What are some things new or prospective teachers should know about working in urban schools? What can they do to prepare themselves?

LB: Preparing teachers to work in urban schools is a two-sided challenge. The challenge on the outside is to understand youth culture and urban culture and get to know--and respect--the people who live in your school neighborhood, to look to them for insight and support and partnership. Whether it’s the shopkeeper, the pastor, the grandmother or the block club chairman, these people are our lifelines. Turn to them for counsel. They are wise. They can help you solve problems. The internal challenge, especially for white, middle-class teachers, is to challenge lifelong assumptions about the way things are or should be. It is a challenge that requires us to open our minds and question our minds and hearts as we negotiate new realities.

The other morning I saw a disheveled woman hurrying two small children across a busy traffic street. There was a time I would have been critical because she seemed careless about safety. Instead, I saw a mother trying against odds to get her children to school on time, which I respected immensely.