Education Opinion

Trading Places

By Gregory Michie — December 27, 2004 19 min read
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It’s a crisp October morning, and the sidewalk leading to Cameron Elementary School, tucked away on a residential street in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, is nearly hidden beneath a plush carpet of multicolored leaves. Inside the 1,200-student building, cast-iron radiators, their armor thickened over the years by countless coats of paint, hiss furiously as a class of 1stgraders ambles down the wide hallway’s hardwood floors. On the west wall, a 12-foot piece of butcher paper proclaims in large letters, “Cameron students say no to guns,” with the printed and sometimes scrawled names of dozens of children underneath. A girl with beaded braids near the back of the passing line pauses, smiles at me, and points to the banner. “My name’s right there!” she says.

Teacher Charlie Bright.

Up two flights of stairs, in Charlie Bright’s 3rd grade classroom, the sound of 25 pairs of scissors gnawing their way through paper fills the air. As students busily cut out alphabet tiles for a “making words” game, the 33-year-old African American teacher, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and pleated khakis, bounces from group to group to check on progress or hurry stragglers. Around the room, bulletin boards and displays of student work provide a glimpse into what the class has been up to: Venn diagrams comparing modes of transportation; drawings of the life cycle of a butterfly; a chart on presidential politics; and colorful campaign buttons for an upcoming class election. One student’s button features a red background with blue balloons around the edges and the slogan “If you want to be free, just vote for Malik.”

I’m visiting Charlie for the first time since the 2002-03 school year, when he was one of 18 first-year “interns” in the Golden Apple Teacher Education alternative-certification program, which I helped coordinate for three years. GATE, which began as a partnership between the nonprofit Golden Apple Foundation and Northwestern University and later expanded to other Chicago-area university sites, provides an accelerated path for career-changing professionals to become teachers in Chicago schools.

Such programs, which have multiplied nationwide during the past decade, are often referred to by critics as “fast tracks” and “boot camps.” Those pejorative labels don’t do GATE justice, but the track is indeed fast. While prospective interns go through a rigorous application and interview process, participate in an intensive summer training phase, and are mentored throughout their first year, one unarguable fact remains: After eight weeks of preparation, they are standing in front of their own public school classrooms.

Charlie’s GATE cohort was made up of people whose academic backgrounds, talents, and interests had taken them down a variety of paths: a cop, a filmmaker, an accountant, an army veteran, a nurse, a WNBA player, a media buyer/improv comic. Most had found success, or at least the promise of it, but for various reasons had decided to leave those occupations to pursue a teaching career. Charlie, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1993 with a degree in sociology, had spent three years as a community organizer and three more as an options trader before deciding to make the switch. “I always knew I wanted to teach,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to get into it. I was already working, I had bills, I had a family—I couldn’t afford to go back to school for three years.”

GATE provides an accelerated path for career-changing professionals to become teachers in Chicago schools.

As one of Charlie’s instructors, I knew something about making a career change. In 1990, after spending several mostly unfulfilling years in low-level TV production jobs and one year directing an after-school program, I became a teacher on Chicago’s South Side. At the time, Illinois had no alt-cert options, so I made the transition the only way I could: by spending two years taking night courses in a master’s program while helming a classroom—at substitute-teacher pay—during the day. I taught for nine years, working primarily with 7th and 8th graders in a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, then entered a PhD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was given the opportunity to coordinate GATE along with another doctoral student, Amy Rome. Working with the staff at Golden Apple and with Bill Ayers, author of numerous books on education and our faculty adviser at UIC, we developed a curriculum, led seminar sessions, scheduled guest presenters and workshops, and provided interns with regular feedback on their teaching.

Today, as Charlie’s students get a bit too boisterous during the “making words” activity, cheering loudly each time they correctly spell a word with their letter tiles, he’s quick to redirect their energy. “Remember, if you get it right, that’s great,” he says. “But instead of cheering, let’s do this.” He pumps his open palms toward the ceiling in a tame rendition of the “raise the roof” gesture. A few minutes later, after several students respond to Charlie’s clue—“This word begins with a ‘d’ and means ‘when something awful happens’ ”—by spelling “disaster,” the roof of Room 304 is enthusiastically, if quietly, raised by a dozen pairs of brown hands.

Like all our interns, Charlie had his share of struggles during his initial year. He wondered at times whether the GATE approach at UIC, centered around the notion of “teaching for social justice,” was providing him with enough of what he considered practical preparation. Even in year three, he says, he still faces plenty of day-to-day challenges. “The difference is that when something would go wrong the first year, I would panic and I wouldn’t know how to recover,” he tells me. “Now I can think a lot faster.”

Of course, moments of first-year panic strike traditionally prepared teachers, too. But Charlie’s points are well-taken. Despite the recent proliferation, and wide variety, of alt-cert programs across the country, even the good ones—and I would count GATE among them—find it difficult to fully prepare career-changers for the classroom.

Though they’ve attracted more attention lately, alternative routes to teacher certification are not new. New Jersey unveiled the first high-profile program in 1984 as an antidote to the practice of issuing “emergency” certificates, and several states followed suit with similar initiatives, according to the National Center for Education Information. But the number of programs began increasing exponentially in the mid-1990s due to a confluence of factors: a projected national teacher shortage, growing dissatisfaction with the limitations of traditional teacher preparation, and, in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act’s call for expanding alternative pathways. By 2003, NCEI figures show, 43 states and the District of Columbia had alternative-licensure programs and more than 200,000 teachers had been certified nationally through nontraditional routes.

When GATE debuted in 1998 as the first legislated alt-cert program in Illinois, many local colleges of education balked at the idea, seeing it as a poor substitute for the training provided by traditional paths to teaching—and as an unwanted bit of trespassing on their turf. But as the state approved additional programs, which would undoubtedly provide competition for potential students and their tuition dollars, more universities began to sense that the train was about to leave the station. Today, 14 colleges and universities in Illinois offer some type of state-sanctioned alternative program, and their impact is being felt at ground level. According to data analyzed by Catalyst, a Chicago-based education magazine, 25 percent of the new teachers hired in the city’s public schools for 2004-05 entered through alternative pathways.

When GATE debuted in 1998 as the first legislated alt-cert program in Illinois, many local colleges of education balked at the idea, seeing it as a poor substitute for the training provided by traditional paths to teaching.

Such a statistic concerns alt-cert skeptics. Sending untested and underprepared teachers into struggling urban schools is not only a recipe for failure, some insist, but also tantamount to using poor children as guinea pigs. “They end up teaching the most diverse children, who have the most- dramatic learning needs,” Barnett Berry, president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told Catalyst. “They are not the teachers who are landing in front of the easy-to-teach children.”

But Dom Belmonte, a former high school English teacher who, as director of teacher preparation for the Golden Apple Foundation, helped craft the GATE proposal, says there’s a need for the program. He contends that most graduates of traditional programs in the Chicago area end up in suburban districts, which creates a void of talented new teachers in the city’s “schools of need.” “We propose the idea of teaching in schools of poverty as doable, as honorable,” Dom says. “We’re fulfilling a need, not foisting an experiment.”

I, too, have heard the criticisms—“Would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who’s only had two months’ training?” But I’ve always thought they were based on a flawed understanding of how high-quality alt-cert programs work. For example, while GATE interns train for just eight weeks before going solo, they also receive intensive help throughout their first year in the classroom. This includes biweekly observation and feedback sessions with veteran educators, assistance with securing resources, and participation in weekly reflective seminars—crucial support that many traditionally prepared first-year teachers don’t get.

When we began GATE at UIC, my main concern was how best to prepare our interns to teach in city schools. My experiences in Chicago classrooms taught me that those actions considered the core of a teacher’s work—explaining concepts, planning lessons, managing student behavior—are only small parts of a bigger picture. So while technical matters had to be addressed, we also emphasized the “social justice” component to dedicate ample time to other, equally important, challenges. Among them were making room in the curriculum for students’ voices and experiences, building strong relationships with kids and their parents, and understanding the impact of poverty on communities.

As self-satisfyingly progressive as all this may sound, it didn’t always go over well with our interns. Once inside classrooms, some thought that the “big picture” questions seemed unimportant when compared with more pressing concerns: How do you get a class of 2nd graders to the washroom and back in less than 15 minutes? How do you help a kid who somehow made it to 5th grade without being able to read even a picture book?

Phylis McGarr, who worked as a nurse for 22 years before becoming a GATE intern, says she was expecting more of a “nuts and bolts” approach during the eight-week preparation phase. “During that first summer, I didn’t feel like I was getting the ‘This is how you do it’ part,” the 50-year-old recalls. “I looked at it like [Abraham] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—you have to learn the basics before you can build on them. So while you were talking about social justice, I’m thinking, But how do I teach?”

Now a third-year teacher at Gillespie Elementary on her native South Side, Phylis says her rookie year was filled with doubts about whether her 2nd graders were benefiting educationally. “There were many times when I would think, Oh my God, these poor kids. I’m not teaching them how to read. And then one day, I just looked up, and they were all silently reading—even the kids who struggled with it.” A smile crosses her face. “There was a calmness about them and an interest in reading. For me, it was a great moment.”

Phylis says she’s come to accept the notion that teaching is learned over time, in real situations with specific children. “I kept thinking it should be formulaic,” she says. “But I realize now that it’s not like that. I guess I look at it as research and development. You get a little more research behind you in the classroom and you can develop more programming that’s appropriate—agewise and interestwise— for the kids.”

I remember hearing Charlie Bright, a couple of years ago, describe his first day as a teacher as being painfully awkward. “The kids were new to 3rd grade. I was new to any grade,” he said. “It was kind of like being on a first date.”

From the beginning, Charlie was a thoughtful student of teaching—observant, not afraid to reconsider his assumptions, never satisfied with his halting efforts to improve. He chastised himself when he resorted to busying kids with worksheets, wondered aloud at times about the depth of his commitment, and was forever his own worst critic. “I wouldn’t want my own daughter to be a student in my class,” he once said.

As a participant in an alt-cert program in Chicago, Charlie Bright moved from a career in finance to one in education.

Now, as he flips on an overhead projector to begin an after-lunch math lesson, much of that self-doubt seems to have peeled away. He crosses the room, grabs a plastic shopping bag off the floor, and pulls out two new boxes of pencils. “We were running out of pencils again, so I went out and bought some last night,” he tells the class. Tyler and Navarre, two African American boys sitting next to me, are all ears—as are the other kids. “Each box has six packs of pencils,” Charlie continues, holding up one box for all to see, “and each pack has 12 pencils in it.” Peering through wire-frame glasses, he writes what he’s just said on the overhead as a word problem. “All right, let’s see if we can figure this out,” he says. “How many pencils are in each box?”

As Tyler and Navarre begin scribbling computations, I ask Tyler what he thinks of Charlie. “He a good teacher,” says the 9-year-old, his long cornrows beaded at the tips. “He make us work hard. He be teachin’ us 4th grade stuff so when we get there, we gonna already know it.” Tyler looks at the numbers he’s written in his notebook, then adds: “And he don’t never yell at people or throw us out the class.”

I recall something I learned earlier today: At Cameron, where the student body is 44 percent African American, 54 percent Latino, and 97 percent low income, Charlie is the school’s only black male classroom teacher. One of the original appeals of GATE, for me, was its potential to do what other alt-cert programs had proved was possible: attract a more diverse pool of candidates to the classroom. In Chicago, as in many other districts nationwide, people of color continue to be underrepresented in the ranks of elementary and secondary teachers, and the paucity of men on elementary staffs is well- documented. In our three GATE cohorts at UIC, 32 percent of the interns who completed the program and became teachers were African American, and 34 percent were male—far higher proportions than in UIC’s undergraduate elementary certification pipeline during those years.

Charlie, who has 11 African American boys among the 26 students in his class, believes his presence at Cameron is important. “Most of my students are black, and I think they relate to me differently than they do to the white teachers,” he explains. “And the black parents, I think they see that I’m not so quick to judge them. I think a lot of times they feel like they’re being judged by teachers—and from what I’ve heard come out of the mouths of some of the teachers here, they are being judged sometimes. I think there are some teachers here who could definitely use some work on race relations themselves.”

When it comes to the lives of his Mexican and Puerto Rican students, Charlie has had to put in extra work of his own. He says it’s an ongoing process, but he believes he’s been able to develop strong bonds with many Latino children and their parents. “One thing I took away from GATE is how important it is to know your students, to understand where they’re coming from,” he tells me. “I’m still struggling to do a better job of that. ... When I meet with parents, I always say, ‘I don’t know as much about your child as you do—what can you tell me?’ And I always learn something I didn’t know.”

After giving his students several minutes to deliberate on the pencils problem, Charlie returns to the overhead projector and asks for volunteers. The kids describe varying strategies: Some counted tally marks; others added six 12s together; one multiplied 12 and 6. “Good job, everybody,” Charlie says. “All of those strategies can work. There’s more than one way to do it.”

That maxim doesn’t hold, however, when it comes to assessing good teaching in Chicago. “What I’ve learned in the past two years is that most of the things that were valued in GATE aren’t important to the people who evaluate me,” Charlie says. “They want to know about test scores. They want to see core subjects. They want to see student writing on the wall, and they couldn’t care less what the writing’s about—as long as it’s writing. I don’t think I’ve been asked one time how I’m dealing with race in the classroom or how I’m building community. I know those things are important, but when I’m getting evaluated, that’s the last thing they’re looking for.”

So how does he renew himself in such a narrowly focused environment? The kids, he says, “bring so much energy; they’re so creative, and it’s great to see when things are clicking, when a student who’s been struggling starts to build himself up. ... Given the right opportunities, I feel like these kids can do as well as anyone.”

One reason alternative certification is so hotly debated is that the structure and quality of the initiatives that fall under the “alternative” umbrella vary widely from state to state and from one program to another. In comparing alt-cert efforts across the country, Education Week’s annual Quality Counts reports have shown that while many are highly structured and intensive, others appear to be little more than updated takes on emergency licensure.

Looking back on his GATE experience, Charlie gives the program high marks. He says he learned a great deal that first summer from his mentor teacher, Diane Callaghan, now a seven-year veteran of Chicago schools. He also benefited from the regular observations and weekly seminars during his first year, both of which, he says, gave him an edge over other new teachers.

One reason alternative certification is so hotly debated is that the structure and quality of the initiatives that fall under the ‘alternative’ umbrella vary widely from state to state.

But his reviews are mixed when it comes to the program’s “social justice” curriculum, which was unique to our UIC edition of GATE. “I try to do the things we talked about,” he says. “I try to teach from multiple perspectives, I try to use literature that relates to my students’ experiences. But I still wish we would’ve done more with how to teach certain subjects, like math and reading. I definitely came in that first year feeling like I was missing some things.”

Still, as I watch Charlie interact with students and listen to him talk about his work, I see and hear echoes of our GATE teachings—and in areas more “practical” than he may realize. We chose not to make “nuts and bolts” our primary focus because of our belief that teaching is not a mechanical, by-the-numbers enterprise. As Martin Haberman, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a longtime supporter of quality alt-cert efforts, has written, teachers in high-poverty schools fail not because they haven’t learned how to conduct a direct instruction lesson; they fail, he insists, because they’re unable to establish meaningful relationships with diverse groups of children.

Charlie tells me that the most important thing he got from GATE was simple: the opportunity to teach. “I wouldn’t be a teacher today if it wasn’t for the GATE program,” he says. “I’d still be managing trades at a discount brokerage house.” While teaching is more difficult than he ever imagined, he says, he enjoys the challenge of coming up with new ways to engage his kids. “I think about it almost 24/7—what can I do better? How can I improve a certain lesson? Do I need to go to the library today? I’m constantly thinking about it. And every year, I’m getting better.”

Research on whether alternatively certified individuals become quality teachers who will remain in the profession long-term has been largely inconclusive. But the Golden Apple Foundation’s own survey, conducted in 2004 with the assistance of Chicago Public Schools, indicates that retention rates for GATE interns are promising. Of the 211 who completed the program at Northwestern or UIC between 1998 and 2003, 161—or 76 percent—are still teaching in Chicago schools, with the initial cohort now in its seventh year in the classroom.

Charlie, for one, plans to stick with it for the long haul. “People laugh when you say you’re going to be a teacher for the rest of your life, but that’s what I see for myself,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

A week later, I’m back in Charlie’s classroom during his morning literacy block. On the board, a chart informs students where they should be during each of three 20-minute rotations: two groups reading books of their choice, two more working on reading- response journals, and one in a guided-reading session with Charlie. He listens and takes notes in a three-ring binder as a girl who’s practically buried beneath a hooded jacket makes her way through a passage, her index finger sliding across the page as she utters each word.

“Try to use just your eyes, not your fingers,” Charlie gently suggests. “Trust your eyes. You’ll read faster.”

"People laugh when you say you're going to be a teacher for the rest of your life," says the former broker, "but that's what i see for myself."

Almost everyone in the room is busy either reading or writing. Tyler is lying face down on a carpet, propped on one elbow, going through a response Charlie wrote to his latest journal entry. His feet, clad in Spiderman sneakers, kick back and forth in the air. Charlie’s eyes scan the space every 30 seconds or so to make sure the groups are staying focused; occasionally he has to call someone out, but for the most part, the kids are absorbed in their work. “We’re starting to get into a good rhythm,” he’ll tell me later.

I’m thrilled, of course, to see the kind of teacher Charlie is becoming, but I can’t take credit for it. My contributions were a small part of a team effort during his time in GATE, and he’s learned a great deal since then—from colleagues who’ve gone out of their way to help, from workshops he’s attended, from his students, from experience itself. What GATE did, it seems to me, was open a door for Charlie and help guide him on the tentative first steps of his classroom journey—when many novice teachers are more or less on their own. He’s taken it from there.

When I ask what he hopes his students will get from their time together, Charlie ponders the question before answering. “I hope that 15 years from now, when kids think about me, they’ll say, ‘In 3rd grade, I had a great teacher. He was fair, he respected me, and I learned lots of things.’ ”

Charlie says that’s how he remembers his own favorite teacher, whom he had in 7th grade at a Chicago public school. “I remember feeling like I was as well prepared as anybody that year,” he continues. “I felt like I learned as much as any other 7th grader in the entire city—or the entire country. And I hope my students can look back and say that, too.”


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