Teacher Profiles: Quality Counts 2003

Andratesha Munn, Rebecca Farrell, Lyndsay Dimengo, Allison Hauserman, Robert Ristau, Heather Penny, and Michelle Flanagan.

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Andratesha Munn

Andratesha Munn started her job search around Thanksgiving 2001, nine months before she hoped to be standing in her own classroom. She pictured herself surrounded there by students like the ones she had coached in an anti-poverty program aimed at getting teenagers into college.

She was under no delusions about the ease of landing a job in a high school English department, even in one of the five urban districts that were her targets and with her fine record in a master's-degree program in urban secondary teaching at Cleveland State University. Openings are few, and competition is stiff in teacher-rich Ohio.

Of the five Cleveland-area districts with enough poor students to fulfill the requirements of the loans Munn had taken out to get her degree, she ended up, after visits, applying to the high schools in just two of them--Cleveland and its much smaller but equally urban neighbor, East Cleveland. One of the others she deemed too far away, and another struck her as too clubby when administrators boasted of how hard it would be to get a job there. The 74,000-student Cleveland district and 5,800-student East Cleveland system have both been declared in a state of "academic emergency" by Ohio.

A poised 24-year-old woman with delicate glasses perched on her nose and an air of quiet intelligence, Munn grew up in Cleveland's Central area, attending Roman Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

When she began the Master's in Urban Teaching program at Cleveland State in the late spring of 2001, right after graduating from the university with a degree in women's studies and English, her goal was in place: She wanted to teach in urban public schools. Those were the same schools that seemed to be failing the Upward Bound students she had tutored and supervised in a dormitory the summer before.

"That program," she says, "is at the heart of why I want to be a teacher, especially in an urban area." Munn is also fulfilling a dream cherished by her mother, who did not complete college, and an even older dream pursued by her grandmother, who at one time attended a teacher-training school but did not graduate.

In February, Munn filled out applications for Cleveland and East Cleveland, where she was student-teaching at the smaller district's Shaw High School. To get the application, she simply walked back to the school board's office, which is housed adjacent to the high school.

That same week, the Cleveland district called her in for an interview and offered her a position-somewhere in one of the district's middle or high schools. It was too early for the personnel office to pinpoint jobs, but from experience, the recruiter could tell her that a middle school job in Munn's field was more likely to open up than a high school job. It would likely be August--six months hence--when the young teacher could know for sure about a job.

Meanwhile, the head of the urban master's-degree program happened to meet with administrators from East Cleveland, and mentioned that Munn was being courted by the big district next door. Soon after, the Shaw principal and East Cleveland's personnel director approached Munn and also offered her a job. They couldn't be absolutely sure yet, they said, but they expected a few retirements, and a job should open up in English at the high school.

That sounded good to Munn, as she envisioned her first year of teaching, a year everybody in the profession knows is grueling. Not only had she observed classrooms at the school in the fall, she was running her own for a semester under the supervision of a faculty member and with guidance from the assistant principal.

"They welcomed the student-teachers," she recalls of her first days in the school. "People came up and asked if you needed anything.

"I felt that was the best place for me as a first-year teacher. I have a support network. I know the curriculum; I know how to use the books and the tools they have. And I have a base of kids I already know."

Munn stuck with her decision through a bitter two-week teachers' strike in April 2002 and some confusion about when her contract would be ready. She moved to a high-rise apartment building that overlooks the school in June, and that month began teaching a summer course. The school board approved her contract last July.

In October, she reported that her first year was going well.


Rebecca Ferrell

Rebecca Ferrell’s growing frustration with the Lutheran school in suburban Cleveland where she has taught for a decade prompted her to look for another job. Halfway through the coursework for her second master’s degree in education, she wanted a place where other teachers would pour themselves into improving their craft, where her interest in pursuing National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification would be greeted with more than a shrug.

Ferrell, who is 45 and has 22 years as a teacher in elementary classrooms, put out feelers last spring to a few suburban districts near her home, about 30 minutes west of downtown Cleveland. She used The Plain Dealer to identify those with good student test results and high proportions of college-bound students. Those districts had no openings. The district where her Lutheran school is located took her application and promised to keep it on file for two years.

Ferrell also applied for a job in a Lutheran school in inner-city Cleveland--and turned it down when offered. She also decided against applying to the Cleveland public schools.

“It’s partly my husband’s influence,” says Ferrell, who teaches 3rd grade. “My first experience was in a rural district, and here I am in the suburbs. [My husband] really feels it may be a struggle for me in the discipline area. I’d be excited for the challenge, but I don’t know how I’d handle difficult home situations.”

By last August, the veteran was mulling over a future return to school for a doctorate, maybe combining that with some teaching at the college level. One thing was for sure: “This is my last year at my present school.”


Lyndsay Dimengo

As a student in John Carroll University’s teacher education program, Lyndsay Dimengo taught at a middle school in the old, racially mixed Cleveland suburb where the Catholic university is located. “I loved the diversity of it,” she said of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district school just after graduating in the spring of 2002. “It was a wonderful school.”

But too far away for the future she was then envisioning. A native of an Akron suburb to the south, the 22-year-old Dimengo was about to marry a man with another year at the University of Akron and then plans for training in the ministry at Ashland University, southwest of Akron. So Dimengo drew the lines for her job search around Akron, going only as far north as Cleveland’s mostly well-heeled southern suburbs.

With easily more than a dozen districts to choose from, she pursued ones in communities she was familiar with, plus the two where she had been substitute teaching. Right before her wedding, the one-time pre-med student sent out eight applications for what she hoped were math or science openings in middle schools.

Two weeks later, the Jackson district--where Dimengo’s aunt lives--called her in for an interview at its middle school. A day later, Dimengo had a job offer.

“It’s exactly what I want,” she says with elation. “It’s a growing district, and everyone I’ve heard said it’s a great district.”

Adds Dimengo: “I had more the city experience, and then when I substitute-taught, it was suburban, and that seemed easier. But I know it will still be a challenge.”


Allison Hauserman

Told by school district recruiters in January 2002 that the time to apply for teaching jobs was right that moment, Allison Hauserman heard but did not act. She had recently begun student-teaching at James Ford Rhodes High School on Cleveland's west side, and she couldn't figure out how to fit the applications in alongside lesson plans, the other requirements to complete her master's degree in urban teaching at Cleveland State University, church obligations, and the needs of her husband, daughter, and pets.

At 51, Hauserman, who has a master's degree and the coursework completed toward a doctorate in American history, badly needed to make some money and enroll in a pension plan. She eventually completed applications to the school districts where she most wanted to work: Cleveland, where she lives, and an inner-ring suburb next door, Euclid.

Meanwhile, the student-teacher was consumed with preparing her class at Rhodes High to enter a citywide moot-court contest. The school had never placed in the competition, and Hauserman had never taught law. Nonetheless, on April 26, the students outdid themselves, ranking third overall, with several individual wins for best lawyer, best witness, and best writing.

In May, the three victorious teams and their coaches were recognized at a school board meeting. Before Hauserman could put herself forward for a job, the district's chief executive officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, peered over her glasses and said: "1 have only one question: Where is the student-teacher teaching next year?"

But even Byrd-Bennett, who later patted Hauserman on the shoulder and assured her that the dearth of openings in social studies wouldn't prevent her hiring, has to follow the dictates of the Cleveland teachers' contract.

A letter inviting Hauserman in for an interview came less than a week after her appearance at the board meeting. During the interview, though, an administrator told the student-teacher that with eight contract-protected social studies teachers to place, she couldn't offer a social studies job. Still, the administrator said, she could hire Hauserman immediately if she was willing to sign on as a special education teacher with the understanding that if something opened up, she'd be at the head of the line.

The more she thought about it, the more Hauserman didn't mind that her inaction might have foreclosed other possibilities than Cleveland. She wanted to teach there. Warnings about disruptive and violent students from a classroom veteran and from the young teenagers in her Sunday school class didn't dissuade her. Nor did a half-year stint in 2001 as a substitute in a chaotic elementary school, where a student inadvertently tripped her, and she broke several ribs. Her experience at Rhodes High School had confirmed that order and learning were possible in Cleveland's public schools.

Equally, she was committed to the city. A resident for two decades, she had traveled its byways as a sales representative, worked with its young people as a restaurant manager. Her 11-year-old daughter had attended the neighborhood public school. Her husband's employer is the city government.

Sitting in a square of rose-dappled garden behind her modest bungalow a half-block from Lake Erie last June, she waved a hand and said, "Who would want to live anywhere else?"

That month, she took the only job offered her in Cleveland, despite her qualms. "I have no training in special education; it's not fair to the children," she had lamented a week earlier, with the requirements for her master's degree almost completed. Still, argued the administrator who made the offer, you know more than someone without teacher training. She also said Hauserman could pick her school, although the principal would have to agree to the match.

Unspoken was the fact that even with just a single course in special education, Hauserman qualifies as a licensed teacher under Ohio regulations as long as she teaches special education at the secondary level. (The regulations would not deem her certified if she taught special education or reading, for instance, in an elementary school.)

Hauserman picked Collinwood High School because it was 10 minutes from home, and she would know some of the students there. And that's where she thought she would be until she showed up at a new-teacher orientation about a week before school started. She learned, contrary to her expectations, that the district had hired new social studies teachers, even though she'd been promised first crack.

That triggered three days of back-and-forth with school officials until Hauserman was assigned, at last, to teach social studies. She is at East Technical High School Annex, a biotechnology-themed school made up of about 400 students moved out of their home building, which is being renovated.

"They are the most wonderful kids," she said happily the third week of school last fall. "If you had given me a list and let me pick where I wanted, this would be it."


Robert Ristau

Halfway through the summer of 2002, Robert Ristau’s 20 or more applications for a teaching job had gotten nary a nibble. He had graduated in May from Wittenberg University in west-central Ohio with a major in education and a teaching license for the middle grades.

He was interested in two districts not far from Wittenberg and a few in Michigan. But the 23-year-old aspiring teacher mainly applied to systems in suburban Cleveland, where he had grown up. He hesitated applying to Cleveland--or any other high-poverty district--for two reasons. One, he had student-taught in such a district for 10 weeks and found the experience discouraging.

“It was very frustrating… trying to do something fun and the students weren’t responding or caring,” he says. “My inexperience with classroom management in another situation wouldn’t have been as bad, I think.

And second, Ristau’s father, after many years as a teacher in a Lutheran school, had switched to a Cleveland public school just the year before--and quit midway through. “I know it must have been pretty bad for him to leave midyear,” Ristau says, “because I consider my father the type who would stick things out if it was at all beneficial.”

Still, in July, the younger Ristau hadn’t completely ruled out the city district.

“Cleveland pays really well,” he noted, although salaries there are not quite in the top tier for Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and 30 smaller districts.

By August, Ristau had chucked the Cleveland option and leaped on his other fallback plan. He applied to be a substitute teacher in five districts. If he couldn’t have his own classroom, he could live with his parents and get good experience as a sub.

Then, through a friend of a friend, he landed an interview for a job assisting a teacher who runs a special room--part decompression chamber, part study hall--for students in an intermediate school. It seemed a great opportunity to learn from a veteran teacher and to get a foot in the door of the desirable Beachwood district near home.

“I thought it was a good fit for me, even though I don’t get to do the actual teaching part,” he says. “I still get influence over kids, especially kids having problems.

“And it’s a good district--it’s a wealthier community, and they spend their money on schools,” he adds. In fact, teacher pay in Beachwood was right at the top for the state last year, though Ristau will draw an aide’s salary.

Ristau started his new job in September.


Heather Penny

Heather Penny, a 2001 graduate of the College of Wooster in Ohio, cast a wide net when she set out to find a teaching job. She had majored in sociology and taken coursework in education, returning the following fall to the town of Wooster to student-teach and earn her license. Between that December and May 2002, she estimates, she sent out 20 applications to districts in northern Ohio.

Her preference, though, was the Cleveland area, and within that, the city's more sociologically diverse east side--a cultural jump from the suburb of Parma, where she had grown up the daughter of teachers. Her independent study at Wooster, a small liberal-arts college, had looked at relations between black and white students and earned her departmental honors. She was drawn to the most disadvantaged students.

Among Penny's first applications was one to the Cleveland schools. She got a call back the following week and was invited in to talk with a recruiter. "You seem great, we'd love to hire you," was the message she took home from their conversation.

Nonetheless, the 23-year-old Penny knew that getting hired was more involved: There had to be elementary or middle school openings to match her certification, which the recruiter anticipated. And a principal had to choose Penny, a blonde with the athletic build of the soccer player she was in college.

At a teacher job fair in April, Penny learned that the district had instituted a new online-application process, a change confirmed by her recruiter. Her paper application now obsolete, Penny started over again online. The first part merely asked for identifying information, while the second was a multiple-choice and short-answer test asking about the candidate's approach to the challenges of teaching.

Devised by the Gallup Organization, the test rates candidates by how closely their answers match those of teachers in urban settings across the country who have been deemed the best at their jobs. A candidate's percentile ranking and state certification are made available online to principals seeking to interview teachers for openings.

The test somewhat mystified Penny, and left her dissatisfied, but she completed it. "The questions were ambiguous," she says. "Sometimes you could say, 'Wow, this might be the best answer, but if you knew the situation, this would be it."

After the test, she waited. The recruiter's enthusiasm and then a month and a half of silence were hard to reconcile, but other districts were not responding either. Elementary school teachers are plentiful in Ohio, and although Penny's certification allows her to teach middle school, she doesn't have the content specialty that some middle schools have begun to look for.

Also, hidden from Penny, Cleveland school officials were surprised to find that the district needed not a single elementary school teacher because of cutbacks in state aid for class-size reduction.

In June of last year, Penny was notified of a get-together with district principals, but the announcement said just special education teachers and school psychologists were invited. She took a chance on showing up, but it didn't payoff. The event struck her as disorganized, and principals didn't want to talk with her.

The next week, dropping by a school where she had substituted during the previous several months, she stumbled on a job opening with the Triway Local School District near Wooster. She was called in for an interview, and by the end of the month, she had been offered a job as a teacher in the district's program for gifted and talented children on the condition that she start working toward a specialized license in that area.

Suddenly, she wanted her future to be settled and enjoy what was left of the summer. She knew two of the three principals she'd be working with, and what's more, she had a good chance of being named the assistant girls' soccer coach at the high school. It wasn't the job she had envisioned for herself, with just a tiny number of children in the rural district poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. But it was a real job with a public school salary before the end of June. She took it.

At the end of July, Cleveland called to see if Penny was still interested. A few days later, Parma called.

"I wanted to go where there is more disadvantage and more differences among people. And now," she sighs, "I'm in Wooster."


Michelle Flanagan

Michelle Flanagan worked her way through the courses for teaching certification during almost 10 years in secretarial jobs at Cleveland State University. Graduating last spring, she knew that the job search would not be easy. Her preference was to work as close as possible to the suburban community on the shore of Lake Erie where she lives with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. She also favored a high school over a middle school, and because of the pay, a public school job over a private school position.

By late June, Flanagan, who is 36 years old and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, had applied to 11 districts, “mostly nicer suburbs,” west of the city, but also the small Rust Belt city of Elyria, and to Cleveland. The big city worried her, though, because she believed that the district’s standard procedure was to hire teachers and then decide where to place them. “You could end up in a really terrible area,” she observes, “or an hour from here.”

She also scouted graduation rates and teacher-attendance rates, wondering whether she could work at a school where fewer than 80 percent of the teachers show up daily, as is true at some Cleveland schools.

In mid-July, Flanagan tracked down two openings in districts to which she had applied, and also heard from Cleveland about a middle school post on the southeast side of the city--the farthest quadrant from her home. She declined the Cleveland interview, and pursued the other two possibilities.

In August, she snagged the job in Elyria. The district is on “academic watch”--the state’s second-lowest ranking. But Flanagan liked that she would be teaching 9th graders as part of a team that has as its mission greater success for freshmen, and ultimately more diplomas.

“Maybe I’ll be able to make a difference.”

Vol. 22, Issue 17, Page 46-51

Published in Print: January 9, 2003, as Teacher Profiles: Quality Counts 2003
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