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Chicago Public Schools Thu Jul 11 2013

Coming Together for Chicago Students

By Julie Hallums

It's a challenging time to be a Chicago educator. In the days ahead, those of us in Chicago Public Schools and classrooms will grapple with the implications of school closings, layoffs and the reality of a system that continues to fail too many students across our city. As I reflect on my last ten years as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and all the up-hill ahead, the need to come together to deliver on the promise of equal educational opportunity for the children of Chicago has never been more pressing.

As a National Board Certified Teacher now on the path to school leadership, I believe deeply in the need to develop and support a well-trained force of educators. I first stepped into the classroom in 2003, as a Teach For America corps member. Since then, I've spent a decade working arm in arm with educators of all backgrounds. And while those from the outside are quick to draw lines between teachers who entered the profession like I did and those who took a more traditional path, my experience couldn't have been more different. Over the last ten years, I've been as much learner as teacher. And whether through an exciting approach to technology introduced by a first-year corps member or a stellar lesson on Shakespeare shared by a 20-year-veteran, my colleagues have taught me well.

When we think seriously about how to help students thrive, the need to foster these productive relationships that keep educators inspired and supported comes into focus. This fall, on my tenth first day of school in those very same hallways where I first began, few of my colleagues were those who were there when I started. Across the board, too many of our most promising, talented teachers leave too soon. This isn't a problem specific to one path or another, it's a public schools problem. And it's most extreme in our highest-need schools - where days are long, budgets are tight, and the work is hard.

I see TFA as one of many organizations working to address this. In recent weeks, critics have taken issue with the increase in corps members in CPS but have ignored the key driver behind that growth. Here in Chicago, principals make all decisions as to who to hire to lead their students. That means that corps members interview alongside candidates of all backgrounds as positions become available. Not a single one would come to our city if individual principals didn't decide to bring them on.

In making these decisions, principals draw on personal experience working with corps members (both in their role as school leaders and during their time as teachers) and on a strong body of research on their classroom impact. And while some continue to argue that TFA has a place only in the face of a severe teaching shortage - situations in which classrooms otherwise sit empty - I believe that students benefit when principals have access to the most robust possible talent pipeline.

Every corps member and alumni of TFA has a different experience - just as every student needs something slightly different from us. The supports I received helped me find my voice as an educator and think broadly about how to engage my students. For me, this has meant meeting with students and parents in their homes. It has meant Saturday trips to the library for homework help. It has meant trying my hand at grant-writing to get my kids access to the technology and high-quality literature on which they thrive. Now, it means spending the next year as a principal-in-residence - supporting teachers, learning from visionary principals and assistant principals, and working to become the strongest leader I can be.

I am grateful for the training and support that sustains me in this work. And as we continue to zero in on what will it take to ensure that every Chicago student and teacher has the chance excel, I hope we'll remember to celebrate each and every path that brings a great teacher to the classroom and examine closely what draws too many of them away. To do so, we must decide. Will we get wrapped up in one controversy after the next? Or will we ask the difficult, complex questions and have the hard but rich conversations about what it will take to build the system our students deserve?

Julie Hallums is a 2003 alumna of Teach for America Chicago. She has spent ten years at Kanoon Elementary School teaching third, fourth and fifth grade self-contained bilingual education as well as English as a Second Language for sixth through eighth graders. She will spend the 2013-14 school year as a principal-in-residence to train to be a CPS principal.
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Ernesto Matias / July 11, 2013 2:03 PM

As a CPS administrator, I believe in the work of TFA. I had the privilege of working with Ms. Hallums for six years and can assure any 'traditionalist' that she ranks among the best in our chosen profession. She will continue to make a difference as an administrator in the Chicago Public Schools. Good job Ms. Hallums!

Ellen / July 11, 2013 3:22 PM

How is it possible to, "Come together for Chicago students." When 850, experienced teachers were fired due to the school closings, were fired. Instead of moving those teachers to the hundreds of jobs that are being taken by TFA.

Jane / July 11, 2013 4:27 PM

Remember that if your child is being taught by a TFA corp member, who hasn't completed the program, they are not a qualified teacher. They are learning as they go. Do you really want that for your child?

Hannah / July 11, 2013 6:50 PM

Jane - I'm curious where you got that information? It's my understanding that TFA Corps Members are considered Highly Qualified upon receiving their Provisional Certificate (as in, upon completing Institute and other required coursework, by Day 1 of school.)

Jane / July 11, 2013 7:03 PM

Isn't it true that a TFA does not have a teaching certificate before teaching children? If that is the case, then, they are not qualified. They are still students in training. Not real teachers.

Stacey / July 11, 2013 7:10 PM

We are all learning as we go. Every year it is a different group of personalities, learning styles, behaviors, etc... Let's celebrate the teachers who are dedicated and have a passion for teaching! As an 11th year teacher, who went through the traditional route of certification, I can honestly say that I still am learning as I go.

Jane / July 11, 2013 7:35 PM

Very true, Stacey. I just would like my child's teacher to be certified. That means they have already learned quite a bit before getting to the kids. Think of it like a doctor. I certainly wouldn't want them learning as they go on me. Please, at least finish med school first.

Jane / July 11, 2013 8:01 PM

From a TFA site, information on the length of training before a corps member is regarded as highly qualified, "Corps members attend the five-week institute in one of eleven locations, depending on their regional placement. During institute, corps members teach summer school for four of five weeks and help their students master critical content for the fall." Five weeks? Really? That's it?

Stephanie / July 11, 2013 8:28 PM

Jane-I totally would have agreed with your concern and found it just as unbelievable. However, as a TFA alum who later got a Master's of Education from an institution that has churned out thousands of teachers, I will say my 5 week institute training with Teach For America taught me more than my Master's. That is not to say that 5 weeks is enough and that's why I got ongoing coaching support while in the classroom. The thing that has been surprising to me about the teaching profession though is that time and years of experience is so rarely correlated to what skills you actually have. You must really look for evidence of results because far too often (unfortunately for our students), years of teaching do not always translate to effective teaching skills.

Jane / July 11, 2013 8:43 PM

Five weeks training to be "Highly Qualified" with a "Provisional Certificate "is still a joke to me. As you say yourself, you needed more support than just that. You even went on for a Master's. So, you really, really needed more training than just those five weeks. All teachers need support and training. But throwing someone who took up teaching over the summer into a classroom, and expecting a qualified teacher, is just not cutting it.

Monica Reida / July 11, 2013 11:24 PM

Ellen, only 420 teachers at closing CPS schools have been laid off. There were 850 employees at the closing schools laid off, but only 420 are teachers.

Tom / July 12, 2013 4:13 AM

Jane: I teach undergraduate students in a highly respected university. TFA applicants are among the best students our university has to offer in any field; competition is fierce; and the one my son had as a teacher was fantastic. Teaching is art and gift and love, not just technical skill.

Jane / July 12, 2013 8:31 AM

Tom: Teaching is also a profession, like doctors, lawyers, judges. Professions required lots of training and learning. The art and love are also needed, but so is the professional training. I just want my teachers to have finished more than five weeks any program before being responsible for my child's education.

Halle / July 12, 2013 7:27 PM

Principals have choice, but it is not really a fair playing field:
1. With the new budget cuts based on a formula of 35 students in a classroom, there is serious incentive for principals to hire "cheaper" new teachers. CPS no longer provides teachers, but $4,000 some dollars per head. Of course, wealthier schools fundraise, but out most needy populations that TFA claims to serve do not have that luxury. They could, would TFA support things like grant writing (maybe even have a team of grant writers funded by the $1.6 million finders fee CPS pays them), but they don't.
2. We, at TFA, have extensive resume and interview support. I actually think this resume and interview prep is Teach for America's forte, but strong performance in this setting doesn't equate strong teachers. It is deceiving to principals. Unless TFA is willing to offer and advertise actively the same support to regular track teachers, the argument of principals have choice isn't fair.
3. The principals largely seeking TFA corps members are Charter Schools. I won't say more about that because there is a long litany of implications. I spoke candidly with my CPS principal who said he only interviewed the corps members he has because he was hounded by TFA and decided it was easier to give it a try. The pitch sounded good with all the support these new teachers would allegedly have, but as he's seen with the three corps members he does have, the support and success has come from him, not TFA and he is no longer willing to make this investment.

Those apart of but put off by TFA tend to distance rather than respond to deaf ears. There is a large silenced population guilt ridden having discovered they were a part of the problem rather than the solution.

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