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Chicago Public Schools Thu Jul 11 2013
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?