Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011
On the Ground: WW Teaching Fellows Take Charge in Indiana Classrooms
Jarred Corwin guides his class through a chemistry review.
Having his own classroom, says Jarred Corwin, “feels very good. Last year it felt like I was cooking in someone else’s kitchen.”
Mr. Corwin, now teaching chemistry and biology at Decatur Central High School outside Indianapolis, began his teaching career as a 2009 Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellow—one of the first class of Teaching Fellows named in Indiana. Previously an analytical chemist in industry, he, along with 19 others, went through intensive, classroom-based teacher preparation at the University of Indianapolis during the 2009-10 academic year, then entered the job market. While the poor economy presented job-market challenges, Indiana still has a long-term shortage of math and science teachers, and many districts sought out excellent candidates like Mr. Corwin and his colleagues.
Georgia Watson, a 2009 Fellow who prepared at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, echoes Mr. Corwin’s sentiment. Now teaching chemistry and ICP (integrated chemistry and physics) at Warren Central High School, the former biochemist and lab tech says, “It’s very exciting and equally scary, because when I was in the program, I had myself, my mentor teacher, and another Fellow. Now I’m responsible for 25 to 30 students per class period, and it’s scary when it’s all on you. Whether you’re a first-year teacher or a twenty-year teacher, they expect the same from you.
“But the good part is… actually, all of it is the good part! I’m in control, I know what’s going on day to day, what I taught yesterday, what I’m going to teach tomorrow, how to get the students where I want them to be. It’s great when you teach a concept and they get it, and part of it is the way you deliver the content. On the second or third day with the same content, when they’re really clicking, it’s exciting to see they now understand.”
Georgia Watson clarifies the homework assignment.
As the Fellows commit to teach in high-need schools, they often find themselves working with students who have tough home backgrounds or academic deficits. In Mr. Corwin’s school, the students are a mix of young people bused from Indianapolis and those from outlying farm communities. Most are from families hard hit by the economy. “I try not to ask them to bring supplies,” he says. “I supply myself or have the school supply them. For a lot of them, the home situation is not the best. Sometimes the meals they get at school are the only meals they get.”
He learned a powerful lesson after the Christmas break. “That first week back to school, I thought they would be bouncing off of walls, but they sat in their chairs and were angels. Then I got talking to some veteran teachers who think it’s because the kids are so happy to get back to a place that has heat and light and meals.”
Liz Ernst, an erstwhile chemical engineer and MBA teaching at Herron High School finds that her students—in ICP, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology—also have academic hurdles to clear. “To put a really big umbrella over it, the biggest challenge is their inability to grasp the potential that they have. The kids who are the most challenging haven’t experienced a lot of success in school and don’t expect to succeed.
“There’s one student who really has an aptitude for science and a genuine interest, but she’s also probably one of my most disengaged students. It’s hard to get her to do anything. We made some deals about homework and I got her a calculator. Then a couple of days ago, another student, out of the blue, said, ‘I’m going to go sit by her.’ This second student had herself struggled but was coming around, and she took it on herself to bring this other student along. The first student has really responded.
“That’s a great picture of what I would like my classroom to be like.”
Liz Ernst helps sophomore DeAirra Nunley work through
The classroom, says Ms. Ernst, also tests her vision of herself as a teacher. “You have these ideals and goals and hopes and dreams, and then you have reality. You have a room that’s 725 by 526 centimeters [24 by 17 feet] , 30 kids, bodies shoulder to shoulder, kids who don’t come to school 75 percent of the time. Dealing with all of these things is obviously necessary, but it’s exhausting to think about where to put your energy, how to get closer to that ideal.
“But the best part is the kids. Sometimes you can lose sight of that, but I always remind myself that’s why I do this in the first place. One of my styles is to raise kids’ awareness of how much science is already part of their lives and get them excited. And there are those moments.”
Her colleagues share the same enthusiasm for their students—and the same determination to offer their best as teachers. Ms. Watson says she loves building relationships with her classes, but is even more determined to see them progress academically. “I’m constantly growing. I think I’m doing OK as a first-year teacher, but I’m excited about the possibility of getting better. I’m excited about having students want to come to my class not because of my personality but for what they will learn. What else can I do to get them out of their seats and doing stuff?
“As a first-year teacher, you have to be okay with failure—with things not going as planned. I don’t know if there’s another job where you can totally be off your game one day and be on your game the next day. You have to be self-reflective or you’ll never get better. You have to be willing to pick yourself up and get in front of the same class with the same self-confidence.
For Mr. Corwin, the experience of teaching is both delightful and sobering. “I love interacting with the kids. It’s not the same every day—every day there are new challenges that I love.
“But I wasn’t expecting—well, every time a student is not performing in my class, I feel I’ve failed them and then I beat myself up about that. The best advice I’ve had from another teacher is that all you can do is provide the opportunity, you can’t make them take it. It still hurts—I still think, what if I had done this or that. They tell me that when I lose that questioning, it’s time to stop teaching.”