Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2012
Keeping On: Early Signs Show WW Teaching Fellows Sticking With the Classroom
Laura Cummings, 2009 Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow.
They care. They know what to expect. They get to try new things. And they have colleagues to talk to on the inevitable rough days.
Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows cite a range of reasons to keep teaching. The profession typically sees one-third to one-half of new teachers leave the classroom in the first three years. But in Indiana, where two cohorts of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows are now in their own classrooms, 103 of the 104 Fellows who have begun teaching are still at it.
They're matter-of-fact about the commitment: The Fellowship requires them to teach for three years in a high-need urban or rural school in Indiana. "But what will keep me at it, even after the third year, is that when it works, the richness is fabulous," says Laura Cummings, a former lab tech and stay-at-home mother named one of the first WW Indiana Teaching Fellows in 2009.
Ms. Cummings now teaches chemistry at Tindley Accelerated School in a low-income Indianapolis neighborhood. While some days are tougher than others, she says, the clinical experience she gained as a Fellow at the University of Indianapolis helps her rise to the challenges.
Over the course of a year, she practiced and observed in nearly a dozen high-need schools while pursuing her master's degree. "The preparation did help immensely," she says. "I know what's out there—I remember some of the things I saw during that year, and now I know what was going on."
Peggy O'Connell, 2010 Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow,
Peggy O'Connell, a former business owner and 2010 Fellow at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), has also seen tough days, especially in her first year. She teaches special education math at Ben Davis High School, where half the students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. When the department chair who hired her left, she wound up in a different job than expected, isolated all day in one classroom with six different classes, "trying to be the best teacher anywhere."
But even on days when she thought of packing it in, Ms. O'Connell says, "All I could think was, what's this kid going to do, what's that kid going to do. These students need an advocate to actually work with them, mentor them, give them the confidence to believe in themselves."
Now, in her second year, her classes are inclusion classes, she has more contact with other teachers, she feels more confident—and her new chair has remarked on how she spends every free minute, including lunchtime, with her students. "It's the kids who make me come back every day," she says. "Days start at quarter to five in the morning, and I drive home at four. But I've never been happier."
Melvin Bridges, a recent math graduate who moved from Alabama to Indiana specifically for the Fellowship, agrees. He and another 2010 Fellow from the University of Indianapolis, Amanda Eades, both teach at Achieve Virtual Education Academy, a special school for at-risk students who can't attend traditional classes—including those who are incarcerated, homebound, or hospitalized. Mr. Bridges works with these students in person, when they can come to school, and online and by phone when they can't.
Melvin Bridges, 2010 Woodrow Wilson
"You have to have a passion for it," he says. "It takes a lot of communication to help them individually, a lot of screen-sharing and tech tools, and yet we have these great relationships with them, and we're always in touch with their parents," he says. "We have to motivate them. These students don't have a choice; as mostly African American students, they're not going to get respected in the world without an education. As an African American teacher I can tell them it's not a choice—not are you going to college, but which one are you going to and how can I help you get there?"
Mr. Bridges finds it exciting to be learning to teach in a whole new way. "There's potential for growth. It's not the same thing all day every day—I'm a teacher-leader and a digital educator. Definitely there's ongoing development. I feel really onboard to help this school grow." It helps, he adds, to have another Fellow, Ms. Eades, as a close colleague—she teaches science right next door—and to have strong mentors, both at UIndy and in the school itself.
Sheila Pritchett, an Army veteran and 2010 IUPUI Fellow teaching biology at Arsenal Tech High School in Indianapolis, is also motivated by a special opportunity: When a teacher in Project Lead the Way (PLTW), an enriched biomedical and engineering curriculum, decided to retire, Ms. Pritchett was hired into the job—and selected the retiring teacher, Beverly Ransdell, as her ongoing mentor.
Ms. Pritchett calls the assignment "the opportunity of a lifetime," and considers it "a blessing" to work with Ms. Ransdell. "I do have to admit the first semester was very overwhelming, mainly because of the newness and not really having a plan of action that worked," Ms. Pritchett recalls, but thanks to strong support, "this whole situation has made it easy for me to be a teacher. The students need me and I need the students. My mentor is an added bonus that keeps the process flowing."
In the end, notes Ms. Cummings, "It's true in all professions. If you push yourself and you really care, you're going to have rough days. Teachers support each other immensely—we listen and we keep at it."