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Reporter Turned Teacher Recalls First Tough Years


After working as a reporter for 24 years -- including covering the Chicago schools -- Leslie Baldacci was ready to take on the job of inner city teacher. But she had a lot to learn, as she recounts in her book about her early teaching experiences. Included: Information about alternative certification programs.

After 24 years as a reporter, including 15 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, with assignments that included the state child welfare system, state government, district and criminal courts, and writing columns, Leslie Baldacci put down her pad and pen in 1999 and decided to become a teacher in the Chicago schools.

An alternative certification program allowed Baldacci to almost immediately start work in a classroom, while completing a master's degree in education.

Her years on the street, Baldacci thought, prepared her to deal with the grim realities of urban life and the children who lived it.

She had a lot to learn.

But learn she did, and wrote about her experience during her first two years as a teacher in the book, Inside Mrs. B's Classroom: Courage, Hope, and Learning on Chicago's South Side. Baldacci learned to cope with crowded classes, crumbling buildings, indifferent administrators, and many, many children who were hurting. While she started with high ideals, she noted that, "In reality, my classroom was just one deck chair on the Titanic."

She went on to teach fifth- and sixth-grade social studies and reading at Arthur Dixon Elementary in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood, and continues to write for various publications.

Baldacci talked with Education World about her decision to change careers and her experiences in her new profession

Leslie Baldacci

Education World: What or who inspired you to become a teacher?

Leslie Baldacci: Both of my parents were teachers, so I guess it starts there. But the credit also goes to my two daughters and their elementary school basketball teams. I was their coach for four years. That experience taught me the challenges and rewards of being a leader of children. As time passed, I realized that I was on a path from which there was no turning back!

I had investigated teaching when my children were young, because the hours and proximity would have been more compatible for raising children than the demands of the daily news and a downtown office. At that time -- before the teacher shortage and alternative certification programs -- the academic credentials were out of the question. I would have had to re-do an undergraduate program practically from scratch to get my education credentials.

The two-year alternative certification program, which included a master's degree, was the right fit at the right time, as my children were entering their teenage years. It put me to work right away as a classroom teacher, and I attended graduate courses two afternoons a week. My children and I did our homework together at the dining room table. At their age, it was good for them to see their mother working hard at school.

EW: Did you ever consider returning to reporting? If so, what prompted you to stay with education?

Baldacci: There was an "Oh no! What have I done?" moment of horror after my first trip to the Board of Education. I had become so accustomed to the ego-gratifying life in the media that I expected everyone to be happy to see me and on their best behavior. Let's just say I didn't get the VIP treatment when I went to the Board of Ed to get a substitute-teaching certificate. Instead, I had what the Rolling Stones called "a moment of doubt and pain."

"Teaching made my journalism career seem almost frivolous and disconnected. In the classroom, so much more was on the line, and right in my face every day," said Chicago teacher Leslie Baldacci.

Though I knew I could return to reporting, I had done pretty much every job and written practically every kind of story in my 24 years in the business, plus doing a radio show and appearing on TV. I was at a point in my life where chasing people down the sidewalk for a quote held no appeal. I was ready for change and a new phase of my life. Also, I had left the paper in the most public manner possible: a farewell column about my noble calling.

Whether from a sense of mission, personal pride, or plain, dumb stubbornness, quitting was never an option despite some pretty awful experiences during my two-year internship. I continue to write for various publications when I have time, and my first summer off after graduate school, I wrote Inside Mrs. B's Classroom So I've managed to keep writing on the side, which gives me the best of both worlds.

EW: What was the hardest part about adjusting to teaching and working in a school system?

Baldacci: I was not prepared for the disrespect of the students. When I had visited classrooms over the years, it had been as an honored guest, not as the new teacher who needed to be tested out. My first class was a seventh grade in a poverty-level school on the South Side of Chicago with a 40 percent mobility rate. I had as many as 38 students, and just about everyone came through the door with "issues" or something to prove.

Without the wisdom and skills that come from experience, I was not prepared to manage a classroom of that size and scope. The conditions of the school and neighborhood were a culture shock. I thought journalism had exposed me to just about every aspect of gritty urban life. Being in that setting day after day, with growing understanding and empathy for the children who lived and learned there, was humbling.

Teaching made my journalism career seem almost frivolous and disconnected. In the classroom, so much more was on the line, and right in my face every day. There was no hiding from the fallout of the day before behind security guards and high-paid corporate lawyers.

Another difficult adjustment for career-changers is the lack of adult contact. When you are used to being around grownups all day, you miss the rapport and camaraderie. Teachers' time for other adults is quite limited.

EW: What, if anything, do you wish you'd done differently in your first two years of teaching?

Baldacci: I wished I had laughed more. I wish I had played more. I wish I had sung more. I wish I had conducted myself with greater love and respect instead of raising my voice in frustration.

EW:How did your training and experience as a reporter help you as a classroom teacher?

Baldacci: Being a reporter, especially covering the child welfare system for four years, helped me understand many of the issues my students faced and respond appropriately to incidents of abuse, neglect, and delinquency. My connections occasionally helped me secure resources for my classroom, whether it was a benefactor to underwrite a special field trip or a guest speaker to come meet the class. State Senator Emil Jones Jr., who is now the Illinois Senate president, came and taught a social studies class one day. The students were well prepared and gracious.

EW: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about America's urban schools?

Balddacci: I wish more people understood the extraordinary and unremitting commitment -- of teachers, administrators, and parents working together -- required to build and sustain successful schools.

EW: What is the biggest misconception people have about public schools?

Baldacci: That teachers are lazy and poor kids can't learn. Teachers work many hours every day off the clock. We believe in the unlimited potential of our students -- regardless of the setting -- because they demonstrate it every day in many ways.

EW: How do you think alternative certification programs could be improved?

Baldacci: The most effective component of my alternative certification program was the methods classes. You may know a lot about a subject, but if you do not have creative and effective ways to engage students in learning, you cannot share that knowledge. I have friends whose traditional teacher education programs focused on subject matter more than methods. Going back to school to take some methods classes brought their teaching to life, and gave them new enthusiasm for their profession.

The least effective component of my alternative certification program was the mentoring. Instead of waiting (often in vain) for a mentor to visit their classrooms, new teachers need at least six weeks in the classroom with a veteran teacher to observe, question, practice, and plan. That component pays off because there are so many details and interruptions in a teacher's day that must be handled or the train will run off the track. You may teach some great lessons, but if you do not know how to fill out your attendance book, record grades, do the lunch count, and all the other daily paperwork, you will quickly become overwhelmed by the job. Take it from someone who did not know what bulletin board border was, and assumed the teacher's edition of the textbook would possess magic curriculum powers.

EW: What advice would you offer to people considering the alternative certification route?

Baldacci: Go for it! It's not an easy haul, but it will jump-start your teaching career and you will be with kindred spirits for mutual support. If you think it will be easy, or that you know it all, or you're in it for job security and benefits and summers off, think again. If you go forward with the philosophy that everything you do, every decision you make, must serve the best interests of children, you will succeed. Teaching is a profound service to society, yet a humble profession. It that fits for you, I say hurry up -- you are very much needed!

This e-interview with Leslie Baldacci is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 09/16/2004; updated 03/03/2006