Vickroy: Meet (and then follow) Erin Lara, first-year teacher
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy August 21, 2013 9:25PM
Erin Lara hands out syllabuses to Spanish I students at Richards High School in Oak Lawn. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
A year in the life ...
This is the first in an occasional series on what it’s like to be a first-year teacher in the suburban public school system. We will check in on Erin Lara throughout the 2013-14 school year and keep you updated.
Updated: September 23, 2013 1:34PM
Erin Lara greeted her third-period Spanish 1 class with a smile.
“Bee-en?” she said, giving a thumbs-up.
“Mal?” A thumbs-down.
“Ray-goo-lar?” A combination of both.
Some students smile, some give a quizzical look and some keep their answer close to their vest.
It is the first day of school at Richards High School in Oak Lawn. And no one has higher hopes for the new academic year than Lara.
As a first-year teacher, she is awash with energy, excitement and gratitude for the opportunity to shape young minds. She has five classes, four Spanish I, one Spanish II. With about 28 students per class, that’s a lot of kids to reach, assess, inspire and keep track of.
Nevertheless, her enthusiasm cannot be curtailed.
“As a teacher, you have a chance to make a difference,” Lara said. “I want to make a difference.”
Lara is a Shepard High School graduate, mother, veteran, former police officer and now teacher. At 28, she has a bit more life experience under her belt than newly graduated 22-year-olds. Still, a newbie is a newbie.
Lara has graciously invited us to tag along on her first-year journey through the world of secondary education. We will document the challenges and joys of working with teenagers day in and day out in the suburban public school system.
We’ll show you how Lara’s desire to make a difference translates into lesson plans and classroom conversations, and how her enthusiasm rubs off on her students. We’ll provide insight on how she prepares for standardized testing. And we’ll chronicle how she deals with the tougher side of the job — uncooperative students, pushy parents and a growing public sentiment that teachers have it easy.
Through it all, we will watch as both Lara and her students learn from each other.
Teachers don’t get to choose their clients. They are tasked with taking all children — from the eager to the disaffected — to a higher, more learned place, despite myriad distractions, social challenges and ever-changing professional standards.
Today’s student body, particularly at Richards, is as diverse as ever, representing a mix of race, culture, religion and socioeconomics. The parent body is equally varied, with some taking an active, collaborative approach to their child’s education, while others prefer to stay in the background.
The goal, of course, is to reach all students, to fill all of them with the same information, the same body of knowledge, instilling not only the day’s lessons but the bigger picture — that learning doesn’t end at the classroom door and to somehow make them understand that education will not only put them on par with their peers around the world, it will make them better citizens, better leaders, better parents. And, perhaps most important, it will enable them to hear the drumbeat that puts them on their personal path to enlightenment.
Today, though, we start with an introduction. Throughout the school year, we will update you on Lara’s experience. Will the profession meet her great expectations, and will she meet its?
After she graduated from Shepard, Lara joined the Air Force.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be in the military,” she said.
She had planned on joining the military police, but the military had other plans for her. She’d scored so highly on a language aptitude test that, instead of a patrol, they’d given her a berth at linguist school.
“They asked which language I preferred to learn,” she said. Having studied Spanish at Shepard, she chose that, or Chinese, she offered.
So the government assigned her Arabic and sent her to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. One 65-week course later, she was translating sensitive documents.
When her stint with the military was up, she came back to the south suburbs. She had a daughter, now 6, and craved stability. She landed a job with the Park Forest Police Department.
She also began building on the associate’s degree she’d earned in the Air Force. She took Spanish classes at Loyola University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer forensics from American Intercontinental University and, most recent, she completed the teaching certification program at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.
It was while she was working as a cop when she came to realize the many issues today’s teens face.
Police work, she said, is very reactive.
“There’s no time to counsel. You just push them through the process. I wanted to be more proactive, to reach kids before they got in trouble,” she said.
Erik Briseno is curriculum director for foreign language, English language learner programs and art for Community High School District 218. He and Pam Collado, Lara’s mentor, will closely monitor the new teacher’s work.
Mentors are part of a larger support system in place for first-year teachers. Newbies also meet regularly with principals and associate principals. And, like all teachers, they receive regular evaluations — which underscores how things have changed.
Jerry Palomo is assistant principal at Eisenhower High School, but for years he taught math. After 34 years in the district, he plans on retiring at the end of the current school year.
“Things are so different today,” he said. “When I started, you had your interview, learned you got the job and then were handed a big binder that was the curriculum.”
After that, you were pretty much on your own, Palomo said.
“Your curriculum director would wish you well and say, ‘See you at Institute Day in January,’ ” he said.
Today, there is orientation, and mentors at the ready, he said.
It’s no secret that open teaching jobs are few and far between these days. Briseno said Lara’s compassion and ability to understand where students are coming from, a nod to her law enforcement experience, helped her stand out from the crowd of applicants in the district.
“She is a first-year teacher entering the profession with strong content knowledge and pedagogical (teaching) skills,” he said. “What set her apart from other candidates was her interpersonal skills. Erin demonstrated a strong ability to connect with students.”
After asking the students how they are on this first day of school, Lara hits them with a series of questions, conversation starters that introduce students to Spanish vocabulary as well as to each other.
At the end of class, I asked Lara how she was doing on what also was her first day.
Bee-en? Mal? Ray-goo-lar?
Other than spilling her supply bucket in the hall, she said with a laugh, “Muy bien.”