Five first-year teachers reflect on their inaugural year in the classroom.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
A dozen energetic third-graders sit cross-legged on a rug in a corner of Tamara Brown's classroom at Alden Elementary School in Warren.
Brown, a maternal-looking 27-year-old, scrawls a math equation on a large sheet of paper; the children copy it using black markers on small white slates they balance on their laps.
The volume of noise increases as pupils struggle with the solution.
Brown orders two inattentive boys into the hallway and plops herself on the floor next to two girls.
"I think this number should be over here," she says, pointing to the scribbles on the slate.
"Oh, that's right," a girl in pigtails says.
In Leetonia: Thirty-five miles south in Columbiana County, Molly Earl greets ninth-graders in her science classroom at Leetonia High School.
Earl, also 27, who looks not much older than some of her teen-age students, stands behind a lab table in front of neatly rowed desks and outlines a science experiment.
It's prom day. The sun shines on the football field outside Earl's second-floor classroom. Students have things other than science on their minds.
But Earl proceeds. Students mix Borax with water and glue in little plastic cups to create what's supposed to be a rubbery, stretchy substance akin to Silly Putty.
Earl gives a group of four giggly girls a disapproving smile for failing to follow the recipe, ending up with a watery, white mix.
"I think you need more Borax," she deadpans.
The girls laugh.
Newcomers: Earl and Brown are among dozens of teachers in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys finishing their inaugural year in the classroom.
In a two-week span earlier this month, The Vindicator visited the classrooms of five first-year educators in Warren, Youngstown, Leetonia, New Middletown and Sharpsville, Pa.
In hours of classroom observations and interviews, a common thread emerged: These teachers have a striking passion for their jobs, get a lot of satisfaction out of teaching and plan to remain in the the education field for a lifetime.
However, some of them also find themselves somewhat unprepared for and a bit overwhelmed by the pressures and stress of the daily classroom grind.
Those findings are similar to a recent national survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public opinion research and citizen education organization based in New York.
Overall picture: The survey revealed that the vast majority of new teachers are satisfied, think of their profession as a lifelong career choice and would choose teaching again if given a chance to start again.
"The teacher next door to me has taught for 41 years," said Monique Smith, a first-year, fourth-grade teacher at North Elementary School in Youngstown. "I want to be like that. I can't imagine doing anything else.
"People say, 'Well, just you wait. You're just in your first year.' I hope that's not right."
Despite the optimism, national surveys also show that one out of five new teachers leaves the profession within three years. Fifty percent leave within five years.
It's a statistic that takes these first-year teachers aback.
Many rewards: Sure, the job is frustrating at times, the pay low and the work taxing. But the rewards come daily in the faces of the children they teach.
Here's a look at their first year on the job:
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Remember your first day of school and everything just seemed so big -- the desks, the bathrooms, the chalkboard and even the teacher?
That's how Monique Smith remembers North Junior High School on Youngstown's East Side, where she attended two years in the late 1980s.
Now, nearly 15 years later, after receiving a degree in elementary education from Youngstown State University a year ago, Smith is back at the school. This time as a teacher.
And everything isn't nearly as big.
"When I was here, I remember getting lost my first day," Smith, 24, said from her second-floor classroom, the same room in which she took science classes as a student.
"Now, I come back and everything is so small."
East Sider: Smith, an East High School graduate who still lives on the city's East Side, said her first year of teaching fourth-grade at North, which now is an elementary school, has been an A+ experience.
"I'm so excited for my second year," said Smith, who has wanted to be a teacher since she was a third-grader.
"I can think of a ton of things I want to improve next year. I have them all written down -- what didn't work, what worked."
And when it works, the rewards are great, she said.
"Seeing a student who just didn't 'get it' who all of a sudden finally does get it because of something you did or something you said," she said. "I love that."
Bumpy start: Yet the first year hasn't been without its bumps.
"The first day of school I had one of my students really smart-off to me, and I couldn't believe it," she said. "I didn't know what to do."
There's the constant pressure to get pupils ready for the state's fourth-grade proficiency test.
"People told me that teaching the proficiency tests is all that matters," she said. "I was told, 'They're going to look at your test scores and then make a decision on what kind of teacher you are.'"
Little time: Then, there's the endless struggle against the clock. On some days, between music, art, gym and other special classes, Smith said she might spend 90 minutes with her pupils.
"I always feel like I need another hour every day," she said. "You have to get acclimated to time and the way the classroom works. That's been very frustrating."
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It's called the "Planet Game."
Bob Beam, a clean-cut, handsome 25-year-old science teacher at Springfield Intermediate School, divides his class of 15 eighth-graders into two groups: girls on the left, boys on the right.
Desks screech across the floor, pupils chatter and Beam pulls out a stack of index cards.
"OK, OK, OK," he says. "For three points, what planet has 16 moons?"
A pimply faced teen-ager shoots his hand into the air: "Saturn!"
"No," Beam barks.
"Ooooooo," says a curly-haired girl, her hand waving. "Jupiter!"
"Very good," Beam says. The boys groan. The girls whoop. Beam beams.
Getting along fine: "These kids have been so good to me; we have a good relationship," he said later about his first full year in the teaching profession.
"We joke a lot, and it's a pretty relaxed classroom, but I think we've accomplished a lot this year, too."
Beam, who graduated from Boardman High School in 1993 and received a teaching degree from Hiram College in 1997, landed his first full-time teaching job only after substitute teaching for two years, mostly in Youngstown and Boardman schools.
"The job market is tight; it was hard," he said. He considered leaving the region. "I was going to give it one more shot."
That shot came this school year at Springfield, where he had been assistant high school baseball coach for three years and knew many of the teachers and students. Beam hit the classroom running.
"By then, I had a pretty good idea of what I had to do," he said.
Grades himself: If first-year teachers got a report card, Beam said he'd give himself an A for the experience and a C for performance.
"There's a lot of things I look back on, and I think I really could have done differently and probably done better," he said.
One of the challenges, especially with young teen-agers, is more clearly drawing the line between teacher and student, he said.
"I'm still fairly young; we're only about 10 years apart, so we can relate a lot," he said. "I think that's a big plus.
"But sometimes we just get to the point where they think of me more as a friend than a teacher, and sometimes they try to take advantage of that."
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How many times have you heard teachers say: "Oh, I always wanted to be a teacher. When I was little, I played school in the back yard."
Not the case for Tamara Brown.
"I never wanted to be a teacher," Brown said.
So, after graduating from East High School in Youngstown in 1992, Brown sought a degree in accounting at Hampton University in Virginia.
She lasted a year, came back to Youngstown and, after teaching a Sunday school class, decided that teaching could, in fact, be for her.
She received an education degree from YSU in March 2000 and began teaching third-graders at Alden Elementary in Warren in August.
Big workload: "It's tiring; it's more work than you could ever imagine," she said. "That's something they don't tell you in college. I could spend every waking moment doing something for school.
"But I love it. It's very satisfying."
Take, for instance, the student who moved to Warren and showed up in Brown's classroom in the fall.
"He couldn't even write a full sentence," she said. "Last week, we had a writing assignment and he wrote four or five complete sentences. He was excited about it, and it made me excited."
Brown, who completed her student teaching at elementary schools in Struthers and Youngstown, said nothing can prepare a first-year teacher for the first day of school.
"You come in, and all of these kids are just sitting there and waiting and you think, 'Oh no, it's my job to mature them and teach them and instruct them over the next nine months. What am I going to do? Where do I start?'
"There's so many things that you come into contact with in the classroom that you don't learn about at the university.
A lot to it: "There's classroom management and dealing with children who come to school and are tired and they don't care about learning. Or the kid who's sick. He doesn't care that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Or the kids who are hyper and just want to run and play all of the time."
She said she's frustrated by the red tape teachers face: "It takes so much just to get supplies for kids."
The pressures to pass proficiency tests and meet academic standards are immense: "We don't have enough time to get to know our kids."
And the pay? "I have a friend who's the manager of a toy store who makes about twice as much as I do," she said.
The stress could take its toll: "You will get burned out," she said.
Brown plans remaining in education, but it won't be as a classroom teacher -- she aspires to be a principal and some day an educational consultant.
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Like Tamara Brown, Molly Earl didn't find teaching; teaching found her.
Earl's first love is science.
"Science is everywhere, and I get excited finding it and understanding it," she said.
A 1992 graduate of Lisbon's David Anderson High School who still lives on her parents' 82-acre Lisbon farm, Earl studied biology at Hiram College.
Her background: After graduating in 1996, she worked three years for a veterinarian in Columbiana -- assisting in surgery, helping restrain animals, working in the pharmacy, etc., -- before returning to school to get her teaching certificate.
She started teaching physical and environmental science at Leetonia High School last fall.
"When you get out of college, you have the lessons and you think of invigorating ways to present the material, but when you get here, you hit reality that this isn't as easy as it looks," Earl said in an interview in the teachers lounge during a break in classes.
"You're on your own."
Well, not really.
Support programs: Earl and the four other teachers praised support and mentorship programs their school districts have for first-year teachers.
At Leetonia, for instance, Earl said she participated in meetings every other month to discuss school policy and other issues. In addition, she was assigned a veteran teacher as a mentor to help guide her through any rough spots.
All Ohio school districts that hire first-year teachers must have such a support program, including mentoring, in place by fall 2002. In the Public Agenda survey, a large majority of new teachers believe that mentoring programs are very effective in improving teacher quality and retention.
"It was really important for me to have somebody I could talk to here, that I could go to and get suggestions," Earl said. "That really helps. But I don't know if you can ever be truly prepared."
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It has been a frustrating five years for Jennifer O'Neill-Bartley.
Since graduating from Clarion University with a teaching degree in 1996, O'Neill-Bartley has wanted nothing more than a full-time teaching job.
"There's not a lot of positions open," said the 27-year-old Sharon, Pa., resident, who has spent the past five years substitute teaching in Shenango Valley schools.
"So, your choice is to move away, and I don't want to do that."
Pieced together: So this year, O'Neill-Bartley pieced together what amounts to her first full-time teaching job, albeit a nontraditional one: She works part-time as a remedial math teacher in Sharpsville Middle School, and spends the other half of the week substitute teaching in the school district.
In addition, she tutors students after school, works five hours a week instructing homebound students and teaches summer school.
Anything, she says, to stay in the classroom.
"It's what I've always wanted to do," said O'Neill-Bartley, who carries around scrapbooks filled with photos and other memories of her substitute-teaching years.
"Not everyone can say they have a job they truly love, that they enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work. I feel blessed."
Although the job search has been tough, O'Neill-Bartley said she's a better teacher for it. She said she's glad she didn't get hired right out of college. Substitute teaching helped enormously, she said.
"You really can't expect to learn how to teach out of a book," she said. "You kind of have to live and learn it yourself."
And that means learning to adjust to the many hats a teacher wears.
"You're a parent sometimes; you're a guidance counselor sometimes," she said. "Sometimes you're a friend; sometimes you're a nurse. And sometimes you're an actress because if you're having a bad day, you still have to go in there and be happy. You're influencing the kids, and you can't be depressed."
Pressure is worth it: The work can be arduous, and the students can be nerve-wracking, she said. The pressure, especially to get students to pass state assessment tests, is considerable, she said.
Yet the tradeoff -- watching failing students improve -- is immense.
"When people say negative things about teaching, I'm the first to defend it," she said. "I hear people who criticize teaching and say, 'Oh, it's so easy.'
"Well, those people just don't have a clue."