Jim Conti contributed this post — an interview with two teachers in the Inner City Teaching Corps (ICTC) of Chicago‘s Volunteer Teaching Corps (VTC). Jim is the program’s Recruiting Coordinator and Associate Director.
It’s that time of year again! Retailers have penny sales on notebooks, pencils, and scissors. School buses are being swept out and shined up. The collective groan of school-age children can be heard across the country as the 2009-2010 school year starts up. As students dread the end of summer, teachers are gearing up for what promises to be a new and exciting year.
Tiffany Watson and Pat Bittorf, members of the Inner-City Teaching Corps’s Volunteer Teaching Corps, are no exceptions. Having graduated from the University of Scranton and Boston College respectively, Tiffany and Pat arrived in Chicago in early June to move into their community on Chicago’s south side.
After completing an intensive summer institute, they both stepped foot in St. Malachy Elementary School to face their new classrooms for the first time. Tiffany is teaching a self-contained second grade class while Pat has a sixth grade homeroom, where he teaches Reading and Religion, as well as instructing sixth through eighth grade Language Arts.
In the midst of classroom setup and the first few days of school, we sat down with these two new teachers to talk about where they are coming from, what’s going on now, and what might be in their future.
Jim: Good morning! Let’s start with something broad. What brought you to the classroom?
Tiffany: My desire to serve in an underserved community drew me into the classroom. What better way to impact an environment than to work with its future community? It may sound cliché, but it’s true!
Pat: There have been many detours and U-turns in the route that has eventually led me to the classroom, but luckily I have always had many great navigators in my journey of discernment.
From the time I was going through St. Mary’s Elementary School in Sterling, Illinois, until the day I graduated from Boston College, I have constantly been surrounded by caring and inspirational educators. Throughout college I became increasingly interested and concerned with various issues of social injustice; however, I took particular exception to the widening achievement gap in student outcome in U.S. schools. Coupled with this academic pursuit was the opportunity that I was afforded to do some work with youth in after-school and summer programs in Boston.
Thus, as I began to think about what I would do after college, I could not help but think of all the people who made great impacts on my life and how my passions now aligned with doing the same for another generation of students. The classroom seemed to be the perfect place to live in this dualistic relationship, where I was working for something I really believed in while giving back to a system that has given me so much.
Jim: Wow, some great insights from both of you. Since we know why you are going into the classroom, what are you most excited to actually teach and why?
Tiffany: I can’t choose one subject. I’m looking forward to teaching them all. Once I get more into the teaching mode, I may find myself gravitating to one subject over another, but until then I’m excited to teach.
Pat: I am most excited to teach Religion or, as I say to my students, Theology. Of course it was an area of focus for me at Boston College, but I think there is so much that we can learn from the spirituality of young people.
Just the other day I gave them a questionnaire about from where they were coming to our Religion class from and any questions that they had before we began. The questions that they were asking were extremely impressive and extraordinarily brave!
I hope to foster these insights and facilitate our Religion class as forum for both getting to know ourselves more fully and for getting to know one another on a deeper level, because we all approach questions of faith and God very differently – even within the same faith tradition!
Jim: Very interesting perspectives. There certainly is a gift in being able to craft your instruction and classroom to fit the needs of both you and your students. Aside from teaching, you are also living in a faith-based community. How has living in community impacted your work as a teacher?
Pat: Like teaching, living in community is a challenge that is rarely easy. However, also like teaching, living in community is exceptionally life-giving and fun! I came into it thinking, “Hey, I’ve lived in community in college. Ya know, I’ve had roommates before, it can’t be too different.” I was in for a bit of a surprise. Living with a bunch of buddies during college was a crazy amount of fun; nevertheless, it was not nearly as real as really relying on and trusting people to be there for me logistically, emotionally, and spiritually. Not to mention, living with a bunch of other teachers makes for great opportunities for sharing ideas for the classroom and hilarious stories of success and failure.
Tiffany: Living in community has had such a positive impact on my teaching. I’m in a house surrounded by people very much like myself. They offer suggestions, support and most importantly laughter. There are moments to share your struggles together and laugh about mistakes.
Jim: It seems like community living for teachers is working out well for both of you! Though teaching and community living may be a challenge, it seems like both have given you so much. Switching back to teaching and preparing for the first days in your classroom, where do you turn for guidance and inspiration?
Pat: I was literally asking everyone for advice and information, even people who had little educational experience! As far as my most helpful guidance and inspiration, that came from my fellow teachers at St. Malachy and the great staff at ICTC.
I know it probably sounds like a plug for the program, but people honestly came through in a big way when I was feeling stressed about getting my classroom and lesson plans together. My fellow teachers at St. Malachy were there to indoctrinate me into the way the school does things and some help with more practical tasks.
At the same time, the ICTC folks are always a source of mental and spiritual stability, and they continue to help me keep things in perspective while working harder than I ever have in my entire life.
Tiffany: The support and encouraging words from my housemates were great, but what really inspired me was God. I believe there is a reason that I am where I am, and He would not bring me into a situation to fail and not grow. Support mentors for my community within the program and alumni of the program have been excellent guides. They have been through it all and often give great advice.
Jim: Great! Looking to the future, there is great joy in looking at students and seeing what they may become. With that in mind, if you could have one wish for your students, what would it be and why?
Pat: My wish for my students is simply for them to understand what great beauty and power they possess. My students are the holders of dreams for their families, for their communities, for our school, and for this world. My students are brilliant beyond measure and kind without question. If I had just one wish, which would fulfill many possible wishes, it is that they would understand how great they really are.
Tiffany: I wish that my students will keep their fire and excitement for learning. I wish they apply the excitement they have displayed in the classroom to any passion they find as they grow.
Jim: That is very touching and we certainly hope those wishes come true. One final question for you…do you have any words of wisdom for other new teachers?
Tiffany: Well, as a first-week teacher, the only advice I can give is to search for the positive moments with your classroom and students. It’s easy to be very hard on yourself from the way your classroom looks to how you taught a lesson. Remember that you have started an amazing journey towards becoming an excellent teacher.
Pat: In true teacher form, I only have borrowed words of wisdom: You can only give away something that you possess. It is amazing how quick we are to shout, “Be quiet!” If we want our students to be bearers of peace and kindness, we must be peaceful and kind. If we want our students to work hard and have determination, can you guess what we need to do? Just like giving a gift, the giver must first own it before it can be received.
Jim: Sound advice for sure. Tiffany and Pat, thanks so much for your time! Best of luck this year!
Tiffany and Pat are part of the Volunteer Teaching Corps (VTC).
The VTC is a two-year post-graduate service program where volunteers are placed in inner-city classrooms as full-time teachers and live in faith-based communities with fellow VTC members. While a part of the program, volunteers get a monthly stipend, food, housing, transportation, medical and dental insurance, AmeriCorps Education Awards, professional classroom support, as well as earning their Alternative Teacher Certification and 22 credits toward a Masters of Science in Education at Northwestern University.