Lynn Cherkasky-Davis turned lack of textbooks into an opportunity that has included experimentation and risk taking.
Credit: Lynn Cherkasky-Davis
My twenty-five kindergartners sit in the literature circle deep in conversation about Ezra Jack Keats's illustrations. Nearby at the art center, Barb Turk, an education student from Illinois's National-Louis University, prepares paste, glue, water, brushes, fabric, scissors, paper, and paints.
She works quickly to get back to the children in time to watch how I direct the transition from group discussion to related hands-on activities at the various discovery centers in the classroom. Barb is doing the classroom observation required by the State of Illinois to qualify her to teach. To say she's just observing, though, misstates her active participation in classes, staff meetings, and parent conferences during her visits to the Foundations School. She and others come to this Chicago public school to learn from us. We learn from them, too.
I hope Barb's professional-development path will be less difficult than mine. My teacher education, at a highly regarded university more than a quarter-century ago, included teaching-methods courses, a research-based curriculum, hands-on coursework, and a wonderful, yet quite myopic, nine-week student-teaching experience. Then I graduated, a licensed teacher with the minimum competencies required by the state, and was placed in a classroom of my own.
Among educators at the time, further professional development, other than pursuing a master's degree, was seen as a weakness. Asking for advice would signal incompetence. The only mentoring I got was casual discussion in the teachers' lounge. That was enough for a while, because I didn't know any better. The school district provided me with "teacher-proof" guides and curriculum from which to work. My job was to pour what was in those books into pupils' heads. I didn't need an educational philosophy -- I had ditto sheets.
After teaching elementary grades for several years and then moving to a kindergarten, I began to have nagging doubts about what I was doing. My kids were scoring well on tests, so the district concluded I was a good teacher. Yet I saw students who were frustrated or bored, which in turn led to behavior problems.
One student jarred me by bringing me different kinds of pins each time I asked him to retrieve a pen. I realized that, even though he could complete the phonics tests, he couldn't hear the difference between pen and pin. It wasn't his fault. The teaching methods I had grown up with weren't providing the kind of education he needed, because they didn't connect with his world or his culture.
Then, at the beginning of the 1983-84 school year, I opened my classroom door to find something missing. The textbooks and workbooks had disappeared; the central office hadn't come through with money to buy them. I panicked. After six years of teacher education and several years in the classroom, I was not prepared. It was time for me to learn new ways of teaching content, and at the same time address the longing I'd felt for a better way to teach the whole child.
And so my professional-development journey began. I started furiously reading and experimenting with what I was learning in my own classroom. I knew I had to take risks in order to grow, just as I was asking my kids to do.
The following summer I discovered the Illinois Writing Project, which helped me understand the developmentally appropriate, hands-on, language-rich methods through which five-year-olds really learn. It introduced me to other teachers whose dissatisfaction with traditional teaching methods had launched them on their own journeys of learning and I found colleagues who were as eager as I was to network, share, and learn.
Over the next several years, I immersed myself in all of the professional-development opportunities I could find. Through workshops offered by local universities and private educational consultants, I studied topics such as hands-on math, parent involvement, and new forms of assessment. I took personal days to visit teachers in other schools. Every time I learned something new, I alerted my colleagues and the principal of my school, constantly trying to spark a professional dialogue.
My teaching changed radically and my students achieved more than I had ever imagined possible. Both they and I were having a good time learning. I won several teaching awards and was asked to serve on professional boards. Still, because the district didn't provide sufficient resources for professional development, I had to pay my own way and take uncompensated time to continue my education.
One year, I discovered how technology could help me. I videotaped myself teaching, then watched the tapes and saw things I never realized I was -- or wasn't -- doing. I'd rethink my teaching, talk to other professionals, and try again. I found graduate students at local teacher-training institutions who were available to tape me if I would allow them to use the tapes as case studies in their classes.
In 1989, I transferred to a school where the principal shared my philosophy of education. A group of twelve of us began meeting every Wednesday over a two-year period to tour each others' classrooms, talk over our concerns, offer suggestions, and support each other. Our group, Teacher Talk, evolved into a serious forum for professional development in which we investigated topics ranging from multiage classrooms to performance assessment to peer tutoring.
When our principal was replaced by one less willing to give teachers authority and autonomy, Teacher Talk set out to create its own school. The result was the Foundations School, the first teacher-designed and teacher-led school in Illinois.
Through partnerships with a consortium of universities and the Chicago Teachers Union's Quest Center, we strive for the Foundations School to be a place where a new generation of educators can learn. One day a week, our school becomes a professional-development clinic. A steady parade of visitors comes to learn such innovative practices as peer evaluation, interdisciplinary curriculum, and teacher leadership.
We work closely with education students such as Barb Turk to help them become satisfied and effective educators. Her journey to exemplary teaching may be just as long as mine, but it has started earlier and won't be as treacherous. Our education leaders are realizing that if students are to learn more, work harder, and be more accountable for what they do, we must take a hard look at how we prepare new teachers and support continuing development throughout their careers.
Lynn Cherkasky-Davis is a director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She formerly taught at Chicago’s Foundations School.