New D.C. teacher faces nerves as school year begins

August 19, 2013

Summer Ellis was living in her native Boston when she learned, less than five weeks ago, that she’d been hired to teach writing at the District’s Kelly Miller Middle School.

By Aug. 9, she had packed up her life and moved to Capitol Heights, a Prince George’s County enclave just outside the District and a short walk from her new classroom. It is her first real job, her first real salary, her first time living so far from home.

Ellis is one of more than 500 new D.C. teachers — and one of 4,000 teachers in all — who are headed to work Monday for a week of training and preparation before the first day of school.

“I’m nervous,” Ellis said. “I’m nervous about failing not just for myself, but for kids. You don’t want to let anyone down.”

Like so many other teachers in the District, the 24-year-old Ellis said she chose to work in education because she saw it as a form of social justice, a way to change the trajectory of poor children’s lives. She spent the past two years working at an all-girls school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood while simultaneously earning a master’s in teaching from Emmanuel College.

And now that she is going to have her own classroom, she is hungry for guidance from her more experienced colleagues.

At new-teacher orientation last week, she asked a panel of veteran teachers for advice on setting up a successful writing program for middle-schoolers. They offered titles of helpful how-to books, suggested ways to motivate 11- to 14-year-olds and — perhaps most important — urged Ellis to stay with teaching, even if it seems impossible at first.

With experience, they promised, she’ll improve. Everyone does.

Frazier O’Leary, who has been teaching high school English at the District’s Cardozo High for decades, recalled that in his first semester of teaching, “nothing worked.”

“Everything didn’t work,” O’Leary said. “But it got better every year.”

Stephanie Johnson, an eight-year classroom veteran who teaches English at Eliot-Hine Middle School, nodded. “It gets better every year,” she said.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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