First in a series.
Todd Nichols did everything he could think of to prepare himself for his teaching career at William Paca Elementary School in Landover. But just six weeks into the job, he's already facing his first unforeseen crisis.
It's not that Nichols, 24, didn't expect the job to have its challenges. When he moved to Prince George's County in August, leaving his home town of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Nichols knew the adjustment would be difficult. He came with a teaching degree from Bloomsburg University, but he had never taught full time or had his own classroom.
He is a white man from a predominantly white small town coming to a predominantly black school in a more urban setting. He is engaged to his high school sweetheart, but she was not yet ready to move to the Washington area with him.
Still, he felt he was ready for his debut as a third-grade teacher. And on the plus side, two of his good friends also had accepted teaching jobs at William Paca, including one, William Wright, who joined him in renting a two-bedroom apartment in Greenbelt.
Suddenly, in late August, it was show time. Nichols was in his classroom, Room 112 at the rear of the school, arranging the computers and desks, hanging decorations, filling out union membership paperwork and payroll forms, meeting with colleagues to go over teaching strategies, preparing lesson plans, attending seminars for new teachers and, finally, meeting his 28 students.
His mind was filled with new names and new faces and new ideas. Who were his top performing students and who were the struggling ones? Why was everybody putting so much emphasis on this thing called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test? Where were all his fellow teachers going to happy hour on Friday?
His first few weeks were filled with all the new school year responsibilities. He handed out books, collected various forms, worked on getting to know each student, prepared for meeting the parents at back-to-school night and established procedures that he wanted the students to follow.
Then last week, just when he was starting to get the hang of it, having finally gotten his students to listen when he asked them to remain quiet and talk when he asked them to answer a question, his world was turned around again.
That's when Wright, his roommate and good friend, told Nichols that he was quitting his job as a first-grade teacher, moving out of their apartment and returning home to Wilkes-Barre.
"The last couple weeks, he was down in the dumps. He wasn't talking. He was moody," Nichols said of his friend. "I sensed something was up, but he didn't say anything" until a few weeks before he left.
This is just one of many potential problems that befall Prince George's County's new teachers, who tend to be young, transient and often from out of state. The school system needs so many new teachers each year--about 1,400 were hired this fall--that it recruits heavily, and successfully, in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, North Carolina and New Jersey. And for those who come, even if they are willing to work for less money than they could make in nearby school districts--starting salary is $28,752--and often in more run-down buildings, the feelings of homesickness and isolation can be overpowering.
Luring new teachers and keeping them is one of the top priorities for the Prince George's school system, where about 18 percent of the county's 8,000 teachers are provisionally certified, the highest percentage in the state.
Teachers complain that their salaries are lower than peers in nearby districts, their schools are in poor condition, their students are disrespectful and their administrators are often unresponsive about class size and getting supplies.
New School Superintendent Iris T. Metts has said that she intends to address these issues, but currently, the personnel department in the school system is without a supervisor and director of the personnel office. Howard Burnett, Metts's executive assistant who is overseeing the department temporarily, said that the system is doing a nationwide search and has received about 40 applicants so far.
The constant need for teachers is evident at William Paca, where 16 of 28 teachers left the school this past summer. Principal Michael Koss attributed the losses to several factors, including teachers returning to their home states or to other school districts where they will make more money.
The difficulties are compounded at Paca, where about half of the school's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and scores on the MSPAP exams fall below the state average. The tests are taken annually by all of the county's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders to measure a school's performance in teaching math, reading, writing, language skills, social studies and science.
The school is bursting at the seams, with 760 students in a building originally designed for about 600. There are four trailer classrooms, and workers are trying to finish construction on an eight-classroom wing, which was supposed to be ready Sept. 22 but now has been delayed until Dec. 24. Koss is concerned because his music teacher does not have a room and instead travels from classroom to classroom. Five special education teachers share one room, as do a guidance counselor, three reading teachers and two other employees. An additional 125 students are expected at the school next fall, just because of growth in the county's school population.
Koss, who came to the school when it opened for students six years ago, estimates that only four of his 28 teachers are older than 30.
The bulletin board in the main hall that has pictures of each teacher looks almost like a college yearbook, with all the fresh, young, smiling faces including Wright's, which was still on the wall a day after his departure.
Koss this year decided that it was so imperative that he stem the exodus of teachers from the building that he and his school-based management team decided to use school funds to pay for a mentor-teacher. Lisa Coffren, 36, who has taught in the county for nine years, was hired to counsel the rest of the staff and work with them to solve problems.
"I wanted someone who could be a coach," Koss said. "It's difficult for me to be a coach, when I'm an evaluator [of the teachers' performances]. We wanted someone who could understand what it was like [for them], someone who could gain their trust."
Every Monday after school, Nichols and the school's other new teachers--known to the rest of the staff as the "Y2K Rookies"--meet with Coffren to discuss challenges they are facing. Teachers also are encouraged to come to her for one-on-one sessions that can be tailored to their individual circumstances.
Although Coffren is not officially part of a countywide mentor-teaching program that was started at 28 schools last year, she does participate in the school system's training sessions for those mentors. "The surprising thing to me was that I learned that it's not a criticism thing. This is trust-building. I don't tell them what to do. My job is to ask them the right questions to get them to self-reflect."
Nichols went to Coffren to discuss Wright's departure. He was hurt because he discovered that other teachers knew about Wright's decision before he did. He also was left to deal with a more practical problem: paying both shares of the rent--$810 a month--on his first-year teacher's salary.
He's hoping the school, which also lost a veteran teacher last month because of poor health, will hire another young, male teacher who will be willing to live with him and share the rent, at least until his fiancee, Diana Kwashnik, 24, joins him in time for their wedding Aug. 5, 2000.
But otherwise, Nichols is happy with his job. Lean and wiry, he is energetic and seems eager to learn from colleagues, as well as teach. He has begun to learn the subtleties about his students, and he knows which parents show a more active interest in their children's education and which are more removed. He works from 7:30 a.m. until about 6:30 p.m. each day, long past the hours of the school, which is in session from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.
His main focus in the classroom is preparing students with an emphasis on skills needed for the MSPAP exams. As a whole, Prince George's scores rank second-lowest in the state, behind only Baltimore, and state leaders have been pressuring the county schools to improve.
"MSPAP is drilled into me every single day," Nichols said with a sigh as he watched his students play behind the school during recess on a recent afternoon. "We have MSPAP days where we take practice tests. We have MSPAP work sheets and MSPAP [vocabulary] words hanging on the walls for the kids to learn."
He tries to show support by calling the parents of struggling students when they have a good day in class.
"They come in the next day and say, 'You called my mom and said I did a good job.' I say, 'Did you?' They say, 'Yeah,' and have a big smile."
Coffren said, "Todd has a clear sense of what he's here for. Not all new teachers have that. He's very open and wants input."
Nichols says his philosophy is simple. "Every day I come in and drop any problems I have at the door. I smile and I walk in the door and that's it," he said.
When he goes home, he's greeted by his dog, Copper, and his two pet ferrets, Pixie and Peanut. These days, they are the only roommates Todd Nichols can talk to about his day at work.
Making the Grade: The Rookie Year
In his first year at William Paca Elementary School in Landover, Todd Nichols is one of 1,400 teachers new to Prince George's County. The Prince George's Extra is chronicling his first year to illuminate the life of a new teacher in a school system struggling to attract and retain good teachers.
CAPTION: Third-grader Tanisha Bonner does a math drill in Nichols's class.
CAPTION: Heather Mills waits at the door to lead her classmates from Todd Nichols's class to lunch.
CAPTION: First-year teacher Nichols, left, helps a student with a math problem. Below, third-grader James Clement walks down the hall with Nichols at William Paca Elementary School in Landover.