Second in a series.
The first report cards of the school year were due home within days at William Paca Elementary, and the sense of dread was palpable. Not among the students, but in the eyes and hearts of Todd Nichols and his fellow rookie teachers.
Gathered in a classroom after school had ended on a recent Monday, the beginner teachers were seated at the desks their students normally use. For a moment, at least, the teachers were the ones being taught.
They were learning--from Vice Principal Audrey Caldwell and reading specialist Sandy Geddings--the correct way to fill out the report cards. This is not as easy as one might think. It's a science--and getting it wrong can mean disaster.
For one thing, report cards in elementary schools are a maze of boxes where teachers judge students not solely on academic performance, but also on social skills, work habits and other seemingly subjective matters. For another thing, there is an additional space for comments, those laborious explanations about why a student earned, say, a C in writing or a B in reading.
The larger box is the trickiest because every teacher in the room knows that if a parent doesn't like what is written, a nasty conversation could ensue during the parent-teacher conferences held each grading period.
Take Dinelle Martin, a 22-year-old rookie from Pennsylvania who along with her fiance, John Steiner, 26, is one of the 16 new teachers at the school. Martin fears she doesn't have the right personality for this part of the job.
"I'm nervous about meeting with the parents," she said. "I'm not one to speak up and be comfortable about telling them what their students did wrong."
Nichols also was feeling stressed out. The 24-year-old new teacher from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., seemed tight and preoccupied, a departure from his usually outgoing, quick-witted personality.
"I'm very nervous because this is the point where I'm telling parents, 'Here is what I think of your kid,' " Nichols said, staring at the stack of report cards on his desk. "For example, if they get a C in science, I have to explain to them why. You have to sort through your brain and try to show examples. You look at the work and see what they need to work on."
Grading students and sending home report cards can be one of the most rewarding duties for new teachers--and one of the most stressful. On one hand, report cards are stark, clear-cut measurements of how a student is doing in class. On the other, report cards are subjective, political--open to different interpretations by anxious parents and teachers.
As much as the teachers are grading the students, the parents also are grading the teachers. Parents hold teachers accountable for how their children perform, leading to uncomfortable moments and tense conversations, particularly for rookie teachers who parents know are untested, inexperienced and, for those occasional parents who are looking for a soft target, easily intimidated.
"It's something all teachers go through, but it's especially difficult for new teachers," Caldwell said. "Some of the parents have been through more conferences than the teachers and they're older than the teachers, so they can try to intimidate them."
That's why Caldwell and Geddings put the rookie teachers through the extensive work session. The teachers read one another's report cards and offered suggestions.
"I'm not sure why my student is reading below grade level," one female teacher said plaintively to Geddings. "What should I write?"
"Think about it," Geddings prodded. "What is getting in the way for this child?"
"Behavior problems?" the teacher responded.
"Okay, good. So you could write something like, 'He has great difficulty keeping up his attention during lessons. Please talk to him,' " Geddings said.
"How would I say a student needs to take more risks?" another rookie teacher asked.
"You could say, 'Whenever he has problems reading, he looks to the teacher to solve it. He does not have a strategy to use what we've learned in class to figure it out himself, and that's crucial,' " Geddings suggested.
As it turns out, earlier in the day Nichols had his first major run-in with a parent who was upset that her daughter was involved in an incident with another student that the parent felt had been dangerous. The parent said it was the second time it happened and wanted to know why Nichols hadn't done more to prevent it.
Nichols said he believes the situation did not put the girl in jeopardy, but the parent still was unhappy and took her case to Caldwell. Caldwell said she agreed to check in on Nichols's classroom periodically to make sure everything was orderly.
"I have to tell the parent to trust me," Caldwell said. "Sometimes the parents just get very upset, and nothing you do can make them trust you."
For Nichols, this was another hurdle in an already challenging year. In September, his good friend and colleague at the school, William Wright, quit his job as a new teacher at Paca and moved out of the two-bedroom Greenbelt apartment they were sharing.
On the positive side, Nichols got a new roommate and colleague last month when Principal Michael B. Koss hired 27-year-old Keith Newman to replace Wright. It was a whirlwind hiring process, but that's what it takes in a county of 8,000 teachers that needs 1,400 new teachers each year.
Newman was a substitute teacher in New York and saw an advertisement for teaching jobs in Prince George's. He came for an interview Nov. 1, was sent by central office administrators to William Paca Elementary and was offered a job on the spot, which he accepted.
He also met Nichols and agreed to move in.
"I liked the fact that there were a lot of other young teachers in their first year," Newman said, when asked why he chose to teach at William Paca. "Plus, I needed a job."
Although Nichols is happy to have another roommate, his relationship with his fiancee, Diana Kwashnik, has suffered. She's still living in Wilkes-Barre, and they try to see each other each month. They recently attended a Penn State football game in State College, Pa.
It hasn't been easy, Nichols says, but so far they've managed to maintain trust and stay connected. It helped that he recently bought her an engagement ring.
"She likes that," he said. "As long as I can stay involved, it should work out."
Still, the specter of the report cards continued to loom larger than any other issue confronting Nichols and his peers. A few days after they met to work on their report cards, it was time to face the parents.
Veterans Day was a day off for students, but it was the first day of parent-teacher conferences.
Nichols settled on a common strategy: Keep the conferences to 15 minutes or less. "If you go over 15 minutes, that's too long," he explained. "You run out of things to say, and you have empty space."
Cynthia Banks and her daughter, Nicole, were the first to arrive.
"I want to make sure he's teaching the curriculum and has control over the class," Banks said, when asked what she wanted to learn about Nichols.
"I found last year the teacher didn't really have control over the class. So far, from the times I've been here, Todd's much better."
They greeted Nichols pleasantly and the three of them huddled inside the classroom for a private talk. About 10 minutes later, they emerged and appeared content.
"He said she's doing well except her social skills," Cynthia Banks said. "He said that she's a great leader, but if someone comes up in her face, she says, 'No, you don't do that!' He said she needs to think before she comments and maybe back away sometimes."
When asked about her behavior issues, Nicole said: "Why do I do it? [Other kids] won't leave me alone. I hate when people bother me."
Otherwise, Nicole's report card showed four As, one B and one C. "I like getting report cards so I can see how I'm doing," she said. "Some kids might not like it, but I don't mind."
Angela Horn was next to walk into Nichols's classroom, without 8-year-old daughter Tanisha Bonner, who had been left at home so Horn could talk frankly with Nichols. To Horn's surprise, Nichols reports that Tanisha has good work habits, though at home she is not as diligent, Horn said.
Horn's momentary delight, however, was washed away when she looked in her daughter's desk. "She might have good work habits, but she's just as messy here as she is at home," Horn said with a laugh, reaching in to remove a pile of books, paper and pencils. "We're going to have a little talk about this."
Other parents said that because Nichols spends more time with their children during the week than they do, they hope he will bring to their attention things they might not notice otherwise.
"I expect a teacher to be like a second parent," said Melissa Gilbert, whose son Rusty is in Nichols's class. Gilbert's husband, Vase, is in the military, and the family has moved twice in the past three years--from Wichita Falls, Tex., to Turkey and now to Prince George's, where they live near Andrews Air Force Base.
Rusty has been to three schools in as many years, and Gilbert is concerned about how he is adjusting.
"At the beginning of the year, I told Todd that if he had a problem with Rusty, he should call me any time, and he's called me a couple of times to tell me Rusty has to do his homework," Gilbert said. "That's what I like about a teacher. I want him to not be just here in the classroom, but to be in my home, too."
Those sentiments sum up the feeling of most parents in Nichols's class. In all, Nichols met with eight parents the first day and nine during the following week. There was a lot of talk, but no blowups or heated words. For the most part, Nichols got high marks from the parents.
"I made it through," he said. "I think they knew that I'm a first-year teacher. Maybe they were lenient with me. It wasn't so bad, after all. I survived."
One down. Only three more grading periods to go.
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: First-year teacher Todd Nichols, right, explains a lesson plan to his roommate, Keith Newman, who also teaches at William Paca Elementary.
CAPTION: As teacher Todd Nichols grades papers, his dog, Cooper, plays with a stuffed animal.