John Pappas carries his enthusiasm for teaching with him to work each day, even though he’s been through the Chicago Public Schools system himself and has seen its ups and downs firsthand. He may be a fresh face at Perspectives/IIT Math and Science Academy, but in the short time he’s been there, he’s gained an understanding of the job requirements of teaching that will last him a lifetime.
“It’s up to us to make sure that students are prepared, not only to go to college, but to graduate from college,” says Tony Seiden, the Director of College Counseling, on the Perspectives website. It’s this goal that makes Perspectives different than other Chicago public high schools. Perspectives boasts that 89 percent of students graduate, and of those, 92 percent go on to college. This statistic is much higher than the Chicago Public Schools average, which shows that in 2009, the five-year graduation rate was only 54.5 percent, according to data provided by the Chicago Public School Office of Research, Evaluation and Accountability.
But Pappas’ experience at Perspectives is strikingly different than the picture painted on the school’s website: a safe, respectful environment in which students thrive academically. According to Pappas, Perspectives follows a structure called “A Disciplined Life.” There are 26 principals that students must follow, including “seek wisdom,” “respect each other’s differences,” and “demonstrate a strong work ethic.”
“Again I’ll repeat the administrators do a great job trying to create this culture, but that is not the culture at the school. Many students don’t find school important to their lives and have this attitude that is has no place in their life,” says Pappas, while talking about the Perspectives mission and the students who are supposed to be following the 26 principals laid out by the Disciplined Life program.
“I get frustrated with the administrators because they do a poor job disciplining the students and holding them accountable for their actions,” he says adamantly.
Pappas is doing his student teaching at Perspectives throughout the spring semester and hopes to get a job teaching science in the Chicago Public Schools in the fall. Because of this, the hours that he works are “longer than I ever anticipated.” On top of the work required for student teachers, including documentation for his supervisors at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where is pursuing his teaching degree, Pappas must also meet the requirements for Perspectives. “The school requires a lot from their staff. We are required to work longer hours than CPS teachers, and required to teach one more class than CPS teachers.”
Pappas says, “in particular my lesson plans have to bring extremely detailed, and my prepping for lessons is intense. Since I teach a synergy class, which is a class that is focused around pure lab work, I find myself doing a lot of extra work to prepare for our labs.”
But when Pappas begins to talk about what he teaches, his excitement is palpable. “I like working with students and doing science. I love science and I love kids so it a good combination. There are times where the students frustrate me but I quickly get over it. As a teacher you can let students get the best of you.” Pappas founded the Spanish club at his school and is also a member of the Earth club. Such extracurricular activities eat up his time, but he finds them enjoyable. At Perspectives, Pappas stays after school to offer homework help to the students.
Not all of his experience has been positive, however. “Fighting is a big problem at our school. During my first two months I have broken up two fights between female students and have had another student walk up to me a throw a fake punch at me. The first week at the school a student brought a gun to school and this past week a student tried to kill herself in the bathroom.”
While many of these are isolated incidents, the source of the problem is often systemic. Pappas, as a new teacher, struggles with classroom control, finding many of his students difficult to work with. “A lot of students find it acceptable to talk back to adults, and not show them any respect. My biggest problem with the students is them not following direction and constantly talking back when I ask them to do something,” he says. This situation can be frustrating to a new teacher, but Pappas is optimistic that he’ll be able to gain a variety of solutions for classroom management through his experience and through other teachers around him.
Even though he works at one of the Chicago Charter Schools, Pappas also has experience doing clinical supervisions at Lane Tech, one of Chicago’s high schools. Even though Lane Tech is a drastically different environment than Perspectives, the mission statement seems to be in line with the goals laid out by Perspectives. “The Vision of Lane Tech College Prep High School is to provide all students with a superior academic, technical, and fine arts education that prepares students for success in their post-secondary endeavors of school, career, community and family life,” their website says.
When asked to compare the two schools, Pappas replied, “Lane Tech is an exceptional school so I think it’s unfair to compare it to a school that has only been around for two years.” Lane Tech has been educating students for over one hundred years, and Pappas certainly makes a valid point.
“Of course have instructional goals and daily goals that I want to meet, but really I just want to change these students’ lives. A lot of them are troubled and don’t have anyone to look up to, so I want to be that role model for these students. I know it’s kind of general,” he says when asked about his goals for his future as a teacher.
An article published in Newsweek magazine dated March 15 states, “What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher.” John Pappas certainly seems to have that certain spark that can light a fire in a child’s mind and inspire a lifelong love of education.