Category Alumni
Author James Sheehan

The challenges of teaching in an urban school can be a little daunting for a new teacher.

“We need tough people,” explains Mike Hendrick, a veteran middle-school science teacher and 1990 Johns Hopkins alumnus. Hendrick taught for years at Baltimore City College before joining a neighborhood effort to establish one of the city’s first charters, Patterson Park Public Charter School, in 2005.

For Hendrick, teacher resilience is key. “You need to be able to try to teach a lesson, have it blow up in your face for reasons that aren’t your fault, wipe your mind clean without holding a grudge and then come back in with fresh energy. Every day. Over and over again.”

This winter at Patterson Park, a new cohort of gifted teachers from the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program has been in the midst of that whirlwind formative experience.

Jennifer Knobel, Paul Veracka and Carly Voeller work a full school day in the classroom five days a week. They also attend four classes a semester in fulfillment of their MAT coursework at night. The three interns are known to email their instructors well after midnight for lesson-plan advice. They are continually warding off colds from prolonged exposure to the germ vectors that permeate their elementary classrooms. They are tired and frazzled and challenged at every turn.

And they are loving it.

“It’s extremely rewarding,” said Veracka. “You’re learning so much, your brain is fried at the end of every night, but then you go into work the next day at the school and you’re able to repeat it—not in rote memory, but already as a part of you.”

For Cathie Weber, MAT program supervisor and the trio’s Elementary Methods professor, that passion for teaching is a vital force that must be wisely nurtured in a new teacher, because it is also a point of vulnerability.

The Trouble with November

Weber has been teaching Elementary Methods I and II at the School of Education since 2000 after a 30-year elementary teaching career that started in the tough South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill. She has mentored hundreds of teachers, but the MAT candidates are especially close to her heart.

“They come in, maybe as all teachers do, really idealistic,” she said. “But they keep that idealism. They are so driven to do the work. And they have they have such high standards. Getting past November is the big hurdle.”

November, as it turns out, is the traditionally acknowledged low point in an educator’s first year, when one’s passion for teaching runs up against the seemingly intractable wall of learning challenges of today’s classrooms.

The challenge represented by November emphasizes the crucial importance of experienced mentorship and immersion in an effective learning community—two variables that combine to make Patterson Park a professional development school of particular excellence.

“The students love Patterson Park,” said Weber. “We have very good mentors there, because the school has a continuum of experienced teachers, many of them developed in the Johns Hopkins pipeline.”

It Takes a Village to Train a Teacher

At the edge of the welcoming greenery of Baltimore’s Patterson Park and hugged by humble two-story row houses so characteristic of the city, Patterson Park is an urban school. Its student population directly reflects the vibrant, diverse makeup of its surrounding, changing neighborhood.

Approximately 50 percent are African American, 33 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white, and 2 percent two or more races. More than four-fifths of its students are eligible for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) free or reduced-price school lunch, a standard indicator of family and community economic background. Among its diverse community of learners, 16.8 percent have limited English proficiency, and 13 percent have special needs.

The MAT program’s success in developing effective, resilient teachers for today’s urban classrooms has a lot to do with productive collaborations with community schools like Patterson Park. It’s a difference that interns, like Voeller, can feel “on the ground.”

“What’s been so amazing about being placed at Patterson Park is that we feel like we really have been set up to be successful,” she said. “The staff acknowledges that we are a community, a family to help support and help each other.”

“My mentor is so good at ‘stepping in and out,’” added Knobel. “If I’m teaching and something happens that I wasn’t prepared to handle, she’ll step in and tell me, then I adjust and just keep teaching. It’s like a partnership in teaching.”

Of the three MAT interns, Voeller arguably has the most teaching experience, with stints as a substitute in a variety of regional schools. She has seen schools that were not so connected within their communities and, for her, the difference is stark.

“I think sometimes in the teaching profession there might actually be some competition among teachers to have the best individual results or lesson plans,” she said. “But I feel like at Patterson Park, they want all students to succeed. And in order to do that, there has to be a lot of collaboration between grade levels.”

Turning Around Urban Turnover

Her intuition is amply backed up by research. “We know that experienced teachers are, on average, better at raising student achievement levels than new ones,” said SOE doctoral candidate Ashley Grant, who has been examining the causes and impact of teachers leaving the profession. “High turnover can be costly to school systems in terms of recruitment and training costs.”

In recent years, the turnover rate has been on the rise because there are far more beginners in teaching than ever before, and they are less likely to stay in the job. Grant has also found that managing the large amount of independent, isolated work of teaching can be especially difficult for those new to the profession.

Patterson Park Principal Chad Kramer, who received an EdD from the School of Education in 2005, is convinced that building strong school communities is the key to it all: improving teacher retention, lifting student achievement and addressing most of the factors contributing to poor school performance. Whether he is outside on the sidewalk every morning and afternoon for entry and dismissal or checking in on every class at least once a day, Kramer models the school’s community commitment.

An expert in special education who managed public school partnerships for the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Kramer was looking for an opportunity for impact in public education when he joined Patterson Park in its second year.

“Most charters are start-up schools,” said Kramer. “The first three years can be quite a roller-coaster ride. But for us this was always part of a long-term community effort.”

Founded by the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association in 2005, the school draws strength from the community and the community draws strength from the school, with strong connections to neighborhood organizations, and community service hours expected of its student families.

Kramer says he had accepted that turnover was going to happen among his teaching staff, but as the school’s community model began to mature something surprising happened. “We stopped losing people,” he said. “It went from losing six or seven every year to losing maybe five total in the past three years. Now we are a feeder of talent to other city schools.”

For Hendrick, the veteran teacher, these talented interns seem to pass the test.

“If an early-career teacher is only dabbling in education along the way to something else, then they will probably not last long in an urban school,” he said. “I think the student-teachers we get from Johns Hopkins are fantastic because they have invested in their role as educators. When a student teacher comes in committed to their long-term role as an educator—hey, they’re colleagues.”

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