Dorne Eastwood was riding the el to her work as a commercial banker in the Loop when she saw the advertisement that changed her life. The question “Did you ever think about trading your corporate lunch for another kind of lunch?” surrounded a picture of a hot dog in a bun on a plastic lunch tray.
Approaching 50 with a well-funded pension and her younger child about to graduate from college, Eastwood answered the sign’s question by making a move she had considered for some time: she left banking to begin a teaching career.
“The timing was right,” says Eastwood, who began her fourth year as a math teacher at Northwest Middle School on the city’s Northwest Side this fall. But her path to the classroom was a rigorous one.
Eastwood and other NU-TEACH (Teacher Education Alternative for Chicago) students attend an intensive summer of class work and student teaching before spending a full year teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. NU-TEACH participants receive guidance from a master teacher during the year. Successful completion of the year leads to a standard alternative certificate, which allows the teacher to work in Chicago for four years before applying for a standard certificate.
Partnering with the Golden Apple Foundation and the Inner-City Teaching Corps, the program prepares 50 to 70 elementary and secondary teachers annually, according to NU-TEACH coordinator Gary Sircus (L85), an NU-TEACH alumnus. Secondary school teachers are prepared to instruct math, biology, chemistry and physics classes, while students in the elementary school track receive general elementary certification.
For Eastwood, being back in school was tough, but the first year of dealing with close to 30 seventh-graders was tougher.
Some of the challenges were humorous, like the time a bored student whipped out a stink bomb from his pocket and threatened to light it in an effort to end class early. But other challenges were disturbing, such as when she learned about the homelessness and abuse suffered by some of her emotionally troubled students.
Handling these difficulties was not covered in any of the books Eastwood read for her course work, and she often felt overwhelmed. But it helped that the program offered support, including a mentor teacher, visits by a supervisor and a weekly seminar.
Eastwood is typical of NU-TEACH graduates. A recent Golden Apple Foundation study found a nearly 80 percent three-year retention rate for NU-TEACH alumni between 1998 and 2004. This figure compared with a 54 percent national rate and a 24 percent rate for high-need areas.
In the classroom Eastwood called on her 22 years of commercial banking experience in everything from talking about place value in numbers — “I show them what big numbers I used to deal with,” she says — to talking about major companies she used to work with, such as McDonald’s, to illustrate the concept of net profit.
She draws on her life experience when the students start to get the better of her.
“I tell myself, ‘I’m 53 and was damn good at what I used to do. I’m not about to let a bunch of 12-year-olds make me lose it,’” Eastwood says.
Nathan Harada (McC00), a physics teacher at Northside College Preparatory High School and NU-TEACH alumnus, says he relies on his two years as a civil engineer to design stimulating problems for his students. In one project, for example, he had students address the familiar traffic issue of approaching an intersection when the light turns from green to yellow.
“The classic solution is extending the yellow light time. Students do come up with this, just as civil engineers learn in undergraduate classes,” Harada says.
Coordinator Sircus says NU-TEACH participants come from fields ranging from food sciences to medical technology and are characterized by their passion for their newly chosen careers.
“We have someone who used to work in the coroner’s office and someone who used to make M&M’s,” he says.
But not all NU-TEACH graduates are career switchers.
Roel Vivit (WCAS98, GSESP05) went through the alternative certification program while working as a member of ICTC during the 1998–99 school year. Although the first year was grueling at times, Vivit believes the experience provided multiple benefits.
“I liked the fact that I was going through the teaching experience and reflecting on it,” Vivit says. “That helped develop the habit of evaluating my work and assessing its effectiveness for each student.”
Vivit teaches math, social studies, religion and language arts to fourth-graders at the Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. In March 2005 he won one of 10 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching for grades four through eight.
The award entitled Vivit to a tuition-free semester of classes at Northwestern, $2,500, a personal computer and induction into the Golden Apple Academy.
Penny Lundquist, director of the Golden Apple Academy, observed Vivit for a full day during the selection process. She praised a lesson in which he played music from the movie Amistad while students linked captions they had written with pictures of the Underground Railroad.
“It called out a sense of drama and a sense of story,” says Lundquist, one of the original Golden Apple winners in 1986. She says that Vivit’s combination of content knowledge, profound respect for his students, commitment to professional development and conception of his work as an artist make him one of the best teachers she has ever observed.
“My fellow evaluator and I felt we were witnessing the future of teaching, seeing a new breed of teacher in Roel,” Lundquist says. “Teaching will not be seen as just a job but a calling and a profession at the same level as medicine, law and other professions. Roel gave us a glimpse of what we hope the future is for every classroom.” — J.K.L.