Just Starting Out

Katherine Johnson is a first-year teacher at Burnett Elementary

Being a new teacher can be daunting, but with perseverance and
support, many find the success that nurtures their love of the
Story by Heather Bremner, Danielle Smith, and Marilyn Dubil, Staff Writers

Teachers face a slew of challenges, from keeping things interesting for students to disciplining their charges. Years of experience can make it easier for teachers to meet these expectations, but for those just beginning, the struggles can seem overwhelming.

The following South Valley teachers are meeting those challenges every day. Whether they’re teaching in a language that’s not their native tongue, working with students with special needs or coming home to teach, these educators stand out to their students and peers.

At Ease

“Is Freddy Kruger alive?”

Jennifer Watt laughs along with the class when a student asks her that question during a vocabulary lesson on words describing living things. But then she addresses the question seriously, asking the class if the fictional character is an actual living person.

When another one of her students says Watt is an example of something living she laughs again.

“Me,” she says. “I’m alive – to torture you – right, Robert?”

Watt is so at ease in the classroom that it’s difficult to conceive she didn’t initially head down that career path.

“I used to tell my mom I wanted to either be a doctor or a teacher,” she said.

The 25-year-old listened to her mom’s advice to go for the more lucrative career, and when she entered Santa Clara University, she was bent on becoming a pediatrician. But it didn’t take long for Watt to realize that she didn’t want to spend all those years in school, and she decided to “get out there and try to make a difference sooner than later.”

Watt taught part-time at Rod Kelley Elementary School last year before landing her first teaching position at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School. At the school on the north side of town, Watt teaches English High Point intervention, a special program based on the Hampton-Brown curriculum, for struggling sixth- and seventh-graders.

Although, she was aware of the bad reputation of middle schoolers – out-of-control preteens and teens dealing with puberty and insecurity, ready to test the boundaries of authority – she was excited to join a veteran staff and work for a principal she highly respects.

And, she quickly discovered the squirmy adolescents aren’t that bad.

“They’re all very intelligent, and the students in my intervention classes are really hungry for knowledge,” she said. “The thing I love about the junior high kids is you really get to know them.”

That enthusiasm and her calm demeanor, an essential for middle school teachers, was one of the first characteristics Principal Sal Tomasello noticed during Watt’s interview. He knew that those qualities would ease her into the position of new teacher.

He was right.

“Students really like her,” he said. “She genuinely cares about them, and they see that.”

Tomasello said he was particularly impressed with Watt because she immediately learned how to manage the classroom even though middle school students often view new teachers as fresh bait.

“Middle school kids, in general, will take new teachers and test new teachers,” he said.

Watt arrives at work at 7am everyday, an hour-plus before school starts. Although her fiance teases her, the early riser said she uses the “quiet time” to prepare for the day and ensure everything’s in order. She also stays after school to offer tutoring to students.

And Watt’s dedication doesn’t stop there. Because her students are below grade level in reading, she spends hours searching the shelves at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, for interesting books that don’t call attention to her students’ special needs.

“My philosophy has always been ‘stay until it’s done,’ ” she said.

‘Rewarding no matter where you are’

Beginning a teaching career fresh out of college is hard enough. Discipline problems, angry parents and the constant challenge of keeping kids engaged in their education are not tasks for the faint of heart.

Even for seasoned teachers, however, beginning a career in a foreign country and tackling a wealth of cultural differences in the pursuit of helping kids learn can be daunting. Still, this was the choice of Monica Prisco, a native of Romania and an English teacher at San Benito High School, who says she can think of little else she’d rather do.

“I think teaching is rewarding no matter where you are,” she said. “I like to work with kids, you get to know them and be a model for them – sometimes it even feels like you’re a parent part of the time.”

Prisco, 31, taught at the primary school and junior high levels for five years in a small town in Romania. She taught English and Romanian, which she studied at the University of Craiova.

Prisco knew from an early age that she wanted to teach.

“My parents are both teachers and my grandfather was a teacher, as well,” she said. “So it’s sort of a family tradition.”

After five years as a teacher in Romania, Prisco accepted a contract in Thailand, teaching high school English at a campus serving more than 4,000 students.

“Thai schools are very different from here in America,” she said. “The students are so respectful they’re almost shy. You have to really encourage them to talk. All the students wear uniforms; the boys have the same haircuts, and the classes are very big. Sometimes I would teach a class with more than 60 students, and I would need to use a microphone.”

One day in early summer, Prisco was shopping at an outdoor market in Thailand, when she literally bumped into Andrew Prisco, a guidance counselor at SBHS who was vacationing in the country. After about a 15-minute conversation, the two exchanged contact information and would correspond regularly over the Internet via e-mail until Christmas, when she invited Andrew to Romania to celebrate the holiday with her family.

“He was thrilled about seeing Dracula’s country,” she said.

The two were married the next summer and returned to the states almost exactly two years ago.

This year, Prisco accepted a position at SBHS, teaching English to incoming freshman, and starting her first year teaching full-time in the states. She was hired two weeks after school began, which made adjusting a challenge for both her and the students, who had just gotten acquainted with their first teacher. Prisco was enthusiastic about her subject, however, and eager to get back to teaching.

“I think English is a beautiful language,” she said. “It’s the language of Shakespeare, and every work that came after either references Shakespeare or is inspired by his work … Teaching in America, I get to read books and stories I never have before, and then share them with my students.”

Prisco also teaches Reading, a course designed for students who aren’t performing as well in English as they might. Though she has never formally studied Spanish, Prisco, who speaks not only English and Romanian, but French, Italian, German and Thai, believes she has an advantage in helping students struggling to master English, as she herself has been down that road before.

“I’ve always loved languages; it’s sort of my calling,” she said. “So I can help kids with tricks to understand the structure of English, because that’s what I’ve had to do myself. And I’m getting a lot better at Spanish, because it’s similar to other languages I’ve studied.”

Every day Prisco gets to school at 8am, sometimes earlier if she wants to get a little extra work done. Class is broken up into silent reading time, journal work and group work on the literature being studied – a favorite of the teacher and students, so far, is Homer’s Odyssey. After school ends at 3pm, Prisco remains to help students with homework or make-up assignments for an hour or more.

“Starting out as a teacher is exhausting at best, and harrowing at worst. You have to be resilient and always keep in mind that what you’re doing is incredibly important – generally you just have to keep your head above water, which Monica has done admirably well. She cares about her students, she’s resilient in looking for new ways to improve her teaching, and has been an all-around good sport,” said Linda Row, English Department chairwoman.

Despite the fact that she and her husband work at the same school, their busy schedules leave little room for quality time during the workday.

“I never see him, this school is that big,” she said with a laugh. “Even if I do have to go over by his office for some reason, most of the time he isn’t there, because he’s just as busy as me.”

It hasn’t been all rosy, however. The climate of a typical American high school, especially one as large as SBHS, is decidedly more relaxed than those is Europe or Asia. Many countries, such as Romania, require eighth grade students to pass rigorous exams to be admitted to an academic high school and, as a result, students have high expectations placed upon them. In even the best public schools in California, however, students from all backgrounds learn in the same environment regardless of what they personally want or expect from school, and anyone who’s ever been a teenager can tell you the results are sometimes a little hairy.

“In Romania, teachers are seen as the bricks of society, because they teach the children who will one day be our doctors or lawyers,” Prisco said. “Some of the students here – not all, but some – used terrible language in class, and I would take it personally, but then I realized they probably talk to even their own parents that way. It’s a big difference.”

Every teacher struggles with discipline in the classroom at one point or another, and Prisco called on Principal Debbie Padilla and Row for a little advice and support. What helped the most?

“Posting class rules above the board,” she said. “It’s so simple that I might have never thought of it on my own, but it really does help … This semester is so much easier than the first.”

Having adjjusted to life at the American high school, Prisco is looking forward to getting her official California credential over the summer and continuing at SBHS next year – she even hopes to establish a club for foreign exchange students. If she’s lucky, she might be able to eke out a little free time to pursue her love of the guitar and yoga.

“I feel really positive about this year. It was difficult sometimes, but I think I’m accomplishing a lot,” she said. “I just hope that other teachers know to never, ever give up. No matter how frustrated or down on yourself you are, don’t give up, because there’s always another way, and it’s worth it in the end.”

Feeling at home

Respect – for her students and that her students have for her – is fundamental for first-year teacher Katherine Johnson, known to her friends as Katie and to her students as “Miss Johnson.”

“She treats everyone fairly, she makes you feel good so you can learn a lot easier,” said 9-year-old Kyle Eng. “She is really organized. And the classroom is respectful; that’s good because if it goes out of control, you can’t hear and then you can’t learn.”

One of Johnson’s classroom rules, posted on the wall, is that students respect each other’s right to learn and respect the teacher’s right to teach.

“She makes you feel welcome; I don’t feel shy at all,” said Monica Topete, another 9-year-old student. “She’s a really good teacher. She knows what she’s talking about, and she’s very organized.”

Student Weslie Dupin, 10, had only been in the classroom two days, moving to Morgan Hill from North Carolina during the presidents’ week break.

“It was nice how she helped me the first day,” Weslie said. “I was in the office with my mom, and Miss Johnson came to pick me up. She had another student come, too. She was good to show me around, to explain things. She really wanted me to feel good about the class.”

One of the techniques Johnson uses in the classroom is called Peace Builders, a program to encourage students to think about each other’s feelings. On a bulletin board where every student has a space, cards are clipped under the names with praise for other students or apologies for hurting that student’s feelings. Under Weslie’s name was a card from Monica saying she would “always be there for her” to help out.

Johnson, 23, graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2005. Before she was hired last year to work at Burnett Elementary School, she said, she talked with Principal Barbara Neal about her level of comfort teaching upper elementary grades.

“I told her I felt very comfortable with that,” she said. “Actually, the fourth grade is the perfect grade for me. I remember my own fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis, and she really inspired me. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher.”

Growing up in this district adds to her sense of ease.

“I went to San Martin/Gwinn, then Britton, then Live Oak,” she said. “I feel very much at home here.”

Her poise in the classroom has a calming effect on her students. As she teaches, she continually monitors the class, checking for comprehension and comfort level.”

“Do you feel good about it, relaxed?” she asked after a grammar lesson. “That’s my goal, that you don’t even have to think about it, you just write.”

In pursuit of that goal, she works hard to make sure her lessons are productive.

“Keeping everyone on task, making sure everyone is learning, that can be a challenge,” she said. “Keeping up with everything, getting all the paperwork filled out, that keeps you busy. I knew about all that, but it is really a lot of work, and you want to do that when it won’t take away from the lesson.”

Aside from the paperwork, the daily bonding with the children was something she had not expected.

“I was surprised at how much you get attached to the children,” she said. “A student brings a board into the classroom and tells you, ‘Look, I broke this in tae kwon do,’ and you feel so proud and happy for them.”

Besides sharing in their successes, Johnson said she was also surprised at how quickly the children became a part of her life.

“When I lose a student, when they move away, that’s just so sad,” she said. “I didn’t know it would be this sad. I had a student who told me they were moving in a month, so I had some preparation, but it was still sad. I lost a student during the break; she was absent on Monday, then when I got my roll on Tuesday, she was crossed out. I was so sad all day.”

After substituting for five months before starting her full-time position, Johnson said she felt better prepared.

“I would recommend that if someone has the opportunity to do that, they should,” she said. “Fire drills, school pictures, assemblies, all those out-of-the-ordinary things you have a chance to experience. Not much surprises me, although that could also have something to do with the culture I grew up in.”

Her mother, JoAnn Johnson, is a second grade teacher at El Toro Elementary, and her brother is a sixth grade teacher in Oak Grove. Other teachers in her extended family, as well as her mother and brother, gave her an idea of what to expect: the long hours required, the commitment necessary.

While she has a built in support system, Johnson said she is also grateful for the BTSA (beginning teacher support and assessment) program in the district.

“It’s like a blanket that covers everything,” she said. “It’s extremely helpful. Everyone has a mentor, someone you can ask for advice, someone you can talk to if you’ve had a bad experience or a bad day. And it’s confidential.”

As a part of the program, there are also seminars, opportunities to pick up information and ideas.

“I’m really glad Morgan Hill – and the state – has the program. Most teachers quit within the first five years.”

Johnson isn’t likely to be one of those, she said.

“No, I’m here,” she said. “The atmosphere of this school, the parents, the kids, it’s great. I hope to be here a really long time. Why would you leave a place like this, a place I call home, where you have the support, not only of the other teachers, but the whole school community? Why would you want to be anywhere else? These are my children. I have to see that they succeed.”

Leave your comments