If you get a chance to listen to Megan Ford talk about District 91, the Forest Park public elementary schools, you would think that she had died and gone to teacher heaven.
For Ford, who teaches kindergarten at Garfield Elementary School, “dying” is a metaphor that could be used for her previous nine years of teaching in the Chicago Public School system. She used words like “micromanager,” “bully,” and “barking” to describe how her principal related to her. “Where I came from,” she said, “it was cut and dried. You had to do it the system’s way or no way. I don’t know how long I would have lasted as a teacher. It was burnout that I was experiencing.”
Ashley Kern is a special ed teacher at Field Stevenson and has had a similar teaching experience, though in the far west suburbs. “Like Megan I was questioning whether or not I wanted to be a teacher,” said Kern. Before coming to D91 last year she had taught for nine years in Huntley and Mt. Prospect. “In the previous districts I didn’t feel like the administrators trusted my judgment as a teacher to make the best decisions for my students.”
Referring to how teachers are often pressured to “teach to the tests” mandated by Common Core, she said, “We weren’t expected to nurture each individual child, to treat them as a heterogeneous group. I felt like I was losing myself while teaching.”
She explained the “gone to heaven” part of the analogy by saying, “Our frame of reference — Megan and I — is so bad that teaching in D91 is like a dream. Coming here was like a breath of fresh air. The kids are wonderful. The staff is wonderful. The administration is amazing. Like I have nothing to complain about.”
Included in Ford and Kern’s list of superlatives are their principals – Jamie Stauder at Garfield and Tiffany Brunson at Field Stevenson. Ford admitted that it took her awhile to get used to be treated as a colleague by her supervisors. “I feel like the district has really given me a voice to be an advocate for my students,” she said. “My administrator, Jamie Stauder, is incredible. It took me a long time to realize that she is there to work with me. There is a lot of teacher input here. A child is not a test score, and she cares about what works in the classroom. If there are things that we don’t necessarily agree on, she is willing to listen.”
Kern agreed. “Dr. Brunson, my principal, has an open door policy. Common Core standards are imposed from above but she works with us in how to implement them. We have flexibility. She trusts me to do my job.”
Emily Jasinski, a social worker at Field Stevenson, has a little over nine weeks of experience as an educator in contrast to her more seasoned colleagues, but she had the same feeling about Forest Park’s school system.
“For me coming right out of graduate school,” she said, “I had been given all the tools, but I was still really nervous coming in. Right away the teachers and administrators were really welcoming. I think I asked a million questions, and everyone was super friendly and helpful.”
What has restored joy to their teaching is not just their supervisors and colleagues but the kids as well. “My favorite thing about my kindergarten class,” said Ford, “is the diversity. It’s especially great to see them learn that color of skin or ethnicity doesn’t really matter. They all learn to get along.”
“I’m energized by the diversity here,” Kern added. The students here have more personality than where I was. There they were like ‘little adults.’ Here they’re fun and willing to learn.”
Jasinski looked at the students at Field Stevenson from the perspective of a social worker. “When I heard how tiny the school is I said ‘oh my gosh.’ I thought there would be a lot of issues between students, because there are so few of them, but it’s just the opposite. There are still issues between kids, but I see that kids tend to care about each other, but because the school system is small they get close to each other and care about each other. They know about each other’s family life and many have grown up together.”
How the children relate to each other might be partly the result of living in a small community, but it is also the result of an intentional focus on teaching social skills by the teachers and administrators. Jasinski, for example, goes into all the classrooms from time to time and teaches a curriculum called Second Step.
The Second Step website describes the curriculum as a “program designed to teach children how to understand and manage their emotions, control their reactions, be aware of others’ feelings, and have the skills to problem-solve and make responsible decisions.”
Jasinski said the Second Step tools are especially useful in a classroom with a lot of diversity. “There are lessons,” she said, “talking about accepting differences and understanding different perspectives, about agreeing to disagree and how to interact with kids who are different than you are. You don’t have to be best friends with persons you don’t agree with, but you still have to be respectful and kind to them.”
Kern talked about how her special ed children are inquisitive about their teachers’ backgrounds and cultures. “We learn about what the word ‘culture’ means and how people have different traditions and celebrations.”
Ford added, “At this time of year we talk about celebrating one another and how different cultures celebrate the holidays. It’s really important that even at a young age you do point out that people are different and how can we all celebrate one another.”
The three educators ended the interview by all saying pretty much the same thing. “This has been an awesome place to begin my career,” said Jasinski. “That all three of us come in with such positive vibes about the district says that we’re doing something well and that we’re all happy.”
“I was losing myself in my previous positions,” said Kern. “I came here and I remembered everything about why I wanted to be a teacher.”
Ford said that the thought of leaving D91 right now “terrifies” her even though she’s making less money than before. “Why would I ever leave here when I love coming to work every day?”