Kids these days, I tell ya

Rude Chicago Students

Chicago Sun-Times — February 11, 2001


One new Chicago high school teacher, a native of the Middle East, was astonished when she discovered that her students had put blue chewing gum on her chair and stuck funny signs on her back.

Another teacher, born in Hungary, couldn't believe it when she called a high school student to the blackboard and he insisted that his "tutor" – another student – accompany him.

The teachers are part of the Chicago public schools' latest answer to an escalating shortage of teachers.  The Chicago schools posted recruitment notices on the Internet, and 1,300 men and women from 21 countries responded.

"We had no idea what we have to face," said Liza Koves, a teacher from Hungary.

The teachers say they are stunned by the American students and their talking, tardiness, absenteeism, laziness, vanity, foul language, apathy and general disrespect for them.

Of the 43 teachers enrolled last summer in Chicago's new Global Educators Outreach program, seven already have left.

Many come from countries where teachers are accorded great respect and obedience – and sometimes even bowed to at the beginning of class.

In Nepal, "when we walk into a class, all the students stand up and greet the teacher," explained Nepal native Anil Rimal.  "Here, it's exactly the opposite.  We have to stand at the door and greet the students."

A teacher from Hungary was amazed when a girl stood up in the middle of a lesson and plopped herself on a boy's lap.  A third can't understand how some students can be so sassy.

"There is very little regard for superiors or rank," said a teacher from Kenya.  "I find it wrong that a student is talking back to someone who is older.  It's not something that I can get used to."

Florence Onubogu, a Nigerian who has taught in Austria, said she was astounded that some American students seem satisfied with a D or a C, when if they worked harder they could earn an A.  But the same kids seem consumed by their appearance – and have the nerve to make fun of hers.

One student chided Onubogu for not having her hair done;  another poked fun at her utilitarian shoes.  Meanwhile, Onubogu, mother of an 11-year-old, is struggling to make ends meet on a starting teacher's salary by eating boiled rice and vegetables for dinner and buying 79-cent bags of lettuce for lunch.

Not every student is fresh, apathetic or problematic, but those who are have made a deep impression on these foreigners.  "I think it's the culture," said Onubogu, who teaches German and French at Lindblom College Prep, a selective-enrollment high school.

The Global program, one of six alternative teacher certification programs used by the Chicago Public Schools, is one way U.S. schools are trying to lure teachers.  The nation will need 2.2 million more teachers in the next decade, experts estimate.  In Chicago at the midpoint of this school year, 500 teaching spots were unfilled.

The first crop of Global teachers received six weeks of training while observing seasoned teachers last summer.  Then they were assigned full responsibility for up to five classrooms each this past fall under the part-time guidance of two mentor teachers.  The teachers also must attend two years of classes at DePaul University to prepare them for an Illinois teaching certificate.

The biggest payoff for the teachers will come after five years, when the school system will sponsor them for permanent residency, said Armando Almendarez, who oversees the Global program.  Their current visas restrict them to working in Chicago public schools, but with permanent residency, they can work anywhere.

Chicago is hoping the lure of permanent residency will make its outlay of nearly $10,000 per Global teacher (in addition to salaries in most cases of at least $33,200) a good investment.  But one teacher already has been dropped from the program, and six others have left on their own, Almendarez said.  Among those who bolted was a teacher who went to New York for a three-day weekend after five weeks of teaching and "never came back," said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul's Center for Urban Education and a teacher of Global teachers.

Most of the Global teachers are assigned to high schools.  Many taught in their native countries, but five did not and were hired instead for their advanced degrees and expertise in certain subjects.  A third of the Global teachers, including three with no teaching experience in their homelands, are teaching in some of the city's lowest-scoring schools.

But even at one of Chicago's top-scoring schools, Walter Payton College Prep, Global teacher Wenya Lu says she must cope with a far different classroom culture than in her native China or in Japan, the two countries where she taught previously.

Lu begins her Japanese class at Payton Prep just as she would in Japan.  She bows to the students, and they bow to her and wish her good morning in Japanese – and they seem to enjoy it.  But from that point on, things are different.

"Teachers in China are definite authorities.  [Students] have to respect them.  They can't speak rude language to them," Lu said after class one day last month.  "In China, I can handle 50 students, no problem.  Japanese students are even easier to teach.  They are very, very obedient."

At Payton Prep, she said, "It's very challenging for me.  Here, I have to spend time on discipline."

During one class, a student in the front row sat with his back to Lu, chatting with his friends.  Three boys in the back row talked among themselves while Lu used board work, work sheets and even songs to win her students' attention.  And yet, some of the students later praised Lu.  Freshman Sade'Amanda Santiago said Lu is her "favorite teacher."

Radner said one female Global teacher was threatened by a student after she called security because the student had twice thrown a tardy slip at her.

Part of the problem, Radner said, may be that teachers are "defaulting" to techniques common in their home countries, where teachers lecture and students quietly take notes.  That won't fly here, she said.

And then there is language barrier.  American slang, to say the least, can be puzzling.

"I believe if I'm spending 100 years here, I would never understand it," said Global teacher Yousef Hannon of Palestine.  "I say, `Hey, what's going on,' and a student answers you with something that you don't understand and the whole class is laughing.  It's an insult, but you don't understand.  I can do nothing."

Critics question whether the Global program will last.  Studies show that shortcut alternative certification programs have twice the teacher dropout rates as traditional programs and produce "much lower achievement for kids," said Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

"It's the Chicago version of "Survivor" – take them from Third World countries and drop them in a Chicago classroom," said Anthony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.  "Even the very best people are going to fail... and every time one of those people fail, 30 kids fail."

However, Almendarez said the program is already being tweaked for its second crop of recruits.  More training in classroom management is planned, and six weeks of training will be followed by six weeks of team-teaching before most teachers go solo.

The complaints from Global teachers are blunt.  "If there was not radiation in my country, I would never be here," said Sanja Pantic of Yugoslavia.

But there are also teachers who savor every small victory.

Lu proudly recalls how students pushed in their chairs one day in response to a hint – not a request – that they do so.  Onubogu has convinced some of her African-American students that German can be of help to them.  And though the going is tough, Yovanny Cabarcas of Colombia, a Global teacher at Westinghouse High School, says he feels he is growing every day.

"I'm part of a new generation of America," said Cabarcas.  "What America can offer me is more than I can be offered in my country."


Try your hand at these classroom management situations

Consider these three classroom problems.  If you were the teacher, what would you do?  For advice, we turned to Carol Cummings, author of Winning Strategies for Classroom Management, and Julia Thompson, author of The Discipline Survival Kit for Secondary Teachers.

SITUATION:  A student sticks blue gum on the teacher's chair, which ruins her light-colored suit.

DON'TS:  "Don't lose your cool, because that's what students want," says Thompson.

POSSIBLE DOS:  "I might look out at the class and say, `I know you're testing me.  You want to see how I'm going to react, but I haven't the slightest idea.  Let me think about it, but in the meantime, let's get our books out,' " Cummings says.  "This says, `I'm going to do something but not right now.' "

Or, Thompson suggests, make a joke of it – "I'm in a sticky situation today" – and keep teaching.  "You're not going to figure out who did it.  I'd just try to figure out why this happened.  Am I leaving my classroom unattended?  How do children have access to my desk?  Why do they feel like they had to play this joke on me?"

If a teacher thinks "maybe they are trying to tell me something," Cummings suggests seeking feedback by asking students for an anonymous "ticket out the door," a note they hand the teacher as they leave the room listing "one thing that works" for them in class and "one thing the teacher can improve."

SITUATION:  Students talk excessively.

DON'TS:  If it's one student, don't strip him of dignity by asking him what you just said – a question he obviously can't answer, says Cummings.  And never raise your voice or punish the whole class for one or two students, says Thompson.

POSSIBLE DOS:  If this is a classwide problem, make sure your material is engaging and students are busy from the moment they hit your door, says Thompson.  Restructure your lesson.  Break it into pieces.  Vary how the students attack the pieces.  Build talking into the lesson by having students work in pairs.  If students enter class worked up, give them two minutes – timed on a kitchen timer – to talk and do a warm-up task, but warn them they must settle down afterward.  "Students think that's fair," Thompson says.

If talking is a problem with just one student, "physical presence" – merely standing near the student – sometimes works, Cummings says.  Or ask the student a question he can answer ("Help me out, Josh.  Is this projector clear enough?") to refocus him.  Or, Thompson says, call the student into the hall while the class is busy and ask, "What's going on?  Do you know you're causing a problem?  What can I do to help?"  If his behavior continues, call his home.

SITUATION:  A teacher orders a student to get a tardy slip from the office.  The student returns with the slip, flips it at the teacher, and it falls to the ground.  The teacher orders the student to pick up the slip, and the student flips it at the teacher a second time.  The teacher calls security.  The student threatens the teacher as he exits the classroom.

DON'TS:  Don't invite a power struggle by ordering the student to pick up a tardy slip in front of classmates, says Cummings.  De-escalate the situation.

POSSIBLE DOS:  The first time the student throws the slip on the floor, Cummings says, hand him an appointment slip and say "We'll talk about this later," or whisper that in his ear.  The other students will see that you are addressing the situation.  Thompson says she would pick up the slip, let the student settle down, then call him into the hall to discuss the incident while the class is busy.  If the student continues to be defiant, Thompson says, she would write him up, talk to his counselor and seek support for the student.


No courses required in class control

One of the biggest challenges facing teachers from foreign lands – and new teachers in general – is classroom management, but no course on that topic is required to be a teacher in Illinois.

Illinois is one of 16 states that does not mandate such a course for teacher certification, according to a survey by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

Carol Cummings, author of Winning Strategies for Classroom Management, said classroom management promotes student self-control by establishing rules and routines and delivering effective instruction.

Many colleges of education contend that it's better to weave management techniques into other teacher education courses.  But Cheryl Kish, assistant chair of the Department of Education at Northern Illinois University, doesn't buy it.  "Every teacher I ever worked with or taught... they've always wanted more classroom management," Kish said.  "That is the No. 1 problem."

Rosalind Rossi