Lynn Franey, Knight Ridder Wire Service
Published January 21 2004
It’s back-to-school time last August, and Katie Danahay frets over decorating her first classroom, creating a cozy reading nook, posting the alphabet above the blackboard.
She is so stressed she doesn’t catch a mistake in her first letter to the parents of her Kansas City School District first-graders. “I am following forward to spending the year with your children,” she wrote.
Who could blame a first-year teacher for letting worries, demands and preparations overwhelm them?
She is, after all, a college senior who has never done any student teaching, yet has been hired as an intern to run her own classroom for an entire school year.
Danahay is among 10 seniors beginning the district’s new Residential Internship Program.
District leaders hope the program will help attract fresh teachers to an urban district plagued in recent years by staff turnover, low test scores, poor public image and administrative and board upheaval.
It won’t be easy.
A first-year teacher’s job is extremely difficult even for those who have completed traditional student teaching, said Jean Bouas, the program’s director and an education professor at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.
The interns must make it through the school year and return next year or they will have to repay the tuition that the program has paid for them.
When Danahay, an upbeat, outgoing 23-year-old from Lincoln, Neb.,applied for the program, her parents did not understand why she would want such a challenge before she even graduated.
Danahay knew exactly why.
The Northwest Missouri State student had spent a few weeks helping at the district’s Garfield Elementary School.
“The kids just clung to you. Students in another class somewhere else would have been, `Uh, a teacher,’ ” she said, shrugging her shoulders to indicate their indifference. “You’re more needed here.”
She was hired to teach first grade at Franklin Elementary School, 3400 Highland Ave., near the intersection of Linwood Boulevard and Bruce R. Watkins Drive.
Danahay starts the year with 11 first-graders, far fewer than she was expecting.
She is happy that her pupils generally know the alphabet and can read basic words.
She filled the classroom’s reading nook before the school year started, building on Franklin’s strong literacy efforts. On Franklin’s front wall hangs a poster proclaiming: “READING. At the heart of our success.”
But challenges present themselves immediately.
By the third week, two new children have joined Danahay’s class.
When she asks one where he has been, he said, “I was at home.”
“Why?” Danahay asks.
“My mom just decided to enroll me,” he says.
Already, she will have to help him catch up to the rest of the class, setting a pattern that will repeat itself with other children joining and leaving the class during the school year.
On Halloween, Danahay’s class gets another new girl.
She attended Franklin as a kindergartner, but Danahay suspects she hasn’t attended any school at all in the last three months.
In early January, Danahay tests her pupils on addition.
The other children all score at least 80 percent. The new girl misses 40 out of 42.
Danahay’s mentor teacher tells her 80 percent is “mastery,” so the class must move on to subtraction.
There is no time for letting the other girl catch up.
Doing so would compromise the other pupils’ learning.
Even with the attendance problems, Danahay’s enthusiasm for her pupils does not wane.
She uses light sarcasm and a sense of humor to connect. During roll call, she sometimes asks the pupils to oink like pigs or make some other funny noise.
She also shows them she cares, lending her sweatshirt if a child forgets hers or tying a child’s shes.
She even brings an artificial putting green to class as an incentive for doing schoolwork correctly.
Before the children are allowed to putt, they have to spell a word correctly or add a sum or do some other task that Danahay assigns.
Life in Danahay’s classroom is not always fun and games. Getting pupils to return homework is a chore, and Danahay rarely has contact with parents outside of scheduled open houses and parent-teacher conferences.
Danahay made it to the end of the year, and June 3 she said goodbye to her first class.
Danahay feels good about her first year, but finds herself the last day still suffering some self-doubt.
She wonders whether she really taught the children everything she was supposed to.
After all, she decided to hold two children back, both of whom had far more absences than allowed.
She feels better after she finds the pupils’ early work and shows it to them.
They are shocked, they had written some of their numbers backward.
No way would they do that now, they said, smiling. Bouas commends Danahay for her work this year: “(She has) done exceptionally well,” she says.
A new group of interns, at least 10, will arrive next fall.
The district wants to continue this experiment that aims to help it overcome a chronic teacher shortage.
“I’m very positive about the way it worked out this first year,” said Cathy Dennis, the district’s coordinator of professional development. “The interns have grown tremendously, and they just jumped right in there and did the work.”
Danahay plans to be back at Franklin in August, probably teaching first grade again. She is happy for the year to be over.
When she thinks about whether she wants to teach in the district long-term, Danahay has mixed feelings.
“Some days, I say, `Of course,'” she says with a laugh. “Other days, no way.”.