Camelot Teacher Profile: Christine Smith
Christine Smith is in her first year at Camelot, teaching social studies (U.S. and World History and Civics) to 16 and 17 year olds at Excel Academy of Englewood.
Christine earned a degree in history and vocal performance from Loyola University in Chicago before moving on to graduate studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she received her master’s degree in secondary education. She then taught for one year at a Detroit public high school before coming back to Chicago.
So, it’s your first year and it’s the school’s first year. How is it going?
It’s going extremely well. We’re in a building that was traditionally an elementary school but it’s been converted to a high school building. Considering that the building was not at all prepared prior to this summer the amount that we have accomplished in a very short amount of time is very impressive. We installed all new white boards and all of the proper equipment necessary in order to have a regular looking classroom. We came into the building about two weeks before the start of the school year. You come in and visit and look at how we function like any other high school would. We hit the ground running and I think we’ve made a lot of great strides.
How are students taking to the new school?
The school has a good support system, lots of very eager learners. Some require a little more support and motivational tactics. They may not realize they want to succeed in school until it’s made into more of a reward system for doing well.
Can you give an example of how this motivation looks?
One of the things we do an Excel, that I really like, is our weekly ratings. Students are rated on three separate categories; academics; behavior and attendance. Once students are rated positive for three consecutive weeks they are well on their way to becoming part of student government. I’ve never worked in a school system where student government is open to all students. Student government in the traditional sense has always been for students who run to become part of student council amongst their peers. I really like the idea of it because once you become a pledge or part of student government you’re able to participate in activities you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, such as school trips and dress-down days and catered lunch on Fridays, all sorts of little rewards that incentivize good, positive behavior.
Are all students aware of each other’s ratings?
Yes, teachers meet on Wednesday evenings and the ratings are posted on Thursday mornings. It’s interesting to see students coming in on Thursday morning and trying to ask all their teachers what their rating is and trying to figure out who rated who what. Lots of students care a lot about it, which is very good.
What are you observing about your students’ progress?
Students are showing a more intrinsic desire to learn and know, and not always necessarily history-related. A lot of history is very fact-driven but I see students becoming more eager to practice their skills. There’s a lot of emphasis on an ability to recognize cause-and-effect relationships and to try and make predictions, taking what you know and I think that is something my students have improved upon a ton over the past two months.
Your students are at a Camelot accelerated school because they had dropped out or fallen way behind. How do you help those types of students find success?
Some students may have dropped out for reasons completely unrelated to an inability to do the work. Whatever their situation might be, a lot of the students that come now are in the mentality to do what they need to do and get their diploma and set out for something better. I think the fact that it is sort of a second chance for so many of them really strikes a chord with them and they realize that this is crunch time and they have to come and do what they need to do. Otherwise, they’re not left with very many alternatives. I think that’s a huge motivational factor for many of these students. But in general I am surprised at some of them in the amount that they want to succeed and want to know the material. Most of my students come prepared to learn this time and to get to the next level.
There has to be more to it than that, right?
The strategic structure that the Camelot model provides is something that most of these students have not been exposed to in their past school experience. So just simple things that we do here that they do not do in a traditional school help students keep their minds on what is important and why they are here. In other high schools you can get bogged down by social elements and here it is much more difficult to let those distractions get the best of you because it is so structured and it is so norms-driven. It’s all about trying to embody those behaviors and model them and have students pick and up and follow along with you.
You have now taught at a traditional high school and at this Excel model. What’s the biggest difference?
For the population that we serve, there are a lot of situations in a traditional high school for students to slip between the cracks and go unnoticed when they start to slip up. But here at Camelot that is absolutely not an option. If you start to lack on your grades and you start to show that you’re not doing what you need to do there’s going to be a confrontation about it, not just from your teachers but from behavior specialists and your peers. So you have more support in this environment than you would in a traditional high school and you have more people looking out to ensure that you stay on top of what you need to do.
On a personal level, how are you feeling about your experience at Excel so far?
Teaching is never easy. It doesn’t matter where you do it or what level you teach, it’s never going to be an easy job. But for where I’m teaching and the material I’m trying to teach and the students I’m teaching it to, I couldn’t ask for a better situation at this point in time. I’m continually finding the motivation to do this from my students. They are my whole inspiration for doing this kind of work. If it’s not for them it’s not for anybody.