By Terry Dean
Megan Rigali thought she was well prepared to start her first day as a new kindergarten teacher at Holmes Elementary School.
She had a few weeks to prepare before school officially started last August and had previously taught pre-school in the Lyons elementary school district. But like all first-year teachers, she couldn't anticipate everything — such as having to teach in front of 19 parents in addition to her students.
Parents sitting in is not uncommon in District 97 on the first day of kindergarten. Rigali was aware of that and prepared for it, but actually standing in front of such an audience was another thing altogether.
"I planned for it, but teaching in front of 19 parents and 19 kids was kind of nerve-wracking," she said with a laugh.
It's just one example of the growing pains that first-time teachers face. D97 typically hires its teachers in the spring, but sometimes it happens around the start of the school year. The full-day kindergarten program is in its fourth year and enrollment has steadily increased since. Holmes School, 508 N. Kenilworth, had four kindergarten teachers, including Rigali, before adding a fifth classroom in late September 2012.
Rigali, who grew up in River Forest and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School, experienced another growing pain that first week.
"I spent so much time preparing for that first day and making sure that everything went well. After the first day I thought, what now? I realized I had the rest of the year to plan for."
Stephanie Small had a similar experience as a first-year gifted and talented teacher at Whittier School, 715 N. Harvey. She works with about 60 kids in small pull-out groups. Her job also involves analyzing data.
"There's a lot of data to review. That I underestimated," she said.
Small, a native of Atlanta, was a student-teacher at Holmes. Her mother and other female family members were also teachers but Small wanted to do something different.
She worked in the tourism industry four years ago but lost her job due to the economic downturn. Small, who has master's and bachelor's degrees in art history, ended up taking a part-time art teaching job in Chicago.
"I've held jobs before, but this was the first job I really looked forward to going to every day. It was challenging and satisfying," she said.
Small went back to school to get her teaching degree. She was also a teaching assistant for middle-school students at Northwestern University's gifted and talented program. She still loves art and occasionally uses it to instruct her current students.
Rigali is the only teacher in her family but says she always wanted to be one, something she knew at an early age.
"I wanted to work with kids and always enjoyed younger kids," she said. "I like seeing that growth in them. It's amazing to watch. I love that aspect of it."
With the additional kindergarten teacher hired last fall, Rigali says her classroom enrollment dropped to 16. She says a lot has changed for kindergartners since she was a kid. There's much more emphasis on academics though students still engage in "play" activities, Rigali explained. D97 kids, for instance, are using iPads, she said.
Rigali and Small, as well as other first-time teachers in D97, receive ongoing mentoring from veteran instructors throughout the school year. Both say that help is invaluable.
"It's a way to share ideas with one another," Rigali said.
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