Their Number One Fan
It is 1:54 p.m., and Ari Chenlo sits in the front of the classroom with her students sitting cross-legged on the floor around her.
She reads Eve Bunting’s “How Many Days to America” to her students. The story is about a family immigrating to the U.S. and having to leave their home because a war was going on.
Henry’s brow is furrowed and he bites his lip. His hand shoots in the air.
“But Miss Chenlo, those people didn’t choose to be born into a place where there was war; why do they deserve that?”
Before Chenlo has the chance to answer, five more hands shoot in the air.
“How come some countries have more money than others?”
“If they leave their home, won’t they miss their families?”
What was meant to be a 20-minute read aloud turned into an hour-long discussion about immigration. There is not a student in the room who is not captivated by the discussion. There are no side conversations. No one is wandering around the classroom. No one asked to go to the bathroom. Henry is so excited that he can’t seem to sit still.
Chenlo’s mom will tell you she always wanted to be a teacher.
But it wasn’t until the summer after her freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill that Chenlo was sure it was what she wanted to do.
It was the summer of 2013 and Gov. Pat McCrory had just cut almost $500,000 from the education budget. This resulted in 9,000 teaching positions being cut across the state.
“I realized how mad I was, and I was like OK I need to do something about this, I can’t just sit back and watch this happen.”
She definitely didn’t sit back. On May 8, 2016, Chenlo graduated from the UNC-CH School of Education, at 22 years old, and was excited to set foot in her new fifth grade classroom at New Hope Elementary in Chapel Hill.
Situated just 10 minutes from UNC-CH, New Hope Elementary is classified as a Title I school. At least 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, said New Hope Principal Ambra Wilson.
According to the Orange County Schools’ website, New Hope Elementary is one of four schools in the county that is classified as a Title I school.
Title I schools receive extra funding to help service the students who are at risk. The funds are used to operate different “schoolwide programs” to elevate the instruction and support programs for the entire school. Wilson said a portion of their school’s funding goes into parent education programs.
“A lot of our kids come from tough situations, but that isn’t an excuse for them at school,” said WIlson. “We see it as an opportunity to creatively find ways to better support them.”
Chenlo tries to keep in mind that her students are 11-year-olds, and tries her best to eliminate as many outside influences as she can that they may be dealing with at home.
Chenlo keeps a cabinet in her room with snacks for the students.
“No one can focus if they’re hungry,” she said. “Being a teacher – You’re not just teaching. You are their counselor. Sometimes their mom, sometimes their nurse, but always their number one fan,” Chenlo said.
It is 1998, and Chenlo is 5 years old. She stands on her back porch in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and faces her cousins Keila and Natalia as she teaches them math on a old chalk board. She stares down at Keila and taps her foot until Keila stops fidgeting.
This would happen often as Chenlo grew up.
Born in Ecuador, Chenlo moved to Argentina when she was 2. Though Chenlo’s family moved to the U.S. when she was eight, many of Chenlo’s most formative years were spent in Argentina. She said she feels it is a huge part of her identity, as the majority of her family still lives in South America.
“My students love hearing about Argentina,” she said. “Right now we’re working on a weather unit, and I was telling them about how growing up, we would have pool parties for my December birthday, because the seasons are opposite. That’s hard for them to grasp sometimes.”
New Hope’s student population is about 50 percent Spanish-speaking, and Chenlo cannot emphasize enough how much her fluency in the language helps her both in the classroom and out.
Chenlo translates all newsletters and forms that are sent home into Spanish. She also acts as a translator during grade level meetings. The parents of her Spanish-speaking students desperately want to be involved and want to know what is going on with their student, and she seeks to eliminate any language barriers that will hold them back.
Though the school does have a translator that Chenlo describes as “incredible,” Chenlo tries to do as much of her translating as she can on her own, to lessen the workload on the already overwhelmed translator.
“If any of the other teachers need to send a quick note home during the day, I am able to translate for them and help increase teacher-parent communication, which is vital,” Chenlo said.
It’s 1:20 p.m., and it’s time for science. Chenlo sits on the floor at the front of the room with a group of students. The lesson is a review on conduction, evaporation, convection and radiation. Chenlo uses hand motions to explain the different terms and the students mimic the motions. They are giggling and engaged, watching Chenlo intently.
“I have a really great group of students who just really want to learn,” Chenlo said.
Other students are sitting at their seats on laptops reading articles about weather.
One student, Thomas, aimlessly wanders around the classroom.
As Chenlo is excitedly speaking to the group of students at the front of the room, her eyes shift from Thomas to the students at their seats and finally to the clock. As Chenlo stands up to get the pot of water she was heating up to demonstrate evaporation, she taps Thomas on the shoulder and whispers to him to get back on track.
“Choosing to teach is a massive commitment. A commitment to doing your best, never having a off day, never giving up, and never being able to turn off,” former teacher Amanda Moss said. Moss was an elementary teacher in Wake County for four years and loved working with children. However, Moss left the profession due to all the stress involved in 2015 and now works in professional development at a consulting firm.
The most difficult part of it all, Chenlo says, is feeling like she is not able to support her 23 different learners as much as she wishes she could.
In her classroom, Chenlo has a cluster of English Language Learners (ELL) students, a cluster of Exceptional Children (EC), and a cluster of Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) students.
Differentiated instruction is tailored instruction to meet the individual needs of each student and is a constant challenge for teachers of any experience level.
“That’s honestly the hardest part of teaching elementary, is you have 23 kids who are at totally different levels, and you have to support each and every one of them and their individual needs,” Chenlo said. “I have kids who are in fifth grade but are in a first grade reading level, as well as kids who are reading on a seventh grade reading level, and I need to support all these students.”
New Hope Elementary understands the challenges that first-year teachers face and does its best to provide as many resources as they can to support their new teachers.
“I think what makes New Hope different is we truly invest in the person, not only as a teacher, but also as an individual,” Wilson said.
New Hope has a specific beginning teacher program that works in conjunction with Orange County’s program. Beginning teachers are paired with a mentor teacher who supports them with planning and offers them advice. The school has a literacy interventionist, as well as a math interventionist, a digital learning coach and a media specialist all there to offer support to beginning teachers.
“You are not here by yourself, you are here with your PLC [Professional Learning Community]. We want to provide you with everything possible to be successful,” Principal Wilson said.
“When I interviewed at New Hope, I knew that this was a neat place to be,” said Wilson. “The culture here is very inclusive; we have a lot of diversity and I think that’s pretty awesome because everyone can feel welcome and a part of something here. We’re a family.”
When you walk into Chenlo’s classroom, the first thing you see, to the right of the door, is a handmade sign, that says “be kind.”
The tone Chenlo uses with her students is firm, and she speaks to them as if they are adults. She gives her students this level of respect, and they in turn give back to her and each other.
“I love seeing them work together. When they collaborate in teams, just the way they speak to each other is just so kind and encouraging,” Chenlo said. “The concern they have for other people outside their families, peers and even people across the world, people that they’ve never met and never seen is incredible like the immigrants in ‘How Many Days Until America?’,”
The unrelenting kindness that Chenlo shows so effortlessly to her students is even more impressive when you listen to her schedule. Chenlo leaves her house in Durham every morning by 6:30 a.m. and often doesn’t return home until 5 p.m. or 7 p.m.
Chenlo is teaching nonstop from the moment she walks in through the door, except for the 40-minute break she gets each day when her students go to specials. Chenlo explains that between taking a quick bathroom break and doing things like making copies of forms, this break can never really be used for working on lesson plans or things that will benefit her students.
This requires her, as the majority of educators do, to bring her school bag home and work late into the evening and night on her lessons.
“No one tells you really how to balance your first year of teaching with your life. Everyone tells you to do it, but no one really tells you how,” said Anneke Oppewal, second-year teacher at Gravelly Hill Middle school.
When asked about this work-life balance. Chenlo laughed.
“I don’t have a work-life balance,” she explained. “I work until late at school, spend my time outside of school planning, calling parents, attending my students’ extracurriculars and things like that.”
According to The Guardian, around 73 percent of beginning teachers have considered leaving the profession, and around 76 percent cited the workload as the primary reason.
This is what being a public school teacher is like. Chenlo always has to be on. Chenlo always has to be thinking. Chenlo is responsible for the future of 23 humans for seven hours each day.
“Teaching is not a profession for the weary,” said Moss.
A few doors down from Chenlo’s classroom is another fifth grade classroom. On Aug. 29, when the all of New Hope’s fifth graders walked into their classrooms, the students in this class were not greeted by their new teacher but a long-term substitute. Due to the teacher shortage in North Carolina, the school system had not been able to find a teacher to fill that position on the first day of school.
“I think them not having a consistent teacher means that they don’t have someone that is investing in learning their needs as a child,” said Chenlo.
Substitute teachers are not required to have any teaching license, and in the Orange County School District where New Hope is located, the minimum education requirement for substitute teachers is to have a high school diploma.
Substitute teachers are paid hourly, leaving them no incentive to prepare outside school hours, and they have little time to prep during the school day. Thus, leaving the students in these classrooms with a lesser quality instruction, or in some cases, leaving the other teachers in the grade level to supplement this class and try and support these students.
“If a student has problems going on at home it’s harder for those teachers to figure out what those needs are, and how to help them,” said Chenlo. “Do they need help organizing their desk? Maybe they need to go to bed earlier, or need an extra snack, or help making friends or even just a positive adult role model.”
Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is isolated to New Hope Elementary.
In neighboring Johnston County Schools, there were 48 vacancies, and in the Durham Public School System, there were over 50 on the first day of school, Chenlo said.
And unfortunately, things don’t seem to be looking up. According to The (Raleigh) News & Observer, enrollment in the 15 schools of education in the public university system has dropped by 30 percent since 2010.
But for Chenlo, this is all the more reason to teach.
“The reason people are saying you shouldn’t be a teacher is exactly why I want to be a teacher,” she said. “Students always deserve a quality education and I’m willing to be super stressed out and busy and devote my life in a sense to this to make sure they get that.”
It’s 10:06 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Henry can’t stay in his seat.
As Miss Chenlo flips through her flashcards, the tension in the room can be felt. Twenty-three pairs of eyes are glued on her.
“Six times seven,” Miss Chenlo says.
A dozen hands shoot in the air.
Henry’s is the highest and pulls his whole 10-year-old body up with it.
His face is serious and determined.
“42,” Henry says.