Guiding students as they learn to teach

Eleni Katsarou

Many UIC student teachers are hired by the schools where they train, says Eleni Katsarou, clinical professor and director of elementary education in curriculum and instruction.

Under Eleni Katsarou’s guidance, UIC student teachers spend more than 1,000 hours in elementary school classrooms.

“That’s at least double if not triple what other colleges require,” said Katsarou, director of elementary education in the College of Education.

There are 50 juniors and 50 seniors in 15 schools.

Students spend one semester in a school with a majority of Latino students and another semester with a primarily black student population.

“They learn about the experiences of kids, families and communities with people we trust academically, socially and emotionally,” Katsarou said.

“None are placed in a program where it’s sink or swim.”

Junior teacher candidates spend mornings in their school classroom and afternoons in the same school with visiting UIC professors.

“The idea is that professors step into the classroom and see what teacher candidates are seeing,” Katsarou said.

Many of the school educators working with UIC student teachers are graduates of the program themselves.

“They are selected by having observed them — it’s not a random process,” she said. “And it’s intergenerational; former students are current mentors.”

One teacher who graduated in 2000 has been mentoring for 10 years.

“That’s pretty fantastic,” Katsarou said.

After graduation, many of the UIC student teachers are hired by the schools where they were assigned.

“South Loop, Shields, Spencer, Talman, South Shore and Orozco [elementary schools] — they all look to hire from our senior teacher candidates,” Katsarou said.

“Shields in the last 10 years has had over 20 of my students. Spencer in the last five years hired eight.

“It speaks volumes about how principals value our program that they look to us to hire their new teachers.”

Waxing philosophical, Katsarou went on, “For me, the beauty of this work is that the program is grounded in strong university instruction coupled with a really strong relationship with the schools, with results that are envious.

“We get effective, ethical, caring teachers.”

The process builds upon itself, she said.

“It loops back to us — we have mentors for a new wave of teachers,” she said. “I feel like we are doing what we should be doing.

“I’m particularly proud of the fact we pay close attention to the schools we select, which are historically underserved.

“It’s the kind of work that needs to be done.”

Katsarou was born in Athens, Greece, coming to this country with her family when she was 13.

Her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. are all from UIC. She started working at the university in elementary education in 1992, and is in her fourth year as director.

She received a Silver Circle Teaching Excellence Award and a Best Practice Award for Professional Ethics and Moral Dispositions in Teacher Education from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Katsarou visits Greece at least once a year, seeing family and friends.

She enjoys flower gardening at her home in Ravenswood, and spends as much time as possible with her grandchildren, Leo Patton, 23 months old, and his sister Nellie, 5 months old.

Her daughter, Sofia, 32, is a third-grade teacher in Chicago. Her son, Andreas, 36, is a stylist and design marketing director in New York City.

Katsarou is no fan of the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close 53 elementary schools and one high school.

“None of them should be closed,” she said.

But aren’t they underused?

“That’s what they say,” Katsarou replied. “It’s code for something else. Charter schools are taking over, siphoning off funds for neighborhood public schools. When a charter opens simultaneously, families have no other options.

“Where are they going to go?”

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