Interview: John Idlas

Interview with John Idlas. April 30, 2015.

John Idlas with the after school cooking class at Kozminski.


EFH: John, thank you so much for being here with me. In addition to being part of the Neighborhood Schools Program, you’re also enrolled in the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) on campus. What makes you want to be a teacher?

JI: I believe that teaching is really a possibility for me to work towards the broader systemic change that I think needs to happen in this country. You see in the news all this talk of achievement gaps and these are things that simply don’t need to exist in society. You also have seen, since the Civil Rights era, a gradual increase in the segregation of schooling in the United States. And in a society that isn’t really, in my view, as meritocratic as the United States claims to be, I believe that teaching is a really good profession to go into, to have the kind of effect that I would like to have in my life and in my profession. That more than anything is why I want to be a teacher - the social justice aspect that I think can be included in the profession.

EFH: That’s awesome, I really admire that. Once you graduate and you’re teaching, is there a certain age or subject that you’re looking at?

JI: That’s something that I’ve gone back and forth on a little bit. In the past, I’ve worked primarily with first, second, and third graders, and kindergarteners occasionally as well. I still work with that age group and I really like the sense of wonder that kids in that age range bring with them to the classroom, still very enchanted with the world - that’s always very uplifting and very positive.

But as of late I’ve also been helping out in a middle school math class and it’s made me realize how much I actually enjoy mathematics myself. Algebra was something that I struggled with myself but have since gotten a pretty good grasp on, so being able to at least try to teach that effectively is something that I’ve found that I really enjoy. So I could see myself going either way at this point.

EFH: Through NSP, you’re working at Kozminski Community Academy. Can you tell me about that school?

JI: Yeah, absolutely. The kids there are great; I’ve really enjoyed meeting them all. I’ve met kids in all different grade levels. It’s a K-8 school, and it’s a neighborhood school in Hyde Park. I feel very attached to public schools myself and I hope to work in a neighborhood school in Chicago, so it’s been a good experience in that right as well. They have some wonderful afterschool programming, like afterschool academic help, a cooking class that I was a part of, afterschool tutoring that the middle school math teacher puts on, and a whole host of sporting activities and cheerleading that kids can be a part of. So really, a lot of wonderful things going on there.

EFH: And I know that you’ve been a big asset there—you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. What activities have you participated in?

JI: I’m essentially a teacher’s aide in a third grade classroom, where I do anything from making copies to helping her grade—Ms. Smith is the teacher’s name that I work with. So copying, grading, tutoring students, helping students with their addition and subtraction and higher order math skills, like fractions and things that are tricky to get right, things that can prove challenging. So I help out students there and also with reading and social studies. After school, I have done both an afterschool cooking class where I helped cook with the students. Chef Angela, the woman that I worked with, was wonderful and I learned a lot myself! And then also I’ve done a lot of tutoring in middle school math with Ms. Woody, the middle school math teacher, as well. Oh, and also the spelling bee! I was the judge for their spelling bee.

EFH: That sounds like a lot of fun. What’s been your proudest moment so far?

JI: One moment that sticks out to me is an instance where I was working with a student in the third grade class that I’m in, Ms. Smith’s class, and we were working on rounding. I was kind of struggling to work out the details of how to explain that if it’s bigger than five, you round up, and if it’s less than five, you round down - because five’s in the middle, so it gets a little confusing. I drew out a number line for it, and the student was really starting to get it and grasp the concepts. But he was still unsure—he was giving the answers to me and would say, “Oh! 67 rounds up to 70,” but he would look to me for that extra bit of encouragement.

So I knew that he understood the skills, but maybe just didn’t have the confidence. I had him write down his answers on a sheet of paper and I said, “Well, all right, you’re not gonna get any information from me. I just want you to write down the answer, then you’ll turn it around, I’ll look at it, and I’ll tell you if it’s right or wrong.” So he turns around the paper to me and I looked it down and I was like, “Oh my goodness, you got it exactly right without any of my help!” And he just got so excited, like did a little dance and everything! It was a lot of fun.

EFH: That’s awesome, good work on that one! And how has NSP complemented the M.A. program in teaching that you’re in?

JI: It has in a couple ways. We’ve learned a lot, for instance, about math methods in our tutoring course, so in the math tutoring that I do in the school, I use some of those concepts and ideas to really help aid students in learning their basic math facts. Then the students gradually and continually build on those basic facts to understand higher-order thinking about mathematics. I’ve been able to test out my abilities to teach those things in the classroom while tutoring which has been great. I get to practice little strategies that really I wish had been explicitly taught to me. It gives me practice to teach those as well.

Also at UTEP, as a part of our coursework, we visit many schools here in Chicago, ranging from neighborhood schools to charters to turnaround schools, just the whole gamut. But it’s always, a short visit that we’re there, and so we just get a snapshot into what’s going on at the school. Working at Kozminski has given me the opportunity to see a school in more depth, like what really goes on and what it means to teach in a neighborhood public school, which is what I hope to go on to do myself. I would say in that regard it’s been a wonderful opportunity for me.

EFH: And then can we expect to see you working in a neighborhood school in Chicago after you graduate?

JI: Absolutely! I feel very strongly about public education. I believe public education is a human right. You see in the research that a really important aspect of schools and the school environment is having teachers that are consistently in the same school. They become like an anchor for the students there, adding a degree of continuity or familiarity to the school. Unfortunately what you see in a lot of urban schools is that the turnover rate is just enormous, right, something like 50 percent of teachers are gone after a five-year period. I certainly intend to teach in Chicago for at least that five years, and hopefully further into the future. 

John Idlas is a first year graduate student in the Urban Teacher Education Program. He has been working at Kozminski Community Academy since November 2014. He is also a 2014-2015 recipient of the Above and Beyond Award for Outstanding Service for his work at Kozminski. 

Emily Fortune Hancock is the operations manager at the Neighborhood Schools Program.