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A Profession in Demand: The Story of a New Teacher’s First Day

September 7, 1996

BALTIMORE (AP) _ A nervous Tracy-ann Suleiman pulled a blackboard eraser from her plastic bag of school supplies, scratched off the price tag, picked up an equally new piece of chalk and wrote:

``Teacher: Mrs. Suleiman. Objective: To introduce American Government.″

It was the first day of school at Baltimore’s Walbrook High. It also was Mrs. Suleiman’s first day before a class, one of more than 64,400 first-time teachers in the nation’s public schools this year.

They give testimony to a profession with a robust demand for new blood: The Education Department estimates that 190,000 additional teachers will be needed by 2006.

Mrs. Suleiman thought about becoming a teacher for five years. Now, as thought became reality, 14 sets of eyes stared at her, tracking her every move around the room.

Her career began with little fanfare.

``Is everybody in the right place?″ she asked, as the high schoolers fidgeted. ``My name is Mrs. Suleiman. I’m going to be working with you over the course of this semester on American government.″

She didn’t tell them it was her first day of teaching.

``That would be a death trap,″ she said later.

There was no grace period. Only minutes after she called the roll, her charges began trying her patience. A tardy student knocked on the door, the first of dozens of interruptions she was to endure.

``What’s your name?″ she asked before letting the boy in. Convinced he was in the right place, she got down to business:

``OK. Let’s go over the course description.″ Try to keep the class focused _ and your nerves calmed. ``The primary goal of this course is to examine the structure and functions of the national, state and local governments of the United States of America ...″

She went on to tell them about Maryland’s Functional Test in Citizenship, required of all 10th graders, and how she wanted them to think about how the U.S. government influences their lives _ as young, black teen-agers living in the city.

``When I look around the classroom, everybody here is either a black person, an African-American, Afro-American _ whatever category you call yourselves. What is it now?″ she asked.

``Black,″ one student said.

Another, obviously trying to rile his teacher, piped up with an ethnic slur.

If Mrs. Suleiman was rattled, she didn’t show it. She approached the boy, put her hand on her hip and asked his name. When he wouldn’t answer, she said: ``Well, I’ll learn your name. Please don’t use that word in my classroom, all right? Thank you.″

She straightened her wire-frame glasses, then returned to teaching.

In an interview, Mrs. Suleiman mused on her reasons for teaching. ``I think I always was supposed to be a teacher,″ she said. ``My mother was a teacher. I think I’ve been always going in that direction.″

Mrs. Suleiman, 24, grew up in Jamaica, daughter of an elementary school teacher and a police officer, and has lived in the United States since she was 13. After taking her master’s in African and African-American studies, she met her husband while in Africa for six weeks on a Temple University doctoral program. Returning last fall to the Philadelphia college, she decided she had been too long on college campuses.

``I had been debating whether I should teach at the graduate or high school level _ grassroots or ivory tower,″ she said. Swayed by the belief that she could have a stronger impact in public schools, she came to Baltimore under a program that allows prospective teachers to earn education credits on the job.

``I’m ready. Scared, but ready,″ she said the night before her first day, as she typed her lesson plan. ``I just want to make a good impression on my students.″

Early reviews from students were favorable.

``She’s a calm teacher,″ said James Banks. John Cook said he thought she was ``cool″ but cautioned: ``It’s the first day, though.″ Said Tracie Reaves: ``She makes you want to be involved in the conversation.″

The students might have thought she was calm, but Mrs. Suleiman said sweat beaded on her brow during second period. Between classes, she nervously straightened all the desks in precise rows.

After the students in her last class filed out, Mrs. Suleiman raised her fists in the air: ``Yes. Yes. Yes, I made it, and yes, they’re gone. It’s 2:35 p.m., and I made it through the day.″

She straightened the desks again, picked up a gum wrapper and erased the board. One school day was over _ 179 to go.

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