Some of them are fresh out of college while others enjoyed careers in other fields before deciding to become teachers. Last week, they participated in a weeklong orientation session culminating in an afternoon ride on the Cherry Blossom, Alexandria’s iconic riverboat. The event was a cross between a social occasion and a workplace barbecue. The new teachers said they were eager for the school year to start next week, even if some admitted to a measure of uncertainty.
"I guess I’m anxious and excited at the same time," said Amber Grier, who will be a reading teacher at George Washington Middle School this year. "Ultimately I feel very excited because this will be my first year as a teacher."
Other teachers who are new to Alexandria are classroom veterans. Jerri Muhammad, for example, spent several years as a ninth-grade teacher in Tennessee before making the move to Virginia. A native of Memphis, Muhammad has nine years of teaching experience in other divisions. But after her husband got a job in Falls Church, she began looking at jurisdictions for teaching opportunities. She said that Alexandria got her attention because of its high standards.
"I really like the mission of this district," said Muhammad, who will teach eighth-grade science at George Washington Middle School. "I felt that it was in line with my paradigm."
As the first day of school nears, the teachers attended several orientation sessions, convocations and meet-and-greets. They listened to speeches from students, administrators and fellow teachers. During one session at George Washington Middle School, T.C. Williams student Austin Toner spoke about how one of his elementary school teachers changed his life. While waiting for the Cherry Blossom to depart last week, art teacher Francis Chase recalled that Toner was in his class at Maury Elementary School.
"It could have been me," said Chase, who moved from Maury to Jefferson-Houston School for School for Arts and Academics this year. "I though his speech was really interesting because it was a third-grade teacher who turned my life around."
After all the lectures had been delivered and the policies had been explained, some of the 121 new teachers felt a little overwhelmed. As with any new job, Alexandria’s new teachers must now subject themselves to new conditions and new demands. Over pulled-pork sandwiches on the Cherry Blossom, some explained that the week of orientation had been a little bewildering.
"It’s clear that the city has very high expectations," said Evan Sonoda, a 2000 graduate of T.C. Williams High School who will be teaching seventh-grade physical education at George Washington Middle School. "They’ve set the bar very high."
Teaching is a special calling, and the city’s newest teachers each have their own story about how they got involved in the classroom. Last year, the School Board voted for a $7 million proposal to raise the salaries of all Alexandria teachers. Administrators said that the plan was an effort to make the city more competitive with surrounding jurisdictions. Yet many of the teachers on the Cherry Blossom said that they would seek other professions if they wanted a bigger paycheck.
"I guess I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teacher," said Justin Redpath, who gave up a lucrative career working for a defense contractor to enter the classroom. "The thought of having to memorize the names of 120 kids is a little intimidating. But overall, I’m very excited about it."