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A new Grand Island teacher worked hard to land her job

It took degrees, two student teaching gigs and two years of substitute teaching for Paige Rockwood to land her first teaching job.

Rockwood, 23, grew up on Grand Island and attended schools in the district where she will co-teach with Casey Steck-Comeau, an 18-year-teaching veteran, at William Kaegebein Elementary School.

She rose to the top during a hiring process that spanned several months and included close to 100 applicants. The one-year position – on the books as a .4 special education teacher and .6 teacher assistant – will pay about 75 percent of a full-time teacher salary.

Rockwell couldn’t be more thankful at this point in her career.

"When I was going to college at Niagara University, everybody told me, 'Don't go for teaching, there's no jobs,'" she said. "I've wanted to be a teacher since I was in kindergarten. Why would I change my major when I wouldn't be happy?"

The future looks brighter for Rockwell and others on a similar trail. The average age of a teacher in New York State is 48, and more than 50,000 public schoolteachers are over 55, according to the State Teachers’ Retirement System. Leaders in the system project that more than one-third of its nearly 270,000 active members could be eligible to retire within five years.

Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers union reports that enrollment in teacher education programs fell nearly 50 percent – from 79,000 students to 40,000 – between 2009 to 2015, and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher predicts the state will need 180,000 new teachers in the next decade.

That may be then. This is now, the start of a new school year.

Rockwell and Steck-Comeau set up their classroom this week, which includes a sign that reads, "Success is hanging on after others let go." The co-teachers will serve 20 students, including three with special needs.

Q. For parents and grandparents who maybe didn't have an inclusive classroom, what is the climate like?

Steck-Comeau: Very accepting. Because Paige and I are viewed as equals, we support all the kids in all their different learning styles. If somebody needs extra time to do an assignment, we'll do that for anyone. If they need to review a skill that's a challenge for them, we'll pull them to the side and do that, too, regardless of whether they have IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) paperwork or not.

Q. What will the students learn this year?

"I've got an extra set of hands, another person with some new ideas," Casey Steck-Comeau says of Paige Rockwood while the two set up their class this week. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Steck-Comeau: We follow the Common Core learning standards. In science, we'll study geology, space and the constellations. In social studies, we'll study the Western Hemisphere, so we'll look at North America, South America, at different countries and how people live based on the physical features around them. We'll study economics. We'll do fiction reading, nonfiction reading, poetry. We'll try to connect the pieces to what we're learning in science and social studies. We have the Classic Chrome tablets in here and kids can do a lot more utilizing the internet, different videos and different apps. It makes it so much more fun.

Rockwood: Our ability to use Chrome Books will be really beneficial as well. It's like a laptap and it also has touch screen technology. It gets you out of that standard paper-pencil teaching. We're going to be using Google Classroom a lot. That's a way students can complete homework assignments and submit different projects and do some research on computer.

Q. Is this arrangement a good way for a teacher to start a first teaching job?

Rockwood: Absolutely. I obviously don't have a lot of experience starting out the school year, having open houses and meeting with parents, so being able to collaborate with Casey is really helpful.

Q. How else is it helpful?

Steck-Comeau: I've got an extra set of hands, another person with some new ideas. Having Paige coming in with fresh eyes helps me to see how I can make myself better.

Q. How hard is it to find a teaching job in Western New York?

Steck-Comeau: It's harder in Western New York because you have so many colleges that have education as a major. A lot of these teacher graduates want to stay here at home, so you're kind of flooded here with potential teachers, but across the state can be a different story, particularly in some of the more rural areas.

Q. When did you start looking for a teaching job? 

Paige Rockwood was a student teacher in two schools and started looking for substitute teaching jobs after graduating with her bachelor's degree from Niagara University. She subbed while pursuing her master's at Niagara. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Rockwood: I started seriously looking in the last year of by master’s program (she graduated this year from Niagara University). Before that, I was interested in getting my subbing experience for becoming a teacher. There’s a lot you don’t learn in college about classroom management and behavior management. You really need that experience in the classroom to be able to do it, so all that subbing experience was really helpful. I have been subbing for the past two years in this district and had a long-term substitute position in a self-contained class for the last half of last school year. I was able to know when different postings would come up and I was able to apply for almost everything they posted.

Q. How many schools did you look at and apply to? Do you look at any outside WNY?

Rockwood: I did not look outside Western New York. I looked in Niagara-Wheatfield because I did my teaching placement there and really liked the school where I was. At the end of the day, I really wanted to be in Grand Island.

Q. How has this differed from some of your fellow former classmates?

Rockwood: One of my good friends from college applied all over the place and she ended up getting a job in Canandaigua. She was a third-grade teacher last year and just got a job as a second-grade teacher. She loves it. I'm more of a home body and want to stay here, so I was never interested in applying outside of Western New York. I know a lot of teachers do and they usually get the job over other people because they have a New York State degree and certification.

Steck-Comeau: Paige's process is pretty standard. It's the way the field is right now. There are so few openings and there is such competition that you want to make sure you have as much experience as you can.

Rockwood: That's why I started subbing as early as possible. I wanted that extra time in the classroom, more experiences to talk about in my interviews.

Q. Why special education?

Rockwood: It was about 10 years ago when I started volunteering for my mom, a registered nurse at Women & Children's Hospital. She works with children with birth defects of the head and face. A lot of times, that went along with cognitive delays. That was when I realized I wanted to be a special education teacher.

Q. What has the school year planning been like?

Rockwood: We've been doing all we can to get the room ready and everything labeled with everybody's names. We wanted to set up the class to make it warm and inviting for the kids.

Steck-Comeau: This afternoon (Wednesday), we're going to start diving into the academic portion and getting them tweaked. They're all made but we want to make sure we can adjust things as needed depending on what the kids need. The fulfilling part of it is next.

Q. What do you look most forward to as the new school year is about to begin?

Rockwood: Being able to work with Casey, form positive relationships with students and make a difference.

Q. Your students will take math and English language arts standardized tests this school year. What role do you expect that testing to play in the classroom this school year?

Steck-Comeau: I try not to let state testing affect the stress level within the room. Yes, the state tests are out there and we give them in the spring, but regardless, we set our room up so the kids can learn the material that is in front of us. Some of the things we do – as far as how questions may be worded, different tasks they may be given – may mirror what the test looks like but it's not my focus. I'm very subtle in the way I prep these kids for the tests. I don't want them to feel stress. My goal is putting them first…Everything we do has a purpose, whether it's for them to raise their reading levels or improve in their math. In my eyes, it's not all about the tests. It is one part of what we do.

Q. Are there any stock phrases your students can expect to hear from you in the coming months?

Steck-Comeau: This year, we have 20 students and two teachers, so the new phrase will be "22 students, 22 teachers." They bring all sorts of different knowledge to the classroom and it's fun when they teach me something, as well. That sums up what our room is. Everybody works together and everybody supports one another.

Q. What would you say to somebody who just started college and wants to be a teacher?

Rockwood: Go for it!


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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