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Face of the Week: Nicole Cross of Parkville High School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. "Face of the Week" introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Mike Leavey of Woodholme Elementary School

Veteran teacher Nicole Cross sits in the faculty lounge of Parkville High School on a recent, sunny December Wednesday, quietly contemplating her workload for the day.

Her first class will be Geometry. Then comes AP Statistics. And after that, she will teach Foundations of Computer Science. And, depending on who is in the building this day, she might end up picking up an English class or two.

Cross’s eclectic schedule might perplex even the most seasoned educator, lurching as it does from content area to content area – some days social studies, other days mathematics, still others science or a foreign language. But Cross – Parkville High’s Jane-of-All-Trades – takes it all in stride. Such is a day in the life of a BCPS permanent daily substitute teacher.

Unlike many of the substitute teachers who work in BCPS schools, permanent daily subs are assigned to one school where they support faculties and help build positive relationships with students. Laura Vandenberge Lough, supervisor of the BCPS Office of Temporary Services, says Cross is part of a pilot program in about five schools this year.

“The Office of Temporary Services is working with schools and substitutes to improve processes and ensure that our students have qualified (substitute teachers),” Lough says. “Having Nicole assimilate to the school and get to know students has been vital to her success as a permanent substitute.”

This year is Cross’s second as a permanent daily sub, and she finds the work satisfying. She lives close by, she knows the school staff and students, and she enjoys the challenge of coming to work and not knowing what exactly she’ll be teaching each day.

Gone, too, are the days of substitute teachers babysitting classes with a filmstrip or extended study periods. Cross, 36, brings with her 14 years of teaching experience, and she works closely with Parkville’s staff to make sure classes she is to sub both stay on learning schedules and stay on task. “It’s another way of holding kids accountable,” Cross says. “They do real work when I’m teaching.”

She adds, “I can be anywhere, anytime. You have to be flexible. . . . And you have to be patient. You don’t know what you’re getting into every day.”

A unique trajectory
It wasn’t always so random for Cross, whose career in Baltimore County’s public schools has largely followed a conventional path. After graduating from Perry Hall High School, she headed for McDaniel College with thoughts of getting into the sciences, a field she had enjoyed in high school. Her goal then was to enter “something in the medical field.”

But Cross soon found herself gravitating towards another discipline and graduated from McDaniel with a degree in English. She had been inspired by an old English teacher from her high school days, Louise Geczy, who she tries to model to this day. “She was never fake or condescending,” Cross says of her mentor, who now teaches at the John Carroll School in Bel Air. “What I try to emulate about her is the importance of being real with the kids.”

Cross snagged a job teaching English at Hereford Middle School in 2003, where she taught for nine years. But “approaching the 10-year burn-out,” Cross says she began looking for something else to do, something new in education.

Things had changed, too. She enjoyed her time at Hereford, starting her first day there with 35 to a class but enjoying the challenge of working with middle school students. From her first days, she learned lessons like the importance of classroom management, especially with middle schoolers. But by 2012, she had gotten married and had moved to Laurel so her husband’s commute to a job in Washington wouldn’t be so long. And she was working on her master’s degree in school counseling at McDaniel, too, something she longed to try.

“I knew I still wanted to stay in a school environment,” she says. “I just liked being around (students). Kids are nice in the way they appreciate you and need you as a teacher. Following an internship at Deep Creek Middle for her degree, she began working for Sylvan Learning Center, but that didn’t quite satisfy either. Feeling the pull of classroom academics, she began long-term subbing – at Kenwood High, Dundalk Middle, Deep Creek Middle, and New Town High – even schools in Carroll County – wherever she was needed.

“I figured (subbing) was a good way to ease back into the school system,” Cross says. “But it was a little bit weird. You’re at a school for eight weeks or 12 weeks, and you get used to the students and the way things are done. You get attached, and then you have to leave. I got used to it, though.”

Among the most immediate challenges was navigating a new classroom and, sometimes, a new content area. Most of the time she would meet with teachers who were going on long-term absences for maternity leave or other reasons, and she would bone up on the subjects being taught and the class progression. Other times, she was simply thrown in and told to swim.

In 2016, however, Cross learned of a BCPS program to staff some high schools with permanent floating substitute teachers. Rather than scramble for a substitute for every, often unexpected absence, subs like Cross would report daily to one high school and be available to teach almost anything for anyone. The benefits are obvious: Cross gets to know students and staff, and they get to know and trust her. Personally, Cross gets to make friends with the faculty and feel as though she has a school to call home.

“Last year, it was more of a challenge getting used to the schedule and them getting used to me,” says Cross, who considers herself a “tough grader” who isn’t likely to let students slide because of her status as a permanent substitute. “But I’ve learned how to deal with the classes now. My math knowledge still only goes so far, but in chemistry class, for instance, the kids help one another out quite often. But when I get in there, whatever the class, I feel the teacher button turn on and it’s fine.”

Except for one class. “If it’s P.E. (physical education) class, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Cross says. “I get anxiety having to march into that gym. I tell them, ‘Anything but P.E.’”

Her road ahead
Cross doesn’t know how long she’ll stay a permanent daily substitute teacher; her aim is to move into school counseling soon. But as a substitute assigned to one school – seeing and getting to know the same students in a variety of different classes every week – she has picked up skills that she believes will help her as a counselor.

“Seeing students as a substitute is really interesting,” Cross says. “I can tell if they are having a stressful week just as any other teacher would.” She relates the story of one student who, for a while, encountered Cross in every class of his day. He was wary at first, she says, “but now we’re best friends. He learned I was there to support him.”

Parkville’s principal, Maureen Astarita, says her presence these past two years has been invaluable to the staff and students. “From the start,” Astarita says, “Nicole has gone above and beyond the expectations of her role here.  We were very happy to add her back to our staff this year.”

Cross has tentatively waded deeper into Parkville’s school culture and identity, too, attending a dance showcase and other events where substitute teachers traditionally aren’t found.

While she’s “keeping my fingers crossed” for a counseling post, Cross also has set another goal: she’d like to start a doctorate program and end up as an English college professor, no doubt still “channeling Ms. Geczy,” as she tells friends.

“I’ve really liked all of it,” she says of her adventures in substitute teaching. In the back of the faculty lounge, Cross closes her notes and prepares for her first classes of the day. She’s enjoyed it all, she says again, and then grins.

“All except P.E.”  

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