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Teacher in the Library: A West Side Story

At 5’2″ Miss Micky runs from one corner of the library to another, children in line, reciting F-U-N-N-Y! She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Teacher in the Library at the
For Ms. Micky, teaching is not a profession, it’s a vocation.

Once a Teacher, always a Teacher

Mary Alice Smith or Ms. Micky, as everybody fondly calls her, was a reading specialist for 40 years, and she loved it. Teaching was – and continue to be – her vocation. So it does not come as a surprise that only a couple of months after her retirement, she is back to where she feels most at home: in a classroom. “Funny enough, I was at the library for a CyberNavigator class. I wanted to learn more about the Internet. We were practicing uploading our resume online, when my mentor saw my teaching experience. He asked if I was interested in teaching a couple of hours a week as a Teacher in the Library and I replied with a resounding YES! The next thing I know, I was interviewing to be a Teacher in the Library. And the rest is history.”
Instead of a school, Ms. Micky now teaches at the Library. She currently teaches at the North Austin Branch in Chicago’s west side. The location may be different, but the mission stays the same. “I’m an educator. I go where students need me most.”

“I’m an educator. I go where students need me most.”

She teaches 15-20 students at a time, from first graders to middle school teens. “I’ll admit; it is challenging. These students have different needs, and you have to attend to each one,” she shares. But ever the optimist, Ms. Micky adds, “This unique set-up only motivates me to be more creative in my approach.” True enough, Ms. Micky creates a system that works for her and the kids. She begins by taking attendance then groups students according to their grade level. During the three hours per day that she’s in session, she patiently works from table to table, computer kiosks to computer kiosks, helping students with their homework. “I always  make sure that even though they are in groups, I get to spend some one-on-one time with the students to guide them accordingly,” she says.
Ms. Micky cares about her students. “They come here to learn, so I make sure they do.” Then, she shows me a big recording book where she tirelessly takes notes on her students’ progress. They are detailed and meticulous, identifying students’ strengths and areas for improvement. She shares these with parents and carefully explains how they can help children practice at home and improve. “Why?” I candidly ask. “Because educating a child is a team effort,” she explains with a smile. I witness this firsthand. Ms. Micky chats with parents when they drop their children off, even encouraging them to spend some time and observe.

“Educating a child is a team effort.”

Another challenge Ms. Micky faces is how to make learning fun, especially for younger students. “I believe that students learn best when they’re interested to learn.” This is where Ms. Micky’s magic box comes in handy. This box has different activity sheets, colorful workbooks, flash cards, and prizes. “Fun activities help students retain information. I make sure that whatever game or exercise I give them, individually or as a group, is connected to their lesson in school,” Ms. Micky explains. She adds, “Some students come to the library but would forget their homework, so I have to be proactive. I see to it that they are learning in some way.” Ms. Micky has devised a way to engage older students too. She incorporates online games where children can apply or extend their lesson. “Motivation is a big part of teaching children. It must be their decision to learn. It is up to us teachers to help them arrive at  that decision.”

Education is always worth it


“What makes the Teacher in the Library worth it?”, I ask. She laughs then quips, “This is the easiest question you have asked this whole interview.” Then she recounts, “Last week, a fifth-grade student I was working with had a difficult time with her math homework. We spent the week focusing on the lesson. Yesterday, she excitedly told me that she got a perfect score on her surprise quiz. She was beaming!” Ms. Micky also shares how her third-grade student was ecstatic when he wrote sentences on his own. “Seeing students’ progress is extremely fulfilling. More importantly, I witness how students take pride in completing their homework, how their self-confidence soars when they get better grades. This transformation makes everything worth it.”
The Teacher in the Library program is integral for thousands of Chicago students, especially to children of this west side community. Every Teacher in the Library is an equalizer who gives educational support to students who need them most. Ms. Micky says it best, “These children…they deserve a teacher that’s committed to them.”
Teachers in the Library is part of Chicago Public Library’s Homework Help program designed to help thousands of students obtain the academic support they need to be successful in school and in life. In the 2017-18 school year, Teachers in the Library conducted over 100,000 homework sessions across 80 library branches throughout Chicago. With your support, we can do more. 

Chicago Public Library Foundation would like to thank Gould Trust, BMO Harris Bank, Sue & Thomas F. Pick, Bears Care, The Crown Family Philanthropies, Paul Angell Family Foundation, Donnelley Family Fund. Kemper Educational & Charitable Fund, The Barker Welfare Foundation, A Montgomery Ward Foundation, Spark Cremin & Paul Dykstra, Jamee & Marshall Field, Northern Trust, Sulzer Family Foundation, Dia S. & Edward S. Weil Jr., Leslie S. Hindman Auctioneers, The Jamie & Madeleine McMullan Fund, and other generous corporate, foundation, and individual donors for their dedication and support that ensures Chicago’s children have free access to a Teacher in the Library