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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8

Planting Seeds, Preparing Teachers

A second-career teacher tells how he flourished with the academic, social, and professional support offered by a university–school district partnership program.

Mud covered my shoes as I walked through the construction site to measure some cottonwood trees. Once I recorded them on my site plan, they would be bulldozed. When I was graduated with a degree in landscape architecture, I set out to preserve the environment and to design gardens for all to enjoy. Seven years later, I was helping developers pave over wetlands for shopping malls or preparing ostentatious designs for celebrity clients. I was a success, but what I did rarely inspired me.
Last week I still had mud on my shoes, but everything else was different. I was leading my 1st graders through an orchard on a hunt for ripe apples. The trip would be the focus of classroom activities. Now I wake up every morning knowing not only that I'm good at what I do, but also that I'm making a positive contribution to this world.
When I began to explore a career change, I read self-discovery books, kept a journal, and talked to friends about their jobs. I discovered my strengths, weaknesses, and priorities. Eventually, I decided on the profession of my mother and two grandparents: teaching.
I wanted a teacher-education program that would prepare me both theoretically and practically. The collaborative university–school district Clinical Model Program of DePaul University and Glenview, Illinois, District 34, designed for persons with work experience outside of education, sounded like a good fit. In three years, college graduates earn an elementary teaching certificate and a master of arts in teaching and learning. The school district pays the participants a stipend each year and their graduate school tuition.
The one-year internship and two-year residency sequence is based on training programs for other professions. Hallmarks of the program include full immersion in the classroom, mentored support, integration of theory and practice, and ongoing evaluation. The applicants participate in a rigorous interview process consisting of a university application, a district application, an orientation meeting, two interviews with a committee of district and university representatives, and a school visit.
The first steps of the application process went well, so I was invited to visit one of the district schools. The kindergartners were working on a project about their neighborhood, and the teacher asked me to talk about a place I recently visited. I pointed out the United States on the world map and said, "You all know that we live here. One time I flew across the Atlantic and visited London, which you probably know is the capital of England." The children's vacant stares told me that it had been a long time since I had spent time with 6-year-olds. I had no idea how they thought or what interested them. After that visit, I was just as sure that I wanted to be a teacher, but I realized how much I had to learn.
Despite my lesson in world geography, I was asked back for the final interview. The interview committee inquired about my experiences in the classroom I had visited. I had been happy to be around those children, and I think this attitude was evident in my responses. The district personnel director called me the next day. I was now an intern in the Clinical Model Program.
My return to higher education that summer was very different from my undergraduate experience. I focused on learning the practical side of my occupation because I knew that I would soon be able to use what I learned. In theoretical discussions, I could draw from a wealth of experiences to support my arguments. Good grades were no longer the goal. I stopped wondering "Is this going to be on the test?" and started learning purely because I wanted to learn.
In my first three classes—Human Growth and Development, Characteristics of Exceptional Learners, and an introductory curriculum methods course—I got to know the other interns. Many of us came from careers in business, but there our similarities ended. Some were married, two with children; others were single. We ranged in age from 22 to 45; in politics from extremely conservative to outrageously radical. Yet we bonded immediately, partly because of the intense interview process and the common challenge that lay ahead.

Year One

In the fall, we began science, math, and reading and language arts methods classes, which district and university faculty coplanned and cotaught. We had class one night a week at the university and one night a week in the district. We began our time in the school district by attending new-teacher orientation meetings. We met and worked with other teachers new to the district, some veterans, others fresh out of the university. The interns in the Clinical Model Program had a support system that the others did not have. Soon we met our mentors, teachers from the district who were trained to guide us through our clinical-model phases. I was assigned to a 1st grade teacher in whose classroom I would work for two weeks.
I was as nervous on that opening day of school as any 1st grader. During the first week of school, I observed my mentor's classroom and those of other teachers. I filled a journal with notes: what they did, what I thought worked well, how I might have done it differently. I also helped the children with projects. Several times during the day I met with my mentor, discussing what I saw and asking questions. At midweek she commented, "Now I tell myself why I'm doing something before I do it, because I know you are going to ask me as soon as I'm finished doing it."
I spent the next two-week rotation in a 6th grade; two weeks later, I was part of an 8th grade team. I observed several teachers, each with a different teaching philosophy and personality. I recorded every experience in my journal, and I had a wealth of strategies and ideas to try later on.
During this observation phase, the interns met every Wednesday morning to discuss our experiences. Some of the group had problems with children or personality conflicts with mentors. There was time for them to air their concerns and for the rest to offer advice and support.
On the basis of my request, evaluations from mentors, principals, program coordinators, and university instructors, and the needs of each school, I was assigned to an 8th grade science classroom for the 15-week coplanning and coteaching phase and to a 1st grade class for the 15 weeks of the independent teaching phase.
I began my middle school phase with many ideas about children of that age. I remembered it as an awkward time in my life and wondered whether 8th graders were still obnoxious. I found out on the first day, when, after I had observed the same biology lesson four times, my mentor suggested that I teach the fifth. I began with an announcement: "This is the first class I've ever taught, so go easy on me." Surprised by my candor, the students behaved perfectly. My first time as the teacher went without a problem.
The students weren't always so cooperative. My mentor continually challenged me with difficult assignments. For one lesson, I was to teach the students a dance choreographed to illustrate DNA replication. It went miserably. My mentor had to take over to prevent a student revolt. Afterwards, she insisted on analyzing what went wrong and what I could do to avoid similar problems. Throughout this rotation, she prompted me to take away something useful from each success and failure.
My mentor also encouraged me to let my life experiences shape my teaching. For example, I am interested in Louis Leakey, the paleontologist. For Halloween she had me assume this role. In pith helmet and white beard, I told the students of Leakey's life and his impact on science.
I left this rotation knowing that I could succeed as a middle school teacher because my mentor modeled creative lessons, challenged and encouraged me, and provided honest feedback.
During my independent teaching assignment in 1st grade, I took greater responsibility in the classroom. My new mentor and I worked out a schedule, and gradually I taught more and more of the day. I spent time preparing, teaching, and following up on lessons. Although this process boosted my confidence and skill levels, it started to be all encompassing. In addition to classroom duties, I was still attend-ing course seminars two or three times a week.
For the last five weeks of school, I spent less time in my assigned classroom. Knowing that I would be teaching 1st grade next year, I visited many classrooms, looking for specific ideas on how to set up my room. I also observed other teachers, focusing on the kindergarten classes, whose children were a summer away from being 1st graders.
The school year ended, but there was no break from education. We took two more classes at the university: an arts-integration course and a sociology of education course. As new first-year residents, we reflected constantly on the challenges and joys that lay ahead as we prepared to set up our own classrooms.

Year Two

I was nervous as the first day of school approached, but I was confident that my first year of teaching would be successful. First, I still had my mentor, and though I now spent less time with her, she was available when I needed her. More important, however, I had built an understanding of teaching from my year of interrelated observation, coteaching, academic study, and reflection.
First-year residents had no university classes at the beginning of the school year so that we could put all our energy into our classrooms. Although I needed the extra time, I missed the camaraderie I found with my fellow interns. For 15 months, we had seen one another as much as we saw our spouses. In classes, team projects, parties, weddings, and car pools, late at night and on weekends, we had been together. In many ways we were like a family—there were rivalries and some intense arguments—but we supported and cared for one another. Now we were busy with our new schools and classrooms.
In place of support from my program colleagues, I relied more on the other teachers in the 1st grade team. They answered my questions, shared ideas, and offered advice. Later in the year, the residents resumed meeting together, this time for an induction to teaching class. We discussed common issues that we encountered during our first months as teachers. We took a research class to prepare for writing our theses. Because we were concurrently students and teachers, our classroom experiences offered many possible thesis topics.
My topic was based on a concern I had about teaching math. We had learned that math manipulatives can promote learning, but I found mani-pulatives difficult to use with my students. I wondered whether allowing children to explore manipulatives in an open-ended manner would be manageable and effective as a teaching technique. I asked two university professors and the district curriculum director to serve on my thesis committee. That summer we had no classes, so I was free to search the literature for pertinent research.

Year Three

The next school year was our last in the program, and our duties as second-year residents included far more than teaching. We spent the first half collecting the data for our theses. Even though the thesis was a lot of work—almost another full-time job—it helped shape who I am as a teacher. I frequently draw on these data-collection and literature-search skills to make instructional decisions.
Just as my thesis was finalized and approved, an even bigger task began. Because the district's commitment to me would soon end, I had to attend job fairs, follow up leads, and send out résumés to secure a teaching position. The university and district helped by mailing program summaries to area districts that included my résumé and philosophy statement. That, and the dozens of teachers and administrators I had met over the previous three years, gave me a good start.
I soon learned, however, that not everyone in the district is happy with the Clinical Model Program. Because we are a known entity, it is less risky for administrators to hire us. Student teachers or acquaintances of teachers may be equally or better qualified, but they are not as well known. Hard feelings can result when some teachers perceive that we have an unfair advantage. Fortunately, enough of the right people thought that I was the best choice, and I was hired by the district.

On My Own

It has been five years since I asked the students to go easy on me. As a teacher, I am far more accomplished than I ever was as a landscape architect. The Clinical Model Program helped make me a successful teacher by encouraging me to be a specific kind of teacher: collaborative, progressive, critical, and reflective.
First, I am an active collaborator. Because our group learned together, I cannot close my door and do my own thing. I work every day on various teams, as we exchange ideas, question and challenge one another's views, and work together to do the best for our students. Not surprisingly, the people I work with are often clinical-model participants: interns, residents, mentors, or graduates.
Second, I am a progressive teacher. Because the program immersed us in professional journals and paired us with excellent teachers, I can analyze, evaluate, and incorporate new techniques in my classroom. I have experimented with different instructional settings, including looping and a multiage classroom. I have written professional articles and made presentations at both the local and national levels on topics ranging from math and science education to multiple intelligences and brain research. Having worked so closely with university faculty, I teamed with a professor to research the effectiveness of a math program I developed from my thesis research.
Third, I am critical about what and how I teach. The Clinical Model Program was conducted in an action research and inquiry model of learning. We always compared what we saw and did during the school day with the theory and research we read about at night. I still examine and question ideas presented by other teachers, as well as what I do myself, and I am not afraid to disagree when I feel that an idea isn't sound.
Fourth, I constantly reflect on what I do. When my mentor insisted that we talk about the DNA dance fiasco, she was encouraging the habit of learning from experience. I still keep a journal and work with fellow teachers so that we can do the good things again and change what did not work well.
I have learned a great deal during the last few years. I know that there is always more to learn about good teaching. This program prepared the participants to become professionals who critically analyze and reflect on our practice so that we can continue to contribute to the education field.

Dan Heuser has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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