When the Honeymoon Is Over
Much is being written about the importance of schools of education collaborating with public schools in the preparation of teachers. The point, and it is a good one, is that practitioners can add a dimension to teacher training that cannot be found within the university: the reality of teaching 180 days a year, 6-1/2 hours a day, in a classroom where all children are not dedicated to meeting the objectives and all parents are not school supporters.
Even with case studies, computer simulations, and videotapes, teacher education students cannot understand the complexities of schools without being on-site for a good deal of their preparation. For university faculty members to assist in school-improvement efforts, refine their understanding of teaching and learning, and participate in collaborative endeavors, they, too, must focus their efforts in the schools. For us to lose touch with "what is" does a great disservice to those we are preparing.
After four years of working in a successful collaboration with an inner-city public elementary school in Richmond, Va., the reality for me and my colleagues on both sides of the school-university equation is that the honeymoon is over. After numerous initiatives and steady improvement, we no longer are newlyweds, but an odd couple dedicated to the task of educating 465 children each year. The problems we face point out the real differences between universities and schools. And they show that even in the best of collaborations, some sticky issues cannot be resolved easily, neatly, or maybe at all.
Our relationship began through a collaborative project known as the Richmond School Leadership Academy, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Richmond public schools, the Southern Education Foundation, and Virginia Commonwealth University set out to change the way inner-city schools educate their students, in part by empowering parents, teachers, and community members to have a say in decisions about new instructional methods.
After initially assigning three faculty members to work with two schools one day each week, the university and one of those schools evolved into a professional-development-school arrangement in the second year of the effort. This helped foster the university's longtime goals, as well as create an arrangement that the public schools not only could live with but prize.
Two years later, we have accomplished a tremendous amount. Teachers who want to work with university student-teachers must complete 25 hours of clinical training, which can be applied to licensure renewal. Student-teachers and practicum students are assigned to the school regularly, and at least one university course is taught on-site most semesters. I serve on the school-planning-management team, and the principal participates on the university's professional-development-school task force. The school guidance counselor is a member of a university search committee, and the RamsCorps--a component of V.C.U.'s AmeriCorps program--assigned 11 university students to the professional-development school for the academic year. School staff members came to university classes as guest lecturers, while university faculty conducted staff-development sessions. In addition, the school system and the university shared the cost of establishing a computer link to access the university library.
As we advanced our program, we worked carefully to insure that toes were not trampled and that both sides understood the requirements for each initiative; our unwritten theme was "no surprises." But, lately, we have acknowledged that some real issues just below the surface need attention if we are to continue to grow.
As in most schools, the teachers at the professional development school possess a range of abilities; some are excellent, some competent, and some are improving their skills through staff-development opportunities. As teacher-educators, we at the university only want our students exposed to the best models available, but we must be sensitive to those who might not be ready to work with us. The school's teachers often are protective of their own, and resent any insinuations that colleagues are less than good. How do we insure the best for teacher education students when everyone isn't equal in ability, yet most want to be clinical faculty members for our program?
At the same time, not everyone in the school has been successful at mentoring student-teachers, and not everyone from the university understands the nature and operations of public schools. It is exceedingly difficult for faculty members in both places to be told they are not up to speed, so open communications are essential if trust is to be built between those in the school and those in the university.
Even with the best relationships, however, differences of opinion--particularly about appropriate teaching methodology--might not easily be resolved. Sometimes teacher education students see teaching that is compatible with what they have learned, and sometimes they don't. If it were simply a case of sitting down and discussing differences, resolution would be easier. Title I contracts, parent expectations, school-division mandates, past history and test scores all contribute to making some activities highly resistant to changes that could benefit everyone.
Professional-development-school agreements often look good until a crisis occurs, and then the needs of the school must take precedence over the needs of the university. Research and writing agendas must be set aside until the situation is settled and the school is again functioning smoothly. Colleagues who go into schools with their research or training agendas as first priority will never be considered as anything but interlopers--carpetbaggers who take what they need and leave.
The efforts to foster professional-development-school relationships with public schools are worth every ounce of energy expended on both sides of the collaboration. But the efforts are long term and are not linear. Often, we move two steps forward and one step back. To borrow a phrase from Joseph Caputo, "Some days you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you." But that is as it should be. Educating children is not easy, and neither is educating teachers within the children's schools.