Practice: Developing Teachers

April 01, 1994 8 min read

But as the plot unfolds, the students’ expressions change. Some grimace, while others shudder. They are not listening to an innocuous children’s tale but rather a chilling short novel about Communist brainwashing. And the students are not young elementary children. They are, instead, 17- and 18-year-olds, who, at the pinnacle of their high school careers, have opted to participate in a year-long honors course designed to expose them-- and hopefully attract them--to teaching.

“Think,’' Pace instructs softly upon closing the book. “Think on your own.’' A quiet murmur permeates the room as the students scribble the first thoughts that come to their minds about the reading. After several minutes, they begin to talk. Vocal and articulate, these students at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C., are quick to discern how the story relates to what they are learning in this particular class. “Children go into a classroom, and the teacher puts knowledge into their heads,’' one girl notes. “They believe what the teacher says. This story shows what an impression a teacher can make.’'

Socastee is just one of a large and increasing number of high schools in South Carolina participating in the Teacher Cadet Program, a state-funded project now in its eighth year. The program’s intent is to lure “the best and the brightest’’ high school students-- those likely to have their sights set on a career in such fields as medicine or law--into the teaching profession. Studies indicate that only about 4 percent to 7 percent of students with grades in the 3.0 to 4.0 range have any interest in teaching. Teacher Cadets wants to change this.

The class at Socastee, and those at other participating schools, is the central component of the cadet program. The course is open to juniors and seniors, but it has a tough set of entrance requirements: at least a B average, college-prep enrollment, letters of recommendation, and an essay.

To participate in the program, a school must forge a formal partnership with a nearby college or university. Today, approximately 20 higher education institutions in the state are involved, providing guest speakers and materials to Teacher Cadet classes and hosting the prospective educators on campus. Many send professors of education into the schools as often as once a week to offer cadets additional instruction.

The Teacher Cadet Program grew out of an informal project started nearly a decade ago by Spanish teacher Bonner Guidera of Conway (S.C.) High School. In the early 1980s, Guidera began sending outstanding students into elementary classrooms to work as tutors. Seeing how well the students responded, she sought a grant to start a more formal program. Guidera eventually hooked up with the South Carolina Center for Teacher Recruitment, a newly created state project, and the Teacher Cadet Program was born. Piloted at Conway and three other high schools during the 1985-86 school year, the program “was an instant success,’' says Ruthie Warren, who has taught the Teacher Cadet class at Conway since its inception. “Students in my very first TC class are now teaching here.’'

Today, more than 2,000 students are enrolled in Teacher Cadet courses statewide. The number of high schools participating has jumped from 28 during the 1986-87 school year to 130 this year. Overall, more than 9,000 students have completed the program.

Studies conducted by the educational policy center at the University of South Carolina show the program is having an impact. An average of 38 percent of all students who have gone through the program said they planned to work toward a teaching credential when they reached college. Of the 1992-93 class, 36 percent noted on a post-course survey that they planned to teach. But even more telling, 15 percent of those who said on a pre-course survey they did not intend to teach had changed their minds.

Although the state does not know what percentage of the early cadet cohorts actually ended up teaching, a rough study of the 1987-88 group found that nearly a quarter eventually became credentialed in the state.

“A lot of people decided teaching was not what they wanted to do,’' says Merdith English, a former cadet now studying education at Winthrop College in Rock Hill. “But just as many decided it was what they wanted to do. It helps people make up their minds.’'

Says Socastee student Emma Mortimer: “You take the class to know if you’re interested in teaching. Now, in this short time, I’m set on the education field.’'

The program has been so successful, its organizers say, that other states--Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, among them--have asked for information and are modeling similar efforts on it.

The Teacher Cadet course does not simply offer instruction in teaching techniques. The cadets spend much of their time outside of their classrooms, observing and helping out in middle and elementary schools. “They don’t study teaching,’' explains Myra Bryan, principal at Socastee. “They’re engaged in teaching; they learn by doing.’'

During the first semester, this may involve shadowing an elementary teacher, observing at a day-care center, or working with babies in a nursery. During the second, cadets work for four to six weeks under the guidance of a master teacher, tutoring individual students, assisting with classroom tasks, and presenting lessons. Teacher Beth Havens says she believes this part of the program is what really hooks students on teaching and working with young people.

The course does not use a textbook, but it does have an established curriculum, appropriately titled “Experiencing Education.’' Written by Kenneth Bower, an education professor at the College of Charleston, and program teachers Jan Black and Virginia Ward, the curriculum was implemented during the 1987-88 school year.

“We have a core curriculum and activities we expect all Teacher Cadet teachers to use,’' says Ward, who, as a “teacher-inresidence,’' visits participating schools and counsels cadets and project teachers. “But it allows a lot of flexibility. Teachers have a lot of choices to fit their styles, community resources, and students.’'

The curriculum has four major units. First, students study “the learner’'--from birth through adolescence. They examine each stage of development and take part in a class project. They may, for example, create a model daycare center, write a newsletter for parents, or put on a puppet show designed to enhance young children’s self-esteem.

The main focus of this initial section, however, is on the students themselves. The idea behind this, says teacher Mary Williams of Bishopville (S.C.) High School, is to encourage students to know themselves, which will enable them to know and help others. A favorite exercise among teachers and cadets alike is what is known as the “cave-in.’' Students huddle together in a completely dark room pretending that they are blocked in a cave. There is only one small way out, and they must decide who goes first, knowing that, at any moment, they could be buried alive. Masked in the darkness, students often reveal intimate things about themselves--drug problems, eating disorders, even pregnancies--that strengthen the bonds between them.

The focus of the second unit is on teachers and the art of teaching; this is when the field experiences begin. Students then turn their attention to the school as an institution. They study the history of South Carolina education; debate controversial issues, such as censorship; and learn how the various jobs in the school environment differ. One exercise asks students to follow a staff member for a day and then summarize what they learn in a dramatic presentation.

The final unit, added only last year in response to school restructuring efforts, is titled “Pathways to the Future.’' In it, students discuss reform ideas and other current topics, such as multicultural education.

Statewide, the project is coordinated by the center for teacher recruitment, which also picks up many of the associated costs--up to $1,500 a year per site. In addition, the center brings all the participating teachers together each fall for a three-day retreat where they attend work sessions, hear speakers, and discuss concerns and ideas.

As the program has grown, so has its mission. "[We’ve had] to respond to shifting needs,’' explains Rita Stringfellow, the center’s assistant director. Currently, South Carolina, and most other states for that matter, have an urgent need for minority teachers, and the state would also like to attract more men to the profession. As a result, the center has encouraged program teachers to target their recruitment efforts on minority and male high school students. Today, approximately a quarter of the Teacher Cadets are minority, and a quarter are male. Not bad numbers, but the center would like to see them go up even more.

Program coordinators are also looking for ways to sustain the cadets’ interest in education into and through their college experiences. Some argue that program graduates find the introductory education courses less than challenging because they’ve already covered much of the material in high school. “I have so many students who, once they finish, are ready to go in the classroom,’' says Warren of Conway. “I think it’s time colleges learned, if you want good teachers, put them in the classroom early. Some students have to wait two to three years; that’s wasted time.’' An initiative to start former cadets at a more advanced level when they reach college is currently in the works.

All of those involved in the Teacher Cadet Program know that many of the graduates will not choose a career in education. But that’s OK, they say, because someday these young people will be parents and citizens. One way or another, Ward says, “they’re going to be involved in the schools.’'--Jennifer Chauhan

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Practice: Developing Teachers