Teacher Preparation

Tools of the Trade

By Jeff Archer — February 27, 2002 17 min read
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As education schools face pressure to retool, Shady Hill represents a new way of training educators.

She’d flopped once and didn’t want to do it again.

In her first lesson back from winter break, Kim McMahon gave each of her 6th graders two maps of Africa: one blank and one with the outlines of the ancient kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Their task, which seemed simple enough to her, was to copy the information from one map to the other, while creating their own keys to show which outline represented each kingdom.

Then came the avalanche of questions from the class, like, “What’s a key?”

McMahon scrambled to fill in what she then recognized as painfully obvious gaps in her instructions. Despite her backpedaling, the confusion had already frustrated many students. After several long minutes, the teacher-in-training called a timeout, and started over again from the beginning. “I’m thinking to myself,” recalls the 25-year-old McMahon, “I’m an awful teacher.”

She got back in the saddle two days later, but not before making an evening phone call to Apple Gifford, her mentor here at the Shady Hill School. The two had shared the same classroom since September, knew the same students, and had spent hundreds of hours observing each other working. Gifford told the novice to trust her instincts, which were telling her that the kids needed explicit guidance. So McMahon prepared a page of sentences, each missing a word to be filled in by the students as she walked them through a discussion about ancient Ghana’s trade system.

“The lesson,” says the rookie teacher, “was awesome.”

It was precisely the kind of expert advice on teaching that McMahon was hoping for when she applied to the apprentice program at Shady Hill, a private school that enrolls students from prekindergarten through grade 8. She could have gone through one of the Boston area’s highly regarded schools of education. Or she could have vied for a slot in the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers, a state initiative that offers candidates a summer crash course on teaching—along with a $20,000 signing bonus. Instead, she opted to pay $6,500 for the chance to spend a year learning the tools of the trade working side by side in the classroom with Shady Hill’s experienced teachers.

At 74 years old, Shady Hill’s Teacher Training Course has graduated more than 1,300 such novices, and its influence has spread far beyond the school’s idyllic, village-like campus tucked here in a quiet corner of Cambridge. It served as an early inspiration for the professional- development-school movement, which aims to give teachers-in-training greater exposure to work in real classrooms by forging partnerships between schools of education and K-12 schools. And in 1994, it became the first self-contained training program at an elementary school approved by the state to license candidates to teach in Massachusetts public schools. Just under half its apprentices now go on to jobs in public education.

The program arguably finds itself more relevant in the early 21st century than at any other time in its history. As schools of education are pressured to retool themselves, and as policymakers set up accelerated programs that churn out new teachers in a matter of weeks, Shady Hill represents something of a third way of thinking about teacher preparation. Akin to an internship, its training program involves learning on the job, though under the intense supervision of seasoned educators. And while it bears some likeness to student teaching, experience in the classroom here isn’t just part of the training, it’s the core of it.

“The thing we learned from [Shady Hill] is that you could invigorate your core teachers at the same time that you’re training the next generation, and that you could train them well,” said Harvard University education professor Katherine Boles, an expert on professional-development schools who has studied Shady Hill. “Probably not all teachers could be trained that way, especially if we need 2½ million of them. But we could be using pieces of what they’re doing.”

Now a program that sends its graduates hither and yon, Shady Hill’s apprenticeship was born out of simple necessity. The school needed teachers who understood its particular brand of pedagogy. Founded in 1915 by a group of mostly Harvard-affiliated parents, the school held its first classes on the back porch of a private residence, and its approach toward education was both traditional and experimental. Its curriculum covered many of the old standards—like ancient Greece—but the material was taught through hands-on activities and by researching primary sources, not through textbooks. It was only natural that the school’s apprentice program would also embrace the idea of learning by doing.

“The more you think of teaching,” Katharine Taylor, the school’s first director, said in a speech in 1937, “the more you realize that it can never be classified as a science. It is nearer to being an art.”

The main elements of the training program have remained essentially the same ever since, even as the school has grown to serve 500 students, who today attend classes in a cluster of bungalows. Annually, Shady Hill enrolls 18 apprentice teachers, who are required to have already earned an undergraduate degree with a major outside of education. Each is paired with a mentor, called a “directing teacher,” whose classroom the novice works in for five months. At that point, the apprentice switches to a different directing teacher for the remainder of the school year.

Akin to an internship, the program involves learning on the job, under the intense supervision of seasoned educators.

Though the pairing might sound like team-teaching, it isn’t. There’s no question that the classroom belongs to the directing teacher, but the apprentice is kept completely in the loop about what’s happening and why. Usually, novices spend most of their first few weeks observing, then gradually take on more responsibility until they actually run the class for a short period—"soloing,” in Shady Hill parlance.

“The difference is that this is so closely supervised,” says Anne Snyder, the director of the program. “There’s room for a lot of independence and responsibility, but our apprentices aren’t the ones writing reports home. ... They’re not the ones interacting with parents, for the most part. The buck doesn’t stop there.”

Throughout the year, directing teachers work with apprentices on such points as how to introduce a lesson, the pacing of instruction, and the importance of repetition. A major emphasis is placed on breaking down concepts into pieces small enough for young minds to digest. And because Shady Hill expects its teachers to design and update their own curricula, apprentices learn to prepare new units of instruction. Doing so over a period of months allows them to get past the point where they’re just flying by the seat of their pants.

Directing teacher Gifford says she’s seen this in McMahon. At first, the apprentice concentrated largely on herself, concerned with such issues as how she behaved in front of the class and how she dealt with students asking questions or acting up. But slowly, her attention has shifted.

“It’s become easier for her to focus on the kids, what their needs are, and how they’re processing information,” Gifford says. “At first, she had to appear comfortable, but now it seems that she really is.”

A critical part of making that happen, say organizers of the Teacher Training Course, is recognizing that the apprentices are tuition-paying students, not employees. The school rarely has them fill in as substitutes if their directing teachers are absent, and it doesn’t even count them in the pupil-teacher ratios that it puts in its marketing materials for parents. In a sense, their directing teachers work for them, not the other way around.

On a recent afternoon, 18 apprentices are gathered in a bungalow that Shady Hill has set aside for faculty meetings. Though austere, the small room feels cozy. On the walls hang black-and-white photographs of scenes from the school’s past—a class play from 1964, students shoveling snow in 1987, and so on. At first glance, much of the group assembled around the rectangle of tables looks like a women’s lacrosse team at a private university. About half are a few years beyond college, though, and two are men, one of whom has a child old enough to be in school. Two others are black, one is Asian- American, and another Latino.

Shady Hill is sensitive to its demographics. Like many of its competitors, it wants to become a more welcoming place for families of color. The concern prompted the school, among other actions, to use part of a recent capital campaign to underwrite scholarships for the Teacher Training Course, a move aimed at drawing more members of underrepresented groups into the teaching force. Multiculturalism is also the theme of one of the series of weekly seminars apprentices attend.

‘The thing we learned is that you could invigorate your core teachers at the same time that you're training the next generation, and that you could train them well.’

Today, they’ve gathered to consider how well they’re connecting with their students. Desirée Ivey, the assistant director of the training course and a former teacher in the Baltimore public schools, writes on a white board: “Who do you teach?” While considering the question, a few apprentices finish their lunch of oriental-style chicken and fresh broccoli served up earlier by the school’s accomplished chef. Ivey asks all of them to list their students and to think of something about each one that isn’t directly related to schoolwork. Many quickly draw a blank for a handful of their students for whom they know nothing beyond what’s happened in class.

Snyder, the program director, offers from the back of the room: “I would think about how to make those students the focus for the next couple of weeks.”

Shady Hill sees these seminars as essential coursework for its teachers-in-training. Along with the readings and research projects that apprentices are assigned as homework, the discussions give them the chance to consider the big issues in education, and to examine how they play out in their own classrooms. Topics range from child development and student assessment to equity and the philosophy of education. A typical question to be tackled is: “Do quiet girls learn differently from quiet boys?”

Along with the seminars, apprentices gather each Friday to learn about different instructional methods from other faculty members at the school. Led by classroom teachers, the workshops lean heavily toward the hands-on approach, and the novices often are put through many of the same activities that Shady Hill’s students are. As a result, they might find themselves learning printmaking in an art studio or shown how to dissect an owl pellet to learn about the food chain.

Mathematics teacher Bob Lawler says he uses the workshop he leads to build up confidence in the subject matter. In teaching key concepts, he tries to show apprentices not just how the concepts work but why. Often, he begins his workshop by passing out a set of plastic tiles and asking how they could be used to show the concept of symmetry. Having taught at Shady Hill for 39 years, Lawler says it’s important for apprentices to understand that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, and that it’s OK if students ask them questions they don’t know the answer to.

“Most apprentices, and most people, have experienced the teaching of math as the manipulation of symbols and as things that are memorized,” says Lawler, the only faculty member at Shady Hill who regularly wears a tie and jacket. “But they have no idea why they work, and so it’s very difficult to take a new situation and apply what you know to that.”

While not required, apprentices also have the option of taking three to five education courses at nearby Tufts and Lesley universities. Such classwork enables them to finish the year having earned a master’s degree, in addition to a state teaching license. Although the extra study more than doubles the cost of the program—to between $13,000 and $15,000—most apprentices do so. Still, many say they see the university coursework as peripheral. Some credit a few of the classes with opening their eyes to new ideas, but say they might not have taken them if they didn’t carry the promise of a higher starting salary in many districts. Massachusetts last year dropped its requirement that all teachers earn the equivalent of a master’s degree within five years of entering the profession.

“I listen to the questions that are asked [by students] in some of those [college] courses, and I’m like, ‘If you just spent 10 minutes in the classroom, you would know the answer to that,’ ” says Gail Arnold, who is leaving a career as a personal chef to enter teaching. “But if you haven’t been in the classroom, of course those are good questions, because you don’t know.”

A few apprentices, in fact, have already spent considerable time in the classroom before they even came to Shady Hill. Becky Cohen enrolled in the program here after having taught drama at a San Francisco private school. Although she had ample experience working with students, Cohen felt she still had a lot to learn before she could make the transition to a regular classroom teacher. Most important, she says, she had no idea how to take a broad curriculum on a certain subject and figure out from that what to do in class on any particular day.

“I’m sure if I was plunked down in a classroom, I’d have come up with something,” she says. “But I would be feeling so unsure about it all the time.”

‘I've been teaching 20 years now, but I don't feel stale. I haven't had any apprentice where I haven't gotten as much out of the relationship as they have.’

Cohen says she’s getting exactly what she needed by working in the classroom with 7th grade directing teacher Mimi Gleason. But it’s been a two-way street. While the apprentice has discovered how to spoon out material in the right-size portions for middle schoolers, Gleason has learned from her understudy how to use drama as a teaching tool.

Cohen decided to teach a unit inspired by “The Laramie Project,” a play that examines issues of intolerance by dissecting the circumstances around the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student in Laramie, Wyo. The two teachers believed that the project, based on interviews with some 200 Laramie-area residents and others, offered the opportunity to teach a crucial principle: the pursuit of truth by probing many different perspectives.

After explaining to students how the Laramie Project came together, Cohen and Gleason guided the children through the process of researching and producing a similar play based on a different event: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Gleason says she wouldn’t have been put off by the unit’s grim subject matter, but, without Cohen, she doubts she would have tackled a stage production.

“It’s been great for the kids,” says the directing teacher, “but it’s also been great for me to learn from Becky how to run a play, how to direct kids, and what are the steps that go into that.”

Indeed, many faculty members here say the chance to learn from their apprentices is what makes up for the extra work that comes along with being a directing teacher. (All staff teachers at the school agree in their contracts to serve the training program in some way, though they receive no extra pay for doing so.) On the one hand, the directing teachers have to take the time to preface everything they do by explaining it to someone else, and they have to be ready for follow-up questions. But on the other, the continual infusion of new blood has the effect of rejuvenating their own teaching.

Shady Hill officials are well aware of this value-added aspect of the Teacher Training Course. From a purely financial point of view, the program represents a net loss for the school. The tuition it charges apprentices isn’t quite enough to cover all the expenses it generates, which include the salaries of its own two- person staff. But the apprentice program also helps to maintain a culture at the school in which faculty members are constantly forced to reflect on the effectiveness of their own teaching.

“I’ve been teaching 20 years now, and I should be stale,” science teacher Michael Horn says. “But I don’t feel stale. I haven’t had any apprentice where I haven’t gotten as much out of the relationship as they have.”

A week after her foundering map lesson, Kim McMahon stands at the front of Apple Gifford’s class, a book held at chest level. The room is typical of Shady Hill. A chart above the chalkboard lists student responsibilities, such as sweeping the room, taking attendance, and watering the plants. In one corner sit three beaten-up couches used for reading, and natural light streams down on McMahon through a skylight in the ceiling. Gifford is nowhere in sight. Today, the apprentice is soloing.

McMahon reads from a book of African folk tales called Bury My Bones, But Keep My Words while the children work at their desks shaping colored clay into small figures. The creations are meant to serve two purposes— as good-luck charms and as weights—much as similar representations have in Ghana throughout its history. In the coming days, the class will use them as they re-create the trading system that once made the region one of the richest in the world.

The students’ eyes are on their hands as they roll out and cut up the clay, but their ears belong to McMahon. She punctuates her reading with questions that make reference to homework and previous lessons. When the story mentions a gold coin, she asks what such currency could be used for in ancient Ghana, and a freckly boy in a Titans football jersey replies that tradesmen wanting to enter the kingdom were charged a fee of one gold coin.

‘The more you think of teaching, the more you realize that it can never be classified as a science. It is nearer to being an art.’

The apprentice has the 6th graders right where she wants them. They’re active, yet controlled. They’re having fun, but they’re learning. The question now is whether she could do just as well in another setting. It’s one thing to get 16 students focused when they attend a private school that charges families more than $13,000 a year in tuition. It’s arguably a greater challenge to do the same at a public school where students vary more in the skills they bring, where class sizes are larger, and where parental support isn’t so much of a given.

Teacher Training Course graduates who go on to public education often do experience a jolt. Edna Keese felt it when she left Shady Hill nine years ago to teach at a middle school in inner-city Boston. She was struck by the students’ raunchy language, their disrespect toward adults, and the many signs that showed they didn’t want to be in school. Says Keese: “It was pretty shocking, actually.”

But Keese doesn’t fault Shady Hill for her difficulties, which she instead blames largely on the dysfunctions of the school where she worked. In fact, as time went on, she sought to re-create as much of Shady Hill as she could in her own classroom. Now teaching 2nd grade at a Boston elementary school, she stresses project-based learning and has even put a couch in the corner for youngsters to sit on when they read. Two years ago, she advised her younger sister to enroll in the apprentice program when she decided to become a teacher.

“I still now take what I learned at Shady Hill and use it in my work,” Keese says. “I think they lay out a good foundation.”

Shady Hill has sought to give its apprentices more exposure beyond its campus. The school has set aside one week of the program to allow novices to visit other schools. Apprentices also have the option of spending their second semester working with a directing teacher at nearby John M. Tobin Elementary School, in the Cambridge district, where about half the 560 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines. The partnership with Tobin is being expanded so that next year it can offer a program combining the main elements of the Shady Hill training course with seminars and workshops geared toward teaching in an urban setting. Says Ivey, the training course’s assistant director: “We’re looking to work with public schools, to learn from them.”

But observers who know the school say Shady Hill has no reason to apologize for providing fledgling educators with as ideal an environment as possible. Better that, they say, than what often winds up being the alternative: a sink-or-swim situation in which new teachers are forced to learn the ropes with virtually no formal support from their colleagues. What’s more, time spent in the perhaps utopian world of Shady Hill holds the promise of sending apprentices off with high expectations for what teachers and students can do.

“There’s good teaching going on there,” says Harvard’s Boles. “And I’ve been in enough schools around the country to know that good teaching isn’t out there everywhere.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Tools of the Trade


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