Teacher Preparation

Total Immersion

By Julie Blair — November 07, 2001 15 min read
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The Aurora Partnership for Teaching plunges college students into the life of local schools from their first moments on campus.

Theresa Ramsey was as nervous as a bird as she stood in the kindergarten classroom that August morning watching her fellow students unpack their book bags. Question after question paraded through her mind: Would the teacher like her? What about the 5-year-olds? What would she do all day?

But as time went by, Ramsey grew more comfortable. There was playtime to enjoy and a group sing-along to keep her busy. By the time class ended, things were so good that the girl with the blonde bob didn’t want to go home.

This is how the 18-year-old remembers her first day of college.

As an education major at Aurora University here, Ramsey is one of a handful of prospective teachers enrolled in the university’s new “total immersion” teacher-preparation program. Before completing a single education class, she’s intimately involved in the lives of elementary school children and the professionals who serve them. She volunteers in the kindergarten and works as a paid employee to supervise the cafeteria and buses three days a week. This semester, Ramsey is taking two pedagogy classes on the elementary school campus and is responsible for making the grade in her arts and sciences courses at the university.

“I’m getting to see how it all works,” Ramsey says as she takes a break from art time in the kindergarten room one warm fall morning. “You can take anybody and tell them what to do, but to be able to see the teacher handling the children brings so much more understanding.”

The Aurora Partnership for Teaching—the official name of Ramsey’s teacher-preparation program—is a collaborative effort launched this fall by Aurora University, Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Ill., and School District 129, which enrolls much of the school-age population in the suburban Chicago communities of West Aurora, North Aurora, and Montgomery.

Lauren Walser, a freshman at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois, works with a student at Fearn Elementary School, which was built as a teaching laboratory.
——John Zich

The creators of the program have an ambitious agenda: redefine the way prospective educators are trained in college, overhaul the method by which new talent is inducted into the field, and make professional development meaningful for more senior faculty members. The laboratory for much of the work is Fearn Elementary School, an $8 million, K-5 neighborhood school constructed specifically to accommodate the adults learning and working there.

“In the past, the concept has been that it is the university’s job to educate teachers,” says Sherry R. Eagle, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district and one of the 20 founders of the initiative. “This model says that everyone connected with the school system is going to take a role in training, inducting, and retaining teachers. I can’t imagine it any other way.”

College students have the opportunity to connect with youngsters and the greater school community throughout their four years of schooling, Eagle explains. Professors and elementary school teachers work together to teach both prospective teachers and one another. The biggest winners of all, Eagle says, are the children who attend the elementary school and benefit from such a multitalented, extended staff.

In contrast, the old method of preparing teachers included limited, if any, communication between the higher education and precollegiate communities, says Gary D. Jewel, the dean of the college of education at Aurora University, who served as the district’s superintendent from 1978 to 1993.

Here, as elsewhere, prospective educators learned about teaching from textbooks and lectures taught by professors who had had little recent exposure to children and adolescents, he says. Their classroom experiences were limited to shadowing a teacher for a few weeks before embarking on student-teaching assignments, when many of the trainees were overwhelmed by unexpected demands.

After graduation, beginning teachers often found themselves isolated in classrooms with no further guidance, Jewel says. Meanwhile, even more senior teachers, swamped with the rigors of daily life in the classroom, didn’t have the time to read new research or to explore alternative teaching techniques.

The old method of preparing teachers included limited, if any, communication between the higher education and precollegiate communities.

It’s no wonder, Jewel says, that many districts find themselves with a high rate of teacher turnover.

Experts have been quick to praise the Aurora Partnership for Teaching and other models of what are called professional-development schools. Such teacher-preparation programs, of which there are more than 200 nationwide, are based on the principle that future teachers must have lengthy experiences in schools to practice what they’ve been learning in college—much the same way medical students learn on the job in hospitals.

The best models fully integrate faculty members who teach pedagogy and academic subjects with the teaching staffs of K-12 schools, says John I. Goodlad, the president of the Institute for Educational Inquiry at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has studied professional-development schools extensively.

“The partner school becomes neutral territory ... and they forget about all the turf wars,” he says. "[The schools] become a center of pedagogy.”

College deans don’t often visit K-12 buildings, but everyone at Fearn Elementary School seems to know—and welcome—Jewel. He glides right by the front office with a quick wave or two, then pops his head into classrooms to see what’s happening. Both the teachers and students recognize the trim professor in the tweed sports coat, and they smile in acknowledgment. They’re used to the frequent visitors by now.

The 450-student school, still under construction, was designed by architects to be a “fishbowl,’' so that observers can get a good look at how things work.

Sunlight dominates the building, filtering into the halls and classrooms through tall, transparent and colored-glass windows. Each classroom is oversize to accommodate the many adults who are often in the room. At least two of the walls in each classroom are made of glass, so that children can see out and grown-ups can see in.

Gary D. Jewel, the dean of the Aurora University college of education, and Sherry R. Eagle, the superintendent of the local school district, work together to prepare a new generation of teachers.
——John Zich

Grade levels are divided into “neighborhoods” and clustered around small, open- air libraries off “Main Street,” a long stretch of tiled path that loops through the building in a semicircle.

Even the administrators work in an exposed environment. There are no walls, for example, in the foyer of the school, where the central offices are located. Instead, colored poles and desks mark the territory of the school’s staff.

Principal Dan Bridges does have a workspace with walls, but two of the four partitions are huge windows. He jokes that he spends half his time in the small room waving hello to curious students who peer in at him as they march to the cafeteria.

Tucked in between the administrative offices and classrooms is the Aurora University suite. It includes a large classroom, complete with whiteboards and audiovisual equipment, where five pedagogy classes are held each week. Here, too, is the future site of a professional-development library for use by Aurora University and Fearn Elementary teachers.

The program’s scholar-in-residence, Deborah L. Brotcke, also has an office in the suite. The education professor and former elementary teacher supervises the efforts of the university students in the building. She also team-teaches two pedagogy classes at the school with Fearn teachers and is responsible for helping the teaching staff locate research and troubleshoot problems.

This year, Brotcke is playing guardian angel to eight “Fearnies,” the name awarded the first generation of undergraduate and graduate students chosen to serve in the building during the partnership’s pilot year.

Handpicked through an extensive interview process by a team of university faculty members, K-5 teachers, and Brotcke, the students meet many needs in the school. Depending on their levels of education, they volunteer in classrooms and are paid by the school district to serve as playground monitors, classroom aides, and substitute teachers. Many will complete their preservice experiences by student-teaching in the school.

Those who do not choose to work extensively at Fearn Elementary during the school day will have the opportunity to attend on-site pedagogy classes that use the environment as a laboratory.

For example, students in a methods class titled “How Schools Work” were recently dispatched to the halls to document the architectural landscapes of various classrooms. They noted the configurations of desks, the ways in which different instructors utilized color, and whether animals or reading spaces were present. Upon returning to the classroom, the college students launched into a discussion of the importance of such elements.

While neither immersion in the school nor on-site pedagogy classes are required to earn an education degree from Aurora, Jewel expects that two-thirds of education majors will be participating in either Fearn Elementary School or a 4th grade program housed on the campus within the next few years.

Both students from AU and Waubonsee Community College, a feeder institution attended by about two-thirds of all of the university’s education majors, are eligible for the experience. In addition, pedagogy classes are held on the university campus. Arts and science courses are offered at both institutions of higher education.

The Aurora Partnership for Teaching grew out of a limited but serendipitous student-exchange program that introduced 4th graders to the private, 4,380-student liberal arts university in 1995.

At that time, district leaders were desperate to find classrooms to accommodate an overflowing population of children and asked the university for help. University officials agreed to provide the space and asked that the teacher- preparation program, which was then being overhauled by Jewel and his faculty, be integrated in some respects with the 4th grade classrooms.

Theresa Ramsey, a freshman at Aurora University, takes part in a college class held at Fearn Elementary. The school has a suite of rooms, including a library and office space, where university faculty members teach classes in pedagogy
——John Zich

That autumn, 100 children and four teachers rode school buses the one block from the K-5 Freeman Elementary School to the tidy university campus. They took up residence in a brick building that had previously housed the admissions office.

“They became our laboratory for our elementary education program,” Jewel says. “The faculty shared office space and collaborated with the 4th grade teachers. The preservice college students were taught by the AU and elementary school teachers, then they went into the 4th grade and applied what they learned. The place was full of adults.”

In return, the children were allowed to use the university’s library, sophisticated science and television- broadcasting equipment, and gymnasium. They also got a subtle lesson about the importance of higher education.

“One of the outcomes we hadn’t thought of was the extent to which kids leave here and see their future as including college,” Jewel says. The experiment was deemed to be “a fantastic success” for all involved.

It wasn’t long, though, before the school district again faced a capacity problem.

The community is located in one of the fastest-growing regions of Illinois, where many residents commute to downtown Chicago. Voters recognized the needs of the blossoming area, agreeing to spend $49 million to expand current structures and build schools.

All the while, Jewel, Eagle, and others involved in the 4th grade partnership were devising a plan to expand their teacher-preparation model. At that time, 40 percent of the university’s undergraduate and graduate students were enrolled in what had evolved to become a full-fledged college of education. Those running the effort knew they needed a bigger laboratory.

“We saw the potential of what could really happen if people in the profession were really brought in as true partners,” Jewel says.

Together, the partners submitted a grant application to the U.S. Department of Education. Though they didn’t get federal funding, the members of the group decided to forge ahead anyway.

It seemed a natural fit to house the partnership in one of the school buildings voters had approved, Jewel says. The school board agreed unanimously, and, with money cobbled together from taxpayers, the university, state grants, and a community foundation, Fearn Elementary School was built on a swatch of onetime farmland. Athletic fields and playgrounds were constructed though a partnership with the local parks district and the city.

Lauren R. Walser spends four days a week at Fearn, volunteering in both the 1st and 2nd grade classrooms, supervising lunch in the cafeteria, and taking a methodology class in the university suite. Walser’s workload also includes arts and science courses at the community college, where she is a freshman.

During her time at the school, Walser has read stories to children, given spelling tests, helped with schoolwork, and peeled dozens of sticky oranges. Such efforts have already given her insight to the varying developmental stages of young children—information she might have been introduced to only in a textbook in a traditional teacher-preparation program.

“Here, the teachers show you what they are doing, because they are things you are going to have to do,” Walser says. “They are building you up by teaching you different techniques.”

That doesn’t happen by chance, the K-5 educators say.

Fourth graders from School District 129 attend all of their classes on the university’s campus. The arrangement, which grew out of a lack of space, led to the partnership.
——John Zich

The faculty spend a great deal of time working to make experiences meaningful for the Fearnies, says Judy Cheatham, who teaches 4th grade. About one-third of her day is spent with such students in her classroom, she says.

“We coordinate what we do in the classroom with what [the college students] are learning,” Cheatham says. “We restructure our lessons for them constantly so that not only do the 4th graders get it, but so that the AU students can learn.”

In addition to that responsibility, veteran educators like Cheatham help induct beginning teachers into the profession. Her 4th grade “neighborhood” includes novice teachers Mary Beth Sterr and Jeff Beetham, whom she will mentor for the next several years.

‘Here, the teachers show you what they are doing, because they are things you are going to have to do.’

‘This is a right pullquote.’ George Bush, President Sterr and Beetham, in turn, are responsible for hosting college students—and those who supervise them.

One day, Beetham found himself teaching a lesson under the attentive eyes of not only a handful of prospective teachers, but also those of the principal, the superintendent, and the scholar-in-residence.

“It was so intimidating,” Beetham recalls, “but in the end, they were all into it. I had six adults circulating around and helping the kids.”

The K-5 staff members add that they benefit professionally by working with all levels of learners. The college students and new inductees refer the experienced teachers to current research and innovative techniques, for example, while also challenging them to articulate and assess the strategies behind their own methods.

Ten of the school’s K-5 teachers work with university professors to prepare curricula for the methods classes.

“It all takes a little more time and effort but, in the end, the value is certainly worth it,” Cheatham says.

While critics of the partnership program appear to be few, some experts worry that college students may be spending too much time learning how to teach at the expense of mastering the subject matter they will need.

“Solid content knowledge in the liberal arts and good exposure to pedagogy is the best of both worlds,” says Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. The Washington-based accrediting organization has developed standards for teacher-preparation programs and for professional-development schools, but is unfamiliar with the Aurora Partnership for Teaching.

“If you don’t have a good liberal arts education ... and our September 11 crisis comes up,” Wise says, “how well-prepared are you to help the children ... build an intellectual bridge to what you are studying in school and the larger events around us?”

The biggest struggle will be selling administrators and faculty members on the benefits of a system that appears more time-consuming and complicated than the one already in place.

Neither Aurora University nor the community college has sought NCATE accreditation, although both institutions are required by the state to adhere to standards directly outlined by the organization.

The partners involved say they plan to further integrate the arts and science faculty members as the program progresses.

They aim to expand the partnership program to four more schools within the next four years, Jewel says. A comprehensive way to evaluate the efforts will also have to be designed so mistakes can be analyzed, he adds.

The biggest struggle will be selling administrators and faculty members at all levels on the benefits of a system that appears more time-consuming and more complicated than the one already in place. “We need to make sure that there is a critical mass of supportive faculty,” the education dean says.

The effort also has to remain cost-efficient, Jewel says. To date, there are no extra expenses associated with the partnership program. Teachers and college students are paid the same wages as their colleagues at other schools. In fact, having prospective educators fill lower-level positions may eliminate a shortage of workers in many schools.

“A lot of what we’re doing here is acting on good instincts,” he says.

Slowly, but surely, Theresa Ramsey and her collegiate colleagues are learning the importance of that lesson.

On that first day of school, while she was helping children off the school buses, a small boy ran crying to the freshman, pleading with her to help him find his 2nd grade classroom.

As she began to think about how to solve the problem, she took his little hand in hers.

It comforted them both.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Total Immersion


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