Earlier time in classroom benefits future teachers in Wichita

09/15/2012 5:45 PM

09/16/2012 9:39 AM

There are things teachers learn from textbooks and lectures — things with course titles like “Literacy Strategies” and “Mathematical Investigations” and “Learning, Assessment, and Evaluation Theory.”

And then there’s that first day of school.

And bathroom breaks.

And all-school assemblies.

And rainy-day recess.

The real life of teaching, day in and day out, in front of a room full of children who don’t know pedagogical theory from the playground monkey bar.

“You can have a lesson and have a plan and that’s great. But when you get in that classroom, it’s completely different,” said Kristin Klunder, a 21-year-old education student at Wichita State University.

“Kids act in no way like the book says.”

Her teachers at WSU agree.

Over the past three years, thanks to a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, WSU’s College of Education has established a network of professional development schools — similar to teaching hospitals for medical residents — where education majors get real-life classroom experience early and often.

The grant, awarded in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus, expanded WSU’s Wichita Teacher Quality Partnership program, a collaboration between the university and Wichita public schools.

The program seeks to prepare teachers to work in high-need schools, which generally have a large percentage of low-income students and high turnover rates among teachers. Twenty-five Wichita schools are involved in the initiative: 16 elementaries, four middle schools and five high schools.

The five-year grant also created a teacher residency program in early-childhood education — the first of its kind in Kansas.

“We’re extremely happy with the results so far,” said Sharon Iorio, dean of the college. “This has truly transformed the way we train our students and prepare them for careers in the classroom.”

It also may have contributed to higher test scores. A recent report showed that on average, third- through 12th-grade students in partnership schools scored above the district average in both reading and math on 2011 state assessment tests.

“Every week, we’re putting 400 education students out into Wichita classrooms,” said Kathy Busch, co-director of the WSU program and former assistant superintendent for middle schools for the Wichita district. “All those adults in the classroom help.”

WSU education students have always worked in classrooms as part of co-op programs and traditional student teaching stints, normally during their final semester of college.

Under the new program, they get out into public schools much earlier. During the first semester of their junior year, students spend at least 45 hours — about three hours a week — visiting with mentor teachers and watching them teach. Second semester, that doubles to 90 hours.

By the third semester of the program, education students spend at least two full days a week in schools. Their college classes are clustered into non-teaching days.

“When I went to school, your first experience in the classroom was your last semester during student teaching,” Busch said. “I had a friend who went all the way through her college experience gung-ho about education, but when she finally started teaching she realized it wasn’t a good fit for her.

“The more we can get these aspiring teachers into the classroom, the better.”

Mallory Williams, a fourth-grade teacher at OK Elementary School in west Wichita, was one of the first WSU education majors to earn her degree under the professional development school model. During her sophomore year she worked at Kelly Elementary as part of WSU’s cooperative education program. Over the next four semesters she studied or worked in three other Wichita elementaries.

“I went in thinking I wanted to be a primary teacher. Over the course of my time, I realized that fourth- and fifth-grade – those are my students,” Williams said. “I like working with the big kids.”

Now she serves as a mentor to college students like Klunder, who hopes to teach kindergarten.

“When you’re in the classroom, it just kind of comes to you. There’s no trying,” Klunder said. “When I’m in the kindergarten rooms, I feel so comfortable and so natural with those students.

“I was working with a little kid yesterday, and I taught him to write a ‘g,’ and it was the best day ever,” she said. “I was like, if this is what I can do for the rest of my life. … Those are just the best moments.”

But some moments aren’t so great. Some are scary. Some are frustrating. People who want to be teachers — or those who think they do — need to experience those, too, Klunder said.

“There are some teachers out there who just won’t give you what you need to hear. They want to sugarcoat it,” she said. “The people I’ve been lucky enough to work with tell the truth. … You see it all.”

That results in new teachers who are prepared and ready for their first job, Busch said. Last year, Wichita schools hired 123 graduates from the WSU teaching program.

After she graduates next fall, Klunder hopes to be part of that group.

“If I was armed only with what I learned in the (college) classroom, there would be no way,” she said. “I would stand there like, ‘Hmmm. Where’s my textbook? You’re not doing what my textbook said.’

“This way I know what to expect. I’m ready.”

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