Now in her final year of teacher preparation coursework at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Marilyn Hebert has taken several classes on how to teach, classroom management and development of young minds. Yet, armed with all that know-how, there’s only one experience that can prepare her for the classroom — being in it.
Within the walls of J. Wallace James Elementary School in Scott, in kindergarten teacher Becky Cade’s classroom, Hebert spent the fall semester observing and teaching math as part of a new student-teaching program preparing her to return in January to co-teach with Cade. The additional time to get to know the young students and to get comfortable in a classroom setting is designed to better prepare neophyte educators to make the transition from college student to classroom teacher.
“When they’d come in the past, they had no experience. I had some who would turn red talking to students,” Cade said. “This allows the UL student to build more of a relationship with the students. It’s not in isolation anymore. When she returns in January, she’ll spend the entire day with the class.”
The College of Education modified its student-teaching experience this past year with students like Hebert, who visit classrooms part-time to teach and to observe the full-time classroom teacher who will serve as their mentor. Hebert and other graduating seniors will return to the same classrooms for the spring semester to co-teach with their teacher-mentors.
Previously, student-teachers spent their final semester teaching in a classroom setting — but it wasn’t a full-time experience, and to prepare for the classroom, they had prior field experience only by visiting classrooms and helping with lessons, said David Beard, UL-Lafayette College of Education director of teacher clinical experiences.
Teacher preparation has changed over the years from one half-day classroom visit, the norm about 45 years ago, to the state pushing for a yearlong residency, though it hasn’t mandated that change yet, Beard said.
The university began revamping its student-teaching experience to align with the state’s recommendations this past year, starting with seniors like Hebert.
The College of Education received a $200,000 grant from the Louisiana Department of Education to provide stipends to seniors and their mentor-teachers starting this January who participate in the yearlong residency. The grant program is in partnership with the Lafayette Parish school system. One reason most colleges have not required a yearlong residency is the financial hardship on college students who often work to support themselves while they complete their education, said Peter Sheppard, UL-Lafayette curriculum and instruction department head.
The goal, however, is to continue the yearlong residency without outside funding support, he said.
“In my opinion, the best learning situation is to be involved with the students,” he said. “So many students (student teachers) go into a classroom, and yes, they’ve had classroom management classes and prepare a classroom management plan, but you’re dealing with individuals, not with trees. You put a tree in the ground, and it stays there. It doesn’t talk back to you. You cannot, in my opinion, experience true classroom management until you’re with those students.”
Hebert earns her degree in May and hopes to teach kindergarten. She said one of the most challenging things about teaching a room of 5-year-olds hasn’t been the actual act of teaching.
“It’s making sure no one is talking while you’re teaching,” Hebert said and a smile grew on her face. “We have a class-on-classroom management, but you don’t experience it until you’re doing in it in the classroom.”
Hebert picked up some clever ways from Cade to refocus the attention of wandering minds, such as praising those students who aren’t talking or having the class count down from five to recapture everyone’s attention.
“Some young teachers will keep talking through a lesson even when the students are talking,” Cade said.
In her classroom, she’s also created what she calls “anchor charts” — reminders about when to listen, when to speak and what being polite means.
“Without the control in the classroom, you can’t get into the learning,” Cade said.
She has acted as a cooperating teacher — a mentor to student-teachers — for the past seven years, taking in college students to either observe her class or student-teach.
“It’s one of the most favorite parts of my job,” Cade said. “I’m constantly learning new things. They’re learning new things. I like to make sure that they stay excited. Teaching is a great profession. It’s great to see them excited about it.”
Later, when another UL-Lafayette education student finished her observation of Cade’s classroom, Cade sent her out of the room with well wishes: “Stay in the program and make a great teacher.”
Like Hebert, Alaina Savoy is a senior who will graduate in May and wants to teach kindergarten. This semester, Savoy has taught students in Caroline Hamlin’s class at J.W. Faulk Elementary in Lafayette.
Savoy’s students are studying shapes, and she uses an interactive white board at the start of her lesson, calling up students to color in the shape that possesses the number of corners she calls out.
After the exercise, she tells them, “Kiss your brains because you did so well!”
The students dramatically smack their lips with a hand and plant the air kiss on their heads. She then moves into a lesson using Legos and a scale to teach students about judging weights and the difference between the words heavy and light.
Savoy said keeping the students engaged is sometimes difficult. And, adapting to kindergarten-speak, finding the right words for them to understand, can be a challenge.
Hamlin said she’s looking forward to Savoy’s return to the classroom in January as a full-time intern.
“I think we’ll be able to meet every single need of the students because I’ll have an extra set of hands to help.”
Like Cade, Hamlin said she chose to accept an intern in her class because she wants to help inspire other young teachers.
“I remember when I was a student and I had a fabulous mentor. I want to be able to do the same thing,” she said.
Savoy, 22, said she is inspired by the youngsters.
“They’re growing so much,” she said. “They want to learn.”
Over at J. Wallace James Elementary, Hebert says she has no reservations about going into the profession — despite the tug-of-war in the past few years over education standards and over pay tied to teacher evaluations.
“Everybody says: ‘Why are you going into teaching?’ For me, it’s the kids’ lives that you have to reach. You learn from them as much as they learn from you,” she said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.