The Butterfly Effect
By Robert Schroeder
In his book "Letters to a Young Teacher," Jonathan Kozol writes about the butterflies his young teacher correspondent confides "are making 'many, many loop-the-loops' within [her] stomach almost every morning as [she] head for school."
When National Louis University student Kim Thinnes stepped into her own classroom for the first time as a full-time student-teacher at Farragut Academy on March 24, the butterflies in her stomach didn't even flutter.
Thinnes (M.A.T. Secondary Education-English and Language Arts) has worked with Farragut students in-depth since August, when she started in National Louis University's new Urban Scholar Teacher Education Partnership (USTEP), which places secondary teacher candidates in school classrooms from day one of their education to better prepare candidates for service in high needs urban schools.
"I think having the entire year behind me helped shake any nerves," Thinnes said. "I know all of their names, which ones were going to need extra help, and what my students can handle."
Thinnes is part of USTEP's inaugural class, a partnership created by faculty in National Louis University's secondary education department. Faculty Dr. Theresa Robinson-Thomas, Dr. Harry Ross and Dr. Sy Karlin concluded that secondary education candidates were engaging in significant observation but were lacking sufficient real-world teaching experience before entering some of Chicago's toughest schools. They envisioned a partnership that would place students in schools for two days per week, teaching lessons, designing curriculum and learning from mentor teachers.
Since August 2010, scholars at Farragut and Wells High School have been working towards the big day that just isn't that big.
"A mentor teacher was introducing one of the candidates to his students in August when she started, and he said, 'You know how student teachers are often like Christmas presents, arriving unannounced, and we have no idea where they came from?'" said Ross, an associate professor in the National College of Education. " 'This is not going to be like that. You're going to know her well, and she's going to help you long before she starts her student teaching.' That is the benefit of the program."
From day one, the partnership emphasizes students' outside experiences to ease their entrance into school culture. A musician starts building lessons in a band class; a seasoned traveler teaches lessons on geography; a published writer designs English curriculum. The concept builds rapport between the student-teacher and students and more importantly provides a window for the student-teacher into the lives of students.
"Candidates need a lot of work in cultural awareness, and how to use culture to their advantage," Ross said. "We teach them how to get to know their students early on, how to get to know their likes and dislikes, what's going on at home and in the neighborhood."
The capstone to understanding a school's culture—and navigating its cumbersome bureaucracy—is the mentor relationship. USTEP mentors filter through a lengthy review process requiring peer recommendations and interviews. Mentors introduce candidates to a school's influential teachers and power brokers, explain the ins and outs of working with administrators, and shed light on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering inherent to school life. Mentees provide their mentors with additional classroom help, advice shaping curriculum and exposure to the newest research methods and theoretical models.
When the safety blanket of the mentor is pulled away, scholars are on their own in the classroom. Thinnes acknowledges not every day is smooth. The small victories, however, add up quickly.
"It's the little things like hearing Maiyah, a freshman in my reading class, say 'Ms. Thinnes is cool!' to one of her friends, or seeing junior English student Jovahn's face light up as he greets me with an energetic 'Yo yo yo Ms. T!,'" Thinnes said. "It is seeing Salvador, one of the freshman boys, go from an F first quarter to a C second quarter, to being at the top of his reading class third quarter, and him excitedly showing me his raised grades in all of his classes."
Other USTEP scholars echo Thinnes' satisfaction.
"They have been thrilled with getting a hands-on experience before student teaching," said Karlin, an assistant professor in the National College of Education. "They love working with mentors, they feel they are better prepared for student teaching, and they understand their students."
As the program undergoes its first evaluation process, USTEP faculty are focusing on several objectives. Ross and Karlin agreed the mentor selection process needs to be fine-tuned to perfect the matching process. Karlin envisions scholars starting their teaching even earlier in the process and spending more time differentiating instruction. As scholars take on greater instructional responsibilities, the partnership aims for candidates to incorporate educational technologies with greater frequency in lesson plans.
USTEP aims to expand into suburban schools in August 2011, which may appeal to students whose current work schedule conflict with twice-weekly travel into the city. The partnership will be tweaked to meet the needs of different student demographics, but the instruction and mentoring, core aspects that are building student advocates for tomorrow's classrooms.
"To be honest, I originally thought there would be no way I would work in an urban classroom; I am a suburban girl," Thinnes said. "As their student teacher, and perhaps one day as their future full-time teacher, I want to be that someone on their side."
The butterflies aren't coming back.