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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Student Teachers Connect College and Community

At Middlebury College, students pursuing education degrees are not encouraged to “teach for America,” but rather to “teach for real,” according to Tracy Weston, an assistant professor in the education department.

Students who are interested in obtaining a Vermont teaching licensure at the end of their studies will complete a professional semester through the college, during which they practice student teaching in local schools.

Required coursework precedes the student teaching program. Aspiring student teachers must take several courses: Education in the USA, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Models of Inclusive Education and at least two psychology courses.

“We’re trying to have all of those courses complete as a solid foundation in advance of our students moving onto the ‘methods of teaching’ classes where students learn how to teach specific topics in schools,” Weston said.

These methods courses are taken as a sequence throughout the fall, winter and spring during the final full year that students are at Middlebury and not yet student teaching. About half of the education students at Middlebury take these methods courses during their junior year and student teach during the fall of their senior year. The other half take the methods courses senior year and return to student teach for a ninth semester after they graduate.

During these methods courses, Middlebury students start to work with the kids and teachers in local schools at some point during their class time.

Irene Margiotta ’19 is in this stage of her licensure program this fall, spending two days a week at the high school before she student teaches full time during the fall of her senior year.

“What I’m doing right now is new,” Margiotta said. “They wanted to start to introduce the college students to the schools and the schools to the college students a little earlier.”

Middlebury’s education studies program aims to teach students how to plan a lesson, how to find resources, how to connect with valuable community members and importantly, how to have “difficult and important conversations with young people,” Weston said.

She cited projects that focused on agency and racial inequity, about which Middlebury students could converse with their young students in the classroom. Weston noted that in her experiences, these are topics that Middlebury students tend to feel strongly about, which gives them emotional connections to their work with young school kids.

“This program is definitely not doing elementary education as ‘facts and crafts,’ that’s not really our approach at all,” Weston said. “We have a really strong social justice part of our mission statement, which we are honoring and carrying through all of our course work.”

Although the Middlebury student teaching program is still growing, Weston hopes that the creation of the new education studies double major will promote or at least spread awareness of this collaborative program that Middlebury organizes with local schools.

“I hope that more Middlebury students become aware of and seriously consider committing to the double major through our licensure program to engage in the thoughtful, deliberate work that is required to be a well-prepared teacher,” Weston said. “It isn’t enough to be smart and well-intentioned and think that absolves you of the responsibility to be prepared before entering a classroom.”

Weston explained that the current setup of the student teaching program at Middlebury took root four years ago when they “started making a turn back into schools.” However, the program is constantly being revamped to best meet learning goals and requirements. This fall, five Middlebury student teachers are engaged in initiating conversations and presenting materials in unique ways to kids in the local area. Next fall, there will be nine more.

“[The Middlebury students] have grown a lot in that they realize how ready and eager young people are to have important conversations about current events and issues, that even we as adults are struggling with,” Weston said.

Since Vermont is one of the least racially diverse states in the country, Middlebury students must learn how to navigate leading and participating in difficult conversations in a largely homogenous classroom. Additionally, they learn to present materials and information in ways that are interesting and engaging for young people. Chelsea Colby ’17.5, one of the Middlebury student teachers this fall, noted the challenges that these important conversations bring.

“You will come across questions you cannot answer and new situations you never thought you would have to deal with,” Colby said. “My cooperating teacher has modeled for me that you just need to be flexible and willing to change plans to best meet the needs of the students.”

Nora O’Leary ’17 expressed similar appreciation for the lessons she is taking away from her students and host teacher as she student teaches in a fourth grade classroom at Mary Hogan this fall.

“As a teacher, each new day provides a different challenge, a unique and delicate problem to solve, feelings to heal and topics to tackle,” O’Leary said. “It’s been a joy to watch how my cooperating teacher navigates all of these with grace and tact.”

Middlebury’s student teaching program currently works with all nine of the schools in the Addison Central School District: Bridport, Cornwall, Mary Hogan, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge Elementary Schools; Middlebury Union Middle School; and Middlebury Union High School.

Weybridge Elementary’s principal, Christina Johnston, explained that Weybridge has grade levels K–6, with only four very small classrooms. Johnston expressed confidence in the ways that Weybridge teachers think a lot about their practices so that they can serve as good examples for the Middlebury students and show them how to teach with “strong goals of learning.”

Johnston acknowledges that the new education studies double major is beneficial not only for the college, but for the Addison Central School District which will profit from the thoughtful students entering the field.

She regularly witnesses reflective conversations happening between teachers and Middlebury students as they look for opportunities to take the next steps in the classroom and learning process. She also appreciates the unique relationship that develops between young kids and college students.

“There is something magical about the age of college students. They are seen by the kids as ‘having arrived,’” Johnston said. “There’s recognition of them having made it in some way, so there’s a great admiration.”

On the flip side, Johnston acknowledged that Middlebury students also have a lot to learn from young locals in the Middlebury area.

“If you’re watching and listening closely, you really do begin to understand that humans intrepidly are trying to understand things, that’s their job, and the kids are so earnest about that,”Johnston said.

Kristina Ohl ’17, a Middlebury graduate who is in full-time student teaching semester this fall, acknowledged this ability to learn from young kids. Ohl student teaches in a fifth grade classroom at Mary Hogan, where she is required to provide instruction in every subject.

“I have learned from students that you should never underestimate them and you should always expect the best out of every student,” Ohl said. “I’ve also learned to be flexible and that no two students are the same. Sometimes we have to be creative about how to meet the needs of each student and include everyone.”

Leigh Harder, a cooperating teacher at Weybridge Elementary, strives to teach student teachers the value, challenges and rewards of teaching a wide range of students in the classroom.

“One of my biggest goals in working with student teachers is to convey that elementary education is a profession that is demanding, intellectually stimulating and immensely satisfying,” Harder said.

Cooperating teachers at other schools in the area follow this approach as well. Julie Berg, a fourth grade teacher at Mary Hogan, shared that this is her first year with a student teacher and that she can already see how both she and the student teacher will benefit from the program.

Berg said that she involves her student teacher heavily in all of her planning, including the writing of a new International Baccalaureate (IB) unit for the class. Berg also emphasized the benefit of being able to observe her own classroom while the student teacher is leading the learning.

The shift to the IB unit mentioned by Berg is something that will benefit the teaching practices of all of the student teachers going through the Addison Central School District now. Harrison Schroder ’17.5, a student teacher in a seventh grade science classroom at Middlebury Union Middle School, has witnessed those benefits.

“Within the local Addison Central School District, the transition to the IB program, which I was fortunate enough to be trained in, will provide me with more tools, strategies and confidence to help students become more inquisitive and find meaning in their own education,” Schroder said.

Although, according to Weston, most Middlebury students do not choose to stay in Vermont to teach after completing their programs, there are still many lessons to take away from the schools in the local district. One of those lessons is the strength of community in smaller school districts.

“I believe that teaching at small schools in Vermont has shown me one way that public education can operate,” Colby said. “Working in the schools I feel I have been able to invest in the community and get to know so many teachers, students and families. I feel grateful for the closeness this small community uses to its advantage and I know that wherever I decide to teach in the future I will take with me the lesson of investing in the community and in families to work to provide students the best possible education.”

Weston also noted the beneficial experience of working with the degree of diversity in the local schools.

“We have more economic diversity that sometimes folks won’t recognize,” Weston said. “There are income disparities that exist throughout the county and throughout the school district.”

Johnston and Berg emphasized this level of diversity, sharing that their classrooms offer young people who come from a variety of experiences and family backgrounds, despite apparent racial homogeneity.

Weston stated that her method of teaching “will resonate with Middlebury students who are also looking for ways to ‘contribute to a more just, compassionate and equitable society, as our mission statement says, and who are interested in increasing access and equity, which is the focus of our local school district.”