George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Elena’s Story: Envisioning the Making of a Teacher

One woman’s journey that led her to teaching.

September 1, 2001
Credit: Kristen Funkhouser

For as long as she could remember, Elena had wanted to teach. As a little girl, she would sit and read to toddlers, round her friends up to play school. Through her high school community service project, she worked as a teacher's aide in an elementary school classroom, where she was struck by the different ways young children seemed to approach learning and the ready curiosity they brought with them to school. She linked up with other high school students engaged in similar projects through an Internet group started by Future Teachers of America. She had the feeling she could spend a lifetime with children and never run out of new mysteries and insights.

When she finally arrived at community college, she knew she would want to prepare to teach, so she began taking courses in developmental and cognitive psychology early in her sophomore year. She discovered teaching cases available on a hypermedia system that allowed her to see videotapes of individual children and classrooms over time, to call up samples of children's work and teacher documentation about their learning strategies, problems, and progress.

Earlier, in her semester-long case study of John, a seven-year-old student she had tutored in a nearby school, Elena had puzzled over how John seemed to have a natural bent for geometric ideas and constructing models, yet struggled with extended reading. Now, as she and her colleagues delved into these databases, gaining through their discussions a deeper sense of what different learning approaches look like, she could see that John's learning mode made him more adept at spatial-visual tasks and less comfortable with verbal ones, and she was able to consider how to use his strengths to create other learning paths.

Credit: Kristen Funkhouser

An Academic Degree

To qualify for an eventual teaching license, Elena also needed to select a major in an academic discipline. Elena chose mathematics because she had always enjoyed the structures and patterns of mathematical ideas and problems. When she transferred to a California State University campus after two years, all of this work fed smoothly into the five-year blended course of study leading to a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master of arts in teaching at her university.

In her academic courses, Elena was learning and applying mathematical ideas and studying how people learn mathematics. She undertook projects that engaged her in mathematical modeling and computer simulations, statistical analyses, and interdisciplinary projects with students in engineering, architecture, and the social sciences. These allowed her to deepen her understanding of mathematics while examining the range of applications that would be important to her future student mathematicians as well as herself. Over time, as she studied how people learn and develop physically, psychologically, socially, and academically, Elena began to understand how children are influenced by their environments and how they make sense of the world.

Building on what she had already learned about human development, Elena found her courses in teaching strategies and curriculum development fascinating. In courses that modeled the kinds of strategies she herself would be using as a teacher, she looked at ways to engage students in experiences that would help them create challenging projects, integrate skills into hands-on activities, and conduct their own inquiries and experiments.

Melding Theory and Practice

Because coursework was tightly linked with practice, Elena didn't find theory dull or abstract. Professors rarely lectured from textbooks or measured learning by end-of-unit tests. Instead, they created opportunities for students to apply their learning in the context of real teaching situations. Such opportunities were available in the professional development school (PDS) sponsored by the college and local school system, where after her senior year Elena was engaged in a year-long student teaching placement under the guidance of a team of university- and school-based teacher educators.

Here, Elena was placed with a team of student teachers who worked with expert veteran teachers in a school that had committed itself to providing state-of-the-art preparation for prospective teachers as well as state-of-the-art education for children. Elena's team included one student teacher with a concentration in art, another in language arts, and a third in science, in addition to hers in mathematics. They were able to discuss learning within and across these domains in many of their assignments and to construct interdisciplinary curriculum together.

Located in a port city that served a broad range of racial, ethnic, and economic groups as well as recent immigrants from more than forty countries, the professional development school enabled new teachers to learn how to support learning for new English-language learners and to examine teaching from many cultural perspectives. In her seminars linked to classroom work as an intern, Elena looked at ways to identify and address various kinds of learning styles and needs, including visual, aural, and kinesthetic approaches to learning, and ways to address misconceptions students might hold about specific subject matter concepts.

Credit: Kristen Funkhouser

Case-Based Instruction

This work was supplemented by readings and dialogues grounded in extensive cases of teaching. A team of PDS teachers videotaped all their classes during the year to serve as the basis of group discussions for teaching decisions and outcomes. Because the PDS was also wired for video and computer communication with the school of education, master teachers could hold mini-seminars and conversations with the student teachers by teleconference or e-mail when on-site visits were impossible. Elena began to learn how to juggle and balance the competing demands of individuals and groups, curriculum goals and student interests, how to reach out to students who might otherwise slip past or fall through the cracks.

When Elena finished her rich, exhausting student-teaching year, she was ready to try her hand at what she knew would be an equally demanding first year of teaching. She submitted her portfolio for review by the state professional standards board and sat for the performance examination that would grant her an initial teaching license. She was both exhilarated and anxious when she received an offer to teach in a school near the PDS where she had prepared, but she felt she was ready to try her hand at teaching. She was comforted by the fact that her cohort of fellow graduates, along with one of her former professors and a mentor teacher from the PDS, would all be available to her in a study group throughout the year, connected by monthly meetings and an online network where they could talk, pose questions, and share ideas and materials.

Elena's mentor teacher worked with her and several other new middle school mathematics and science teachers throughout the year, meeting individually to examine their teaching and provide support. The mentors and their first-year colleagues also met in groups once a month at the PDS to discuss specific problems of practice. With these resources and those of her teaching team at the middle school, Elena never felt she was alone in her efforts to tackle the many challenges of beginning teaching -- from finding out how the school functions to developing her own teaching style. She always had colleagues to turn to for advice, counsel, and support.

She met weekly with the school's other math and science teachers to discuss curriculum plans and share demonstration lessons. This extended lunch meeting occurred while her students were in a Project Adventure/physical education course that taught them teamwork and cooperation skills. She also met with the four other members of her teaching team for three hours each week while their students were at community service placements, working in local businesses, public agencies, a senior citizens center, and the elementary school and day care center that shared their school building.

The team used this time to discuss teaching plans, interdisciplinary connections, and the progress of the eighty students they shared. In these two different settings, Elena had access to her colleagues' knowledge and thinking about both subject-matter issues and student concerns. They learned together about curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning. When a concern arose about a particular student's progress, teachers in the team would hold a descriptive review session in which to examine the student's work and behavior using their pooled experiences and insights to identify areas of strength, approaches to learning, family contexts, needs, and courses of action. Sometimes Elena would get valuable ideas from just conversing with another teacher in the hall.

Collaboration Requires Planning

These kinds of professional collaboration and support didn't just happen. They were built into the school culture as part of a deliberate effort to create a community of learners. The school principal, a dynamic leader committed to keeping alive the school's vision and momentum toward excellence, modeled her high expectations for teacher learning, taking an active part in the ongoing professional development activities of the teachers, fostering collaborative reflection and joint action.

But leadership at this school didn't reside solely in the person of the principal. It was spread across a teaching staff working out of a strong sense of shared ownership of that same vision for what their school should be. Teachers took initiative, for example, in creating study groups, interdisciplinary curriculum development efforts, and action research projects.

Elena and her colleagues benefitted from the continuing study groups they had developed at their school and the extensive professional development offerings at the local university and Teachers Academy. The study groups, which met during the school's staff development sessions (typically on Friday afternoons while students were in their academic clubs), were created by the school's Staff Development Committee, based on instructional needs revealed through the ongoing practice of taking a hard collaborative look at student performance data.

Credit: Kristen Funkhouser

Teachers Academy

At the Teachers Academy, school and university-based faculty taught extended courses in areas ranging from advances in learning theory to all kinds of teaching methods: elementary science, interdisciplinary topics in the humanities, uses of mathematics in the teaching of social studies, writing across the curriculum, advanced calculus, and much more.

These courses usually featured case studies and teaching demonstrations as well as follow-up work in teachers' own classrooms. Multimedia conferencing allowed teachers to "meet" with each other across their schools and to see each other's classroom work. They could also connect to additional courses and study groups at the university, including a popular master's degree program that helped teachers prepare their portfolios for National Board Certification. At Elena's school, choices of such learning opportunities were guided not merely by teacher interest but by shared goals for raising student achievement as part of a schoolwide student-centered process to improve teaching and learning.

Elena knew that all of these opportunities would be available to her when she was ready for them. With the strength of a preparation that had helped her put theory and practice together, and with the support of so many colleagues, Elena felt confident that she could succeed at her life's goal: becoming -- and as she now understood, always becoming -- a teacher.

Adapted from Learning to Teach in the 21st Century by Linda Darling-Hammond for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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