George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Place to Discover the Teacher Within: The Muir Alternative Teacher Education Program

MATE offers a top-notch model for teacher preparation and more.
By Cecelia Wambach, Virginia Watkins
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8 A.M. Third-grade mentor teacher Debbie Ruskay (center) plans a sentence-combining activity with interns Tanya Kaiser (left) and Ariel Kendall (right). They discuss the morning schedule of story reading and smaller reading groups emphasizing phonics and vocabulary.

Credit: Steve Klein

What happens when you bring a cohort of thirty teacher-education students into an urban school? You sow the seeds of powerful and lasting change -- for both the university teacher education program and the school -- in this case, John Muir Elementary School in San Francisco, California.

The Muir Alternative Teacher Education Program (MATE) is the result of a collaboration between San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Unified School District. Its mission is to create a new model for elementary school teaching and a new model for teacher preparation.

At the heart of this five-year-old program is the concept that each of us -- administrators, teachers, and students -- is unique and has wisdom to share with others. In mentoring one another, we have created a nurturing, caring, learning community where children are thriving educationally, emotionally, and socially, and teacher interns are learning how to teach.

10 A.M. As groups of two to four students rotate through stations, Ariel and Tanya lead their own activities. With three teachers, the students receive personalized attention and the interns work closely with all students.

Credit: Steve Klein

Planting Seeds

Interns arrive at Muir during August while teachers are setting up their classrooms. They visit from class to class and talk with teachers about their curricula, teaching styles, types of classroom activities, summer vacation, and other matters of the heart. After spending time with the teachers, interns select which grade levels they want to teach for the upcoming year: K-1, or grades 2-3, 3-4, or 4-5.

The chemistry that emerges as the first step toward establishing the mentoring relationship is something we can't write into the process. After two days of classroom visits, the interns meet with the entire teaching staff to share personal stories. After getting to know the students, each teacher then selects two candidates whom he or she believes will work well as interns in class.

1 P.M. Technology coordinator Erin Boo-yá leads a seminar with the interns who spend the afternoon taking university courses onsite.

Credit: Steve Klein

Developing Mutual Respect

Keeping in mind the preferences of both the interns and the teachers, we create pairings that represent as diverse a group as possible for our children. In forming mentoring partnerships, we consider issues such as gender, race, and special interests. We see this process as planting the seeds of a long-lasting professional relationship.

Instead of taking classes at the university and spending just one semester as a student teacher, MATE interns teach and take their courses at this inner city elementary school. We have found that our immersion approach to teacher education works best for interns who want the rigorous experience of participating in solutions for urban education.

Working side-by-side with classroom teachers, professors, and students -- many of whom are often in crisis -- the interns bring their ideas to the classroom challenges, and in so doing construct their own knowledge about being a teacher.

4 P.M. Ariel, Debbie, and Tanya meet at the end of the day to discuss progress of individual students, address intern questions, and plan the following day to the benefit of both teacher and interns.

Credit: Steve Klein

University Courses in the Classroom

Our interns become our curriculum assistants and idea partners, providing mini-group instruction in our classrooms and helping us devise better ways to educate our students. They provide one-on-one instruction and interventions to students whenever special help is needed. They are storytellers, game teachers, and writing assistants.

Sometimes they become the teachers while the teacher assists. And when they are comfortable doing so, they serve as substitutes when teachers are out of the classroom for workshops or other professional-development experiences.

Teachers and interns alike are committed to supporting and sustaining one another to realize our common goal of educating our children. Over time our relationships deepen, as does the level of collaboration and mutual respect between interns and their teacher mentors. The mentor teacher depends on the intern to ensure that all of the classroom needs are met, and the interns rely on their mentor teachers to guide their developing practice of teaching.

Turning the Tables

As interns begin to open up and take risks in their teaching, the entire classroom community wakes up to what learning is all about. For our interns, this is what it means to "discover the teacher within."

In this place of self-discovery, children begin taking risks with their own thinking and begin working in deeper ways. They become inquisitive learners, relishing time for reading, participating eagerly in projects, proudly performing their latest drama, and showing off their first published novel in second grade.

Mentorship relationships between interns and mentor teachers are one facet of our supportive school community. As coprincipals, we mentor and guide each other and the teachers. The entire community mentors the children. When we arrived five years ago, we were the initiators, but not any longer. Today, our school is the creation of our entire community.

Our namesake, John Muir, once said, "The sun shines in us, not on us." This school is a beacon of light for our community. The quality of the relationships we establish is the determining factor of success for all school community members.

Cecelia Wambach, Ph.D., is a professor at San Francisco State University. Virginia Watkins is principal of John Muir Elementary School in San Francisco.

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