Teacher candidates get out into the classroom early on in teacher preparation courses at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Credit: Ascarate Elementary School
It was a hot El Paso morning. I put on the brand-new dress I had bought especially for my first day as an intern at Ascarate Elementary. I arrived at school on time, and after going through the formalities of introductions, I was kindly escorted to my assigned classroom. As I walked down the hall, I could hear, smell, and feel learning going on. My sense of excitement hit its peak when I entered the room. -- Juanita Garcia, teacher preparation intern, e-mail journal.
This scenario has been repeated twice a year for the past twenty-five years at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). For twenty-two of those years, students preparing to become teachers enrolled in classes for seven semesters and did practice teaching in a school during the final semester. But for the last three years, teacher preparation has changed dramatically at UTEP.
We have become more clinical and field-based, working closely with our colleagues at local schools. Teachers are now prepared more like doctors and nurses and less like philosophers and historians. Our teacher candidates spend more time in the classroom, and they are there earlier in their college careers. The separation between university learning and school experiences has been eliminated. And electronic communications, like the e-mail journal above, provide a real-time link between student interns in the field and their professors.
What events led to this change in teacher preparation? In 1992, the College of Education faculty held meetings with public school teachers and administrators to examine teacher preparation. The group recommended that the preparation of new teachers should shift to a clinical model by the year 2001. The college's mission for the remainder of the decade was charted.
That same year, UTEP's president brought together key business and local government leaders; representatives from UTEP and the El Paso Community College; superintendents from the three local public school districts; and EPISO, a grassroots community organization, to form the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. This partnership is committed to turning around the academic underachievement of local students.
Leveling the Playing Field
The El Paso area is an urban community that is among the poorest in the United States. Eighty percent of the 130,000 students come from Hispanic and mostly undereducated families. Providing our students access to technology helps level the playing field with other communities, making available a wealth of knowledge that is so important to academic success.
In order to improve student achievement, teacher preparation was identified as key to the collaborative's educational reform effort. And in1993, the College of Education received a three-year grant from the state to become a Center for Professional Development and Technology.
A new vision of what teacher preparation candidates should know and be able to do and the role technology could play became a part of the college's overall mission. Grant funds paid for staff development, as well as hardware and software for the college and the schools in which our students did their practice teaching. A five-year Challenge Grant in Educational Technology -- sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education -- added an emphasis on telecommunications, teacher training in the uses of technology, and parent involvement.
To fulfill our new mission, the college has had to change, and the schools where our students practice-teach have had to change simultaneously. All candidates entering teacher education are now prepared following a new model. Partnerships are created with the schools in which preservice teachers do their internships. All major stakeholders participate in planning and evaluating the teacher preparation program, including the teachers and school administrators who mentor the interns. It was not easy to develop these relationships and redefine the roles of university and public school faculties, but it was essential. Now our new teachers are prepared to enter schools that have themselves undergone change.
Teaching and Technology
When I entered Mrs. Valencia's third-grade classroom, I immediately saw Erika, Joaquin, and Brenda sitting at three computers with CD-ROMs. There was also a scanner and printer. It reminded me of my math class at the college when each of us would sit at a computer to practice the concepts introduced by the professor. ... Later, Mrs. Valencia told me that she is taking a sequence of four graduate courses at UTEP on how to enhance the curriculum using various technologies.
One of the areas in which teacher preparation has changed dramatically is incorporating technology with effective teaching practices. Through numerous grants, the classrooms in which our interns practice, as well as the college labs, have been outfitted with the latest hardware and software. Professors teach classes using interactive video, displaying their work on projection panels; classroom teachers help kids prepare projects using multimedia technologies; and interns e-mail journals to their professors and notes to their pupils.
Each of our partner schools has seventy-five to one-hundred state-of-the-art computers and related equipment in its classrooms. Every semester a college faculty member is released from teaching one course to dedicate time to learn how to use technology in her classes. During the next five years, ten professors will have participated in this project.
Give Teachers the Expertise
At the same time, mentor teachers from our partner schools have their college tuition paid to participate in four graduate courses on integrating information and communication technologies throughout the curriculum. Presently, sixty teachers participate in the program, and 180 teachers will have completed it during the next five years. Each graduate course consists of 45 hours at the college and requires at least two hours of practice time for each hour of instruction. Teachers participating in the program complete 180 instructional hours and at least an additional 360 practice hours to become more adept at using technology to support teaching and learning. Our experience has taught us that the expertise inapplying technology has to be in the hands of the classroom teacher.
I just came from a home visit. I noticed that Mrs. Perez had checked out one of the laptop computers the school has in the Parent Center for parents to use at home. She told me she was writing a rsum in order to get a new job. She was taught these skills by the parent educator. Now several parents help each other.
One new component of the teacher preparation program is to learn how to work with parents, those from low socio-economic levels and minority groups. Interns take a course on parent engagement, which requires home visits. The partner schools have opened Parent Centers designed to offer professional development opportunities for parents and provide them with the skills to volunteer in the classroom and be advocates for the schoolin the neighborhood. The Parent Centers make computers accessible to parents, who can check out one of fifteen laptop computers from several of the partner schools.
At UTEP, we are changing public schools and teacher preparation programs at the same time. We can't prepare twenty-first-century innovative teachers and send them to old-fashioned schools, nor can we prepare old-fashioned teachers and send them to innovative schools. A new breed of educators is reaching the classrooms of the El Paso region -- Juanita Garcia will be one of these teachers.
Arturo Pacheco, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso.