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The College of Education and Human Services is stepping away from traditional models of student teaching and exploring a richer learning environment.

Gone are the days when an experienced classroom teacher would surrender precious class time so a young teacher candidate could learn his or her way around.

Through Cal U’s expanded Professional Development School collaborative, strong partnerships are being formed between teacher education programs and PreK-12 schools.

The result: Powerful learning environments that benefit both teacher candidates and public school faculty — all for the purpose of meeting children’s needs.

“Teacher preparation across the nation is being questioned because it has remained in the traditional mode for quite some time,” says Dr. Holly Diehl, an assistant professor in the Department of Early, Middle and Special Education.

“The only way we can get stronger is with great partners.”

The new PDS model expands the relationship between teachers-in-training and public school educators. Cal U teacher candidates still work one-to-one with experienced teachers, learning to develop effective lesson plans and teaching actual classes. But they also take part in research and bring fresh, creative ideas to the classroom.

“Everyone benefits from the situation, especially the PreK-12 students,” Diehl says.

Enhanced preparation

Although Cal U has had student-teaching relationships with local school districts for many years, in 2011 the University decided to enhance its teacher preparation program.

Some national organizations insist that teacher candidates be “learner ready,” or able to assess the needs of students and create instructional plans to meet those needs, immediately upon graduation, Diehl says.

“Being a very good teacher is the hardest job there is. Learning how to be a very good teacher takes lots of practice with strong mentors in the field.”

In Professional Development Schools, Cal U teacher candidates are placed with well-trained educators who can give them support and guidance. They also have the opportunity to share experiences, perspectives and different teaching methods.

“I was able to attend a series of workshops with my teacher,” says Jessica Show ’12, who worked with teachers at Benjamin Franklin Junior High, in the Uniontown Area School District.

“After the workshops, we bounced ideas off one another and developed lesson plans from what we’d learned at the workshop. In the end, I was able to learn new teaching methods and integrate them immediately into the classroom.”

Teacher candidates also have the opportunity to help lead inquiry and research. If school districts wish to research the effectiveness of new teaching techniques, for example, Cal U will help teacher candidates collect data and arrive at conclusions.

Eventually, Diehl says, a University liaison will be designated for each PDS district to help identify such projects and match them with interested teacher candidates.

“Professional Development Schools give us real-world context to study teaching and learning,” she explains. “Each school district is different and has different research needs. We hope we can match them with students who are eager to study that specific topic.”

Being involved with a PDS district also helps Cal U education majors begin building a professional network.

“Through the partnership, I was constantly talking with teachers from across the region at workshops and conferences,” says Show. “They know that we are learning future teaching methods during our time in the (PDS) program and that we are very prepared for the classroom.”

‘Two-way street’

Teacher candidates aren’t the only ones who benefit from the PDS collaboration.

Professional Development Schools receive priority consideration for teacher candidate placement, and Cal U turns to them first when seeking a host for field-based education courses.

University faculty members contribute to school district efforts to meet goals and address student needs. Cal U and its teacher candidates also support inquiry-based teaching and learning, participate on advisory boards, and implement field-based activities.

Fresh from their education classes, teacher candidates may help to integrate technology into the classroom or suggest new teaching methods learned in their coursework.

“The bottom line is that the teacher preparation program works together with teachers in the public schools to create high-quality learning environments for our teacher candidates and for their students,” says Diehl. “We all work together.”

The program has mutual benefits, agrees Michael Sears, elementary school principal in the California Area School District.

“Not only do the children benefit from having the teacher candidates in the classroom, but our teachers do, as well. Cal U’s teacher candidates bring new ideas into the classroom.

“It’s a two-way street that we are really happy with. Ultimately it makes a better learning environment for our students.”

The PDS program is still evolving, and Cal U would like more school districts to join the collaborative, Diehl says.

So far, school districts are giving the experience good grades.

“I hear and see a lot of good things about Cal U’s teacher candidates,” Sears says. “They come to us with a great desire to learn, they have great ideas and they are very professional in the classroom.”