On a recent Friday, University of Houston freshman Michelle Martinez employed packets of M&Ms to demonstrate the concept of probability to fourth-graders at Buffalo Creek Elementary School in the Spring Branch Independent School District. At the conclusion of her first foray into teaching, she said the youngsters had been actively engaged.
“They were willing to respond to the questions I asked,” Martinez said. “At the end of the lesson, the students seemed to understand probability because everyone completed the evaluation quiz correctly.”
Martinez is among fourteen students in a new UH teacher preparation program that is placing would-be educators into public school classrooms early in their college careers. A goal of the program — dubbed “teachHOUSTON and modeled after a successful format at the University of Texas — is to help urban schools attract and retain highly qualified personnel.
Exposing aspiring teachers to a school setting from the outset is important to the initiative’s success and sets it apart from other teacher certification programs, according to Jeff Morgan, chair of the Department of Mathematics.
“Getting the field-based experience early and often is really key to this program,” Morgan said. “We don’t want them to get out there and find out they’re really not where they want to be.”
In addition to Spring Branch, the Fort Bend Independent School District is collaborating with the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Education in teachHOUSTON. The Houston Independent School District is scheduled to come on board this fall, and other districts have indicated they are interested in becoming partners.
Ideally beginning in their freshman year, students will take twenty hours of education courses — two one-semester-hour and six three-semester-hour — over the next four years. They will graduate not only with a degree in a math or science discipline but also with a teaching certificate.
The college students receive intensive mentoring from the beginning at UH from a “master teacher” and in the school districts from an assigned mentor teacher, and they will continue to be mentored after graduation.
Susan Williams, an associate professor with a dual appointment in NSM and the College of Education, is the program’s first master teacher. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, a doctorate in education in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in mathematics education, and extensive classroom experience.
Williams is teaching the introductory “Teaching Mathematics and Science” course that the seven math and seven science majors in the inaugural group are taking this spring.
Next fall, they’ll take another one-hour education course. An A or a B in either course will earn a student reimbursement from the university for the course.
“These introductory classes let students try out teaching: come see if you like it,” Williams said. “Where else can you try out a career for free”?
This semester the students also will complete five field experiences in their mentor teacher’s public school classroom: two observations and three teaching assignments. School administrators recognize that when students begin preparing to teach as undergraduates, they receive more thorough preparation and are retained at a higher rate than teachers from alternative certification programs, Williams said.
“Research shows that the more field experience they have, the more prepared students are to work in a classroom,” she said.
Next fall, the first group will work with a mentor in a middle school and a high-school mentor the following semester. In the fourth semester, students will choose the grade level for their field experience. After graduation they ideally will remain in the school district where they are mentored.
Students who wait until the end of their junior year before deciding to earn a teaching certificate typically have difficulty fitting the eighteen required education hours into their schedule, Williams said, so some potential teachers are graduating without certification.
“If we can catch them early, they just have to take one or two teacher-prep courses per semester,” she said.
Morgan plans to add twenty-five students to the program each semester, eventually expanding it to 200 participating at a time. He estimates that at that level up to $700,000 could be needed annually for eight master teachers, mentor-teacher stipends, equipment, educational software, administration, and other operating expenses. He also envisions eventually furnishing every student a laptop.
“We want to turn out a group of teachers who are strong in content and technology savvy,” Morgan said, “because they’re going to be teaching a tech-savvy generation.”
UTeach, the UT program, has 400 participants, he said. UH received $250,000 from the Texas Education Agency through UT, and Morgan, assisted by the UH Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, is seeking additional funding. “The program has broad appeal with many corporations and foundations across Texas that see the correlation between good math and science instruction in public schools and developing high-tech workers of the future,” said Lisa Holdeman, UH director of corporate relations.
Morgan said UH is the first university outside the UT system where the program is being replicated. UT selected UH because of the diversity of the university and the area’s large, urban school districts. Students here will encounter dissimilar circumstances from Austin, he said. And “our students will almost all be working at least part time.”
But noting that most teachers do not stay in teaching beyond three years, Morgan said that 80 percent of UTeach’s graduates are still teaching after three years. He anticipates a favorable retention rate here.
Martinez said she was well-prepared for her first teaching experience. “Dr. Williams set the example on the first day of what a good teacher does,” she said. “In later classes we spent a great amount of time finding a lesson that we wanted to teach, finding manipulatives that could enhance the lesson, and learning how to write a detailed lesson plan using the five E’s: engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation.
“Also, the day I completed the first observation of my mentor teacher, I gained knowledge of how to manage the classroom and saw the techniques she used for engaging her students.”