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Making the Switch to Teaching

by Roberta Furger


From the time he was just a young kid, Denny Heyrman knew he was born to teach. It just took him a little longer than most people to realize his life dream.

At 51 -- an age when many men and women are finally beginning to let themselves think about retirement -- Heyrman is starting his second year as a high school teacher. It's the burly Wisconsin native's third career -- he was a butcher for 30 years and worked for a brief time as a geologist -- but after just a few minutes of conversation, you know that he's found a home in the earth science department at Loveland High School.

Heyrman is one of thousands of mid-career professionals throughout the United States stepping up to help fill the much-talked-about teacher shortage. But unlike many who come to teaching through nontraditional routes, he wasn't thrown into the classroom after just a few short weeks of "boot camp" or handed an emergency credential and a class roster. Instead, Heyrman arrived at Loveland High School in Loveland, Colorado, with classroom experience in five different school settings and hours and hours of instruction in everything from technology integration to teaching students with diverse needs and abilities. He's the product of Colorado State University's Project Promise, an innovative, post-bachelor's degree teacher licensure program specifically designed for men and women who, like Heyrman, have chosen to make a mid-career switch to teaching. Upon graduation, Project Promise students have completed 47 credits, putting them well on their way to earning a master's in education leadership.

From engineers to accountants, physical therapists to lawyers, Project Promise students enter the program with a solid grounding in their academic subject area and an eclectic mix of career and life experiences. Some, like Heyrman, have spent a decade or two in a single career. Others have dabbled in a variety of endeavors before entering the program. But whatever their path, program participants share a common passion: They want to teach, and they're willing to put the rest of their life on hold for a year while they learn how to do it right.

Project Promise students develop strong ties that extend well beyond their graduation from the program. Credit: GLEF
A Community of Learners

From the time co-directors Barbara McWhorter and Angie Paccione start reviewing the roughly 200 applications they receive each year until students and faculty say their farewells at graduation, everything about Project Promise hinges on the development of a close, supportive group -- or in academese, a cohort. Directors select no more than 20 students each year, taking care to ensure that applicants are not only passionate about becoming teachers but that they will complement and enhance the experience of their classmates.

"We really feel that if we can get this group to come together, then they can help each other through a very stressful time," says McWhorter, alluding to the grueling pace of the 10-month program. The first three weeks are devoted to building the team. Students and instructors complete a ropes course, where they learn to trust and rely on one another. They talk about the meaning of the word cohort. (It refers to one of 10 divisions of an ancient Roman legion). They even play an old-fashioned game of Red Rover.

"The bonds that form are incredible." says Heyrman, a sentiment echoed by many of the graduates we spoke with, regardless of their Project Promise year.

Those early weeks are also when the instructors begin modeling the very teaching styles they want their students to employ. In an early lesson on developing respect and trust in a classroom, for example, McWhorter and Paccione demonstrate an activity they call "The People Bag," during which they introduce themselves to the group by sharing personal items. A "people bag" can be anything from a suitcase (for someone who loves to travel) to a kayak, which is what one river lover used to carry his most treasured possessions to class. One by one, teachers and students share their bags, a technique that many longtime graduates continue to use with their new students at the beginning of the school year.

"They're not just teaching us the material we need for certification," says Heyrman. "They're getting up and demonstrating how to get involved with the kids. They're setting the example they want us to follow."

Throughout their yearlong program, Project Promise students like Chris Tholl explore the many ways in which technology can enhance teaching and learning. Credit: GLEF
Combining Theory and Practice

After those early weeks devoted to relationship-building, Project Promise students go immediately into their first school-based field experience to observe how a teacher prepares a classroom and works during the first few days of the school year to shape a group of 20 or 30 students into a caring community of learners. It's the first of several times during the year in which Project Promise staff interweave theory and practice, a critical component of a high-quality teacher education program, says C. Emily Feistritzer, founder and president of the National Center for Education Information, a Washington, DC-based research institution.

"A combination of theoretical coursework and what I call on-the-job training is the most effective way to train teachers [if we want them to] wind up staying and teaching," says Feistritzer, a noted authority on alternative teacher certification programs.

"Theory and practice go hand-in-hand," explains co-director Paccione. "We give students a chunk of theory, then we let them practice it. We bring them back for some more theory, then they go out and practice again."

The mixing of theory and practice applies to the teaching of technology as well. Early on in the program, students participate in what Paccione describes as a technology boot camp, where everyone is brought up to speed on application basics: sending and receiving e-mail, creating various spreadsheet and word processing documents, and using desktop presentation software tools. From there, they immediately begin using these tools as they create lessons they'll be using throughout their student teaching experiences.

Project Promise students try their hand at an educational board game created by one of their colleagues. Credit: GLEF
Student-Centered Instruction

Because students enter Project Promise with at least a bachelor's degree (and often work experience) in the subject area they will be teaching, McWhorter and Paccione focus their instruction on helping students transform their subject-area specialty into thoughtful, engaging lesson plans.

Whether they're creating a review game or developing cooperative learning activities, students are expected to apply the tools and strategies they've learned to the specific subject area they will be teaching. For more focused instruction, students are also required to take a subject-specific teaching methods course through the CSU College of Education.

A unique three-week Diversity Institute prepares students for the complexities of teaching children of different genders, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and learning abilities. Throughout the institute, students explore such complex issues as race, class, and religion. They're encouraged to examine their own teaching practices -- particularly as they relate to gender equity issues -- and to spend time understanding, "and hopefully overcoming," their personal biases, says McWhorter. They also spend a week as a student teacher in an urban high school in Denver, where they have the opportunity to again put theory into practice.

For Susan Wei, a graduate of the Project Promise Class of 2000, the Diversity Institute helped prepare her for the challenges she would face during her first year as an English teacher at Westminster High School in the Denver area. "Because of that institute," says Wei, "I went and tracked down students who didn't come to class, and I kept the 'troublemakers' with me until we found a way to work together, rather than taking the easier way out and expelling them."

Project Promise students William Walden and Angela Barnett discuss one of Angelaís recent literature classes as part of the programís peer review component. Credit: GLEF
Continuous Feedback

Throughout each of their five in-school experiences, Project Promise students receive ongoing feedback from peers and supervising teachers, as well as from the Project Promise instructors themselves. Nowhere is this more evident, however, than in the final nine-week student-teaching experience. Students teach in high schools in and around the Fort Collins area, many of which are professional development schools with close ties to CSU's College of Education.

Project Promise students meet formally with their cooperating teacher (in whose class they are student teaching) at least twice a week, during which time they discuss everything from lesson planning and delivery to interaction with students. Issues discussed are documented in a binder that McWhorter and Paccione refer to during their weekly visits to their students' classrooms. Peer review is another essential component of the student-teaching experience. Project Promise students frequently observe and offer feedback on one another's lessons.

Each person in the feedback loop offers a different type of help and support, says Chris Tholl, a former tour guide and a member of the Project Promise 12 class, which graduated last spring. "Our cooperating teacher knows what's expected in the school and can offer us advice and information to make sure we stay on track," says Tholl. "As for our directors, they know what they've been teaching us, so they can check in to see if we're following through on what we've learned."

And what about the peers? Tholl's classmate (and a fellow student teacher at Poudre High School), William Walden, explains the support classmates provide one another this way: "We're under a lot of pressure. It's nice to have someone close by who's wearing the same boots you are."

Project Promise graduate and earth science teacher Denny Heyrman prepares lab specimens for his high school students. Credit: Denny Heyrman
Reflective Practitioners

Besides the feedback from peers and supervisors, students are encouraged to become their own critics and coaches. Explains McWhorter, "We want to work with them to articulate what's working for them and what's not working for them. That's what will ultimately inform their practice."

Two devices aid considerably in this effort: videotaping and journal writing.

From their first day in the program, students are asked to keep a journal in which they reflect daily on what they've learned, lessons they've taught, and concerns that keep them up at night. Although McWhorter and Paccione read and respond to the journal entries, the real value, say students and instructors, is in the self-reflection that goes along with the journal writing.

"I never was one for keeping a journal, but oh man, once I got started, I really found myself looking at things in a different light," says Heyrman. "At the end of a rough day, I could come home, and instead of sitting around angry and frustrated, I would write in my journal and realize things weren't as bad as I'd thought they were. It was a real release valve for me."

Videotaping plays a similar role for the would-be teachers. Much as athletes review their performance after a big game, students are routinely videotaped as they "practice" giving lessons to their Project Promise classmates and teach courses at local middle and high schools. Kari Hansen, another member of the class of Project Promise 12, was "horrified" the first time she saw herself on videotape. But over time she was able to use the tapes to improve both her delivery and her content.

"It's not often that teachers articulate and observe what we do," says McWhorter. "We want each experience to be meaningful, to be preparation for the next step," she adds. "Reflective practice helps them to do that."

The Safety Net

Even the best teacher education programs cannot fully prepare a first-year teacher for the daily highs and lows of running a classroom for the first time, as evidenced by the high dropout rate among first-year teachers. That's why Project Promise staff continue to support their students through formal and informal mentoring even after they've graduated from the program. "They ask our feedback on lesson plans and resources and invite us to come and observe their classes," says McWhorter, who, with Paccione, makes the rounds to local schools to check in on graduates, offering advice and encouragement.

And just as students help one another get through the program, they provide both practical and emotional support to one another as graduates. "I really feel a kinship with every other Project Promise graduate," says Heyrman. "We have a shared experience, and that makes us close, even among graduates from different years."


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