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Only A Teacher
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Sandy Warner
Alex White


Interview With Sandy Warner
Sandy Warner is a mentor teacher at the Roberts Paidea Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Q: How did your teacher training prepare you for the classroom?

Well I think in the past in the beginning, teachers had a short experience that usually lasted about ten weeks in the spring of the year so they were coming into classrooms that were already up and going, that were running, and those of us who went through that kind of teacher education program had a real rough time when we got to our own first year of teaching because we had no idea what had happened in the beginning of the year, to get that classroom up and going, how expectations, rules, procedures had gotten established. My beginning teaching experience was also limited in the actual amount of teaching I did. You know, gradually someone let me begin teaching a little bit, but I didn't truly feel responsible and accountable for what happened in that classroom.

Q: The Cincinnati Initiative for Teacher Education (CITE) program interns are half-time teachers and they are also enrolled in a Masters Degree program at the University of Cinncinnati. How does this work?

This learning takes place in a team context. So the interns share a classroom with each other, there are four interns to a team, and they have a mentor teacher -- someone like me, who is leading the way, facilitating what happens, ensuring that they are providing a quality program for those children. They are paid teachers. So while it adds a fifth year to their teacher education program, they truly are finishing this year with one year's experience and having been paid. It, it is a half-day quote position, but yes they're here much longer, but they also have to take very very seriously the other hat that they're wearing, the fact that they are also working on graduate level courses for their masters degree, additional methods courses, they have commitments to the university to get their education degree, without that they cannot get certified or licensed, so that is equally important; they're wearing many hats over the year. And it is something they often find frustrating, interns find frustrating that while they're at school they're worrying about what they need to be doing on campus and vice versa, and it is a real juggling act to wear, wear those two roles, and then try to keep a personal life going as well. It's a heavy duty, a very intense year.

Q: How does the CITE Program compare to these earlier models of teacher training?

The CITE program is really different, in a lot of ways. First of all, it is a year-long experience. They are sharing a classroom with another intern, but they are the teachers, they are the load-bearing teachers, and they begin to truly understand all the roles and the responsibilities that teachers have to fill. They have to begin first to understand the curriculum, to figure out how to help children understand where we're going; they do all of the planning, they do all of the parent communication, and parent involvement. They do the assessment and evaluation. They have a very, very strong support system. Another major difference is that they are truly a team. We are really looking at teaching as much more of a collaborative process that we plan together, we problem-solve together, we make decisions. Consequently, with all those good ideas coming into play, a lot more effective things happen too because we're doing a lot of trouble shooting ahead of time and giving each other feedback. One of the main differences, I think, in this program, is that I was taught how to teach, which would seem to make sense, we're teachers. But in this program we're talking more about learning, instead of worrying all the time, "what will I say, what will I do, what will I teach," -- it's a big difference. We're talking about what learning will happen, not only the children in our classrooms, but our learning, how will we learn together as well. That's a pretty significant difference.

Q: What is your role as a mentor teacher?

I facilitate their learning. I really, so strongly believe that any kind of learning is not about telling. So yes, while there is some basic information I have to impart, I really believe it's my role to facilitate a process for them of putting the pieces together, of figuring out how this works. But I do take a really big role in helping them understand curriculum, children, instructional materials, instructional strategies, how to come full-circle and use assessment and evaluation as an integral part of going back to the curriculum to the instruction, to the materials... It's a very developmental process, and my role is to facilitate that.

Q: What do you do before school starts in the fall to make sure everything goes smoothly for the interns?

Well, over the last three weeks, we have been doing an awful lot of planning in terms of long-range plans for the year, thematic units we'll be doing, themes; we also have been trying to help them understand the curriculum, what does this really mean? Where are we really trying to go with these children? And some talk about different instructional strategies that they're going to be trying and how to make those work. A huge part of it is getting a physical space, a classroom, ready to be a true learning community. So we have been making all kinds of decisions for the first time--where will I keep things? How will children have access to them? How will I set up this physical space so that it will be a learning space? They have been amazed how long that takes! That has just been weeks and weeks of work.

Q: Parents must worry about their children being put in classes with inexperienced teachers. How do you respond to that concern?

I think while the interns are inexperienced in the classroom, they are absolutely not a liability. They bring to the classroom a freshness, a new perspective of looking at things, a very strong commitment to working with those children. Any child in that classroom is going to get a quality program. That is our bottom line, at least, that's one of the purposes of having someone like me oversee what happens. It provides almost a guarantee that what happens in that classroom will be quality.

Q: What does it mean that Roberts Paidea Academy calls itself a "professional practice school"?

My dream, my goal, that I share with many people in this building, is that this school truly would be a professional learning community of all kinds of people. We have chosen to call ourselves professional practice schools, while you might also hear somewhere else the term professional development school, we believe that it's never truly finished developed, that what learning teaching is about is practice, continuing to improve practice, continuing the learning, an ongoing process of improvement of learning, and I think it's an important distinction that we make. It is a whole climate you are establishing in the building as a whole that brings in a lot more people than just the mentors who are working directly with students from the teacher education program. It is an approach to what's happening, all aimed at improving student learning, and student achievement. And so you do network with people, you find people that have a goal; we've had action research happen in this building -- it's sometimes in collaboration with university people, sometimes it a group of people that's just really into looking at something, kid watching.

Q: CITE is a collaboration between your school, the Cincinnati Teachers Union and the University of Cincinnati. Why do so many players need to be involved?

I think the fact that CITE is a three-way partnership, is crucial to it's success, and that partnership began in the square-one part of this process, where we were coming together as university teacher education people, Cincinnati public schools, teachers, administrators, union concerns, and dreaming. It started with a dream. If we could have an ideal teacher education program, we began with those dreams, and it takes all three of those partners to make this work. Because if you think about it, we could have wonderful things happening on campus, people learning all kinds of new things, but if they can't go out in the school and practice what they've been taught then it doesn't work. And at the same token, we can't make the schools work if we don't stay up on the newest ideas and theory about what's happening. So it takes all three of those partners to look at this in a holistic way that makes sense.

Q: How has the CITE program affected the rest of the school community?

I think CITE is just such an eye-opener and watching what has happened in this building has been exciting to me. We began six years ago with a small core group of people who were interested in the idea of this kind of work. And now there is a sense, I think, in the building that this is part of the school's mission. People who are not working with students this week before school has started have been bringing me bulletin board borders, instructional materials saying "Sandy, I know the interns don't have a lot of money to buy things for their classrooms, do you think they would like this?" That's culture, that's a change in the whole culture of a building. The number of people that are now going back and getting their masters partly supported by scholarships from the University of Cincinnati to continue their own professional growth. The idea that people are inviting these students into their classrooms, new people are saying, "OK I think I'm ready to mentor, I would like to work with a student now." You're changing culture in a building and it's important that that happen in a school as a whole.



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