03/09/09 — Teacher trainee academy gives a head start

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Teacher trainee academy gives a head start

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 9, 2009 1:46 PM

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Crystal Whitfield, second from left, educator in the Southern Wayne High School Teacher Academy Program, talks with juniors in the program, from left, Amanda Edwards, Stephanie Bellefeuille and Denise Cashwell.

Amanda Edwards has always known exactly what she wants to be when she grows up -- a teacher, just like her aunt.

The Southern Wayne High School junior even had a plan. It included going to East Carolina University for four years -- hopefully on a Teaching Fellow scholarship.

She got a head start on the process when the school introduced its pilot Teacher Academy Program in the fall to attract students to become teachers.

The program exposes students to a teaching career by offering opportunities to take general education college level courses while enrolled in high school. It's something Amanda and others are finding beneficial.

"I was just really excited to have a class directed to do what I want to do," she said.

For students like Stephanie Bellefeuille, also a junior, it has made even more of a difference.

"I did not want to be a teacher," she said. "I wanted to work with children, but I was thinking psychology. I met Ms. Wiggs in her psychology class last year and that got me interested (in teaching). I thought it would help me with kids and would be a good choice. As I did my internship and class with Mrs. Whitfield, I do want to be a teacher now."

Kelly Wiggs and Crystal Whitfield, both social studies teachers at Southern Wayne, were tapped as lead instructors for the teaching academy by then-principal Eddie Radford.

"I think it was mentioned to bring something good to Southern Wayne, to show people that we're a school to be proud of," Mrs. Whitfield said.

Being the first year, the educators took a crash course in the curriculum required to launch the academy. While they say they're still "working out the kinks," it actually serves as a valuable portrayal of what's involved in being a teacher.

"Teaching is about being adaptive. We have to adapt all the time," Mrs. Whitfield says.

The program is set up to start freshman year, but the bulk of the education-related classes are offered during the junior and senior years. It's the supplemental activities, including membership in the Future Teachers of America, that round out the program.

With 54 members in the FTA, there are currently 12 members in the TAP program at present. Of the 12, four are seniors, eight are juniors, Mrs. Whitfield said, breaking down the demographics further to illustrate the diversity -- two males, two African American females, one Hispanic male.

"Part of the teacher cadet program -- it's a statewide program -- is to try to get minorities into teaching," she said.

Like other academies at the school -- diesel and construction -- it's the hands-on opportunities that prove most advantageous to learning.

For the teaching program, that translates to mini-internships. From October to December, students were assigned to teachers at Grantham School, going two or three days a week.

But they didn't just show up at the school one day and start assisting teachers, Mrs. Whitfield said. Before they ever set foot in the door to observe, there was much preparation students had not anticipated.

While they created books, made hand puppets and other fun activities, the bulk of the efforts are about being reflective.

"It's a lot of learning about yourself first, such as a teaching styles activity, where they found out what their teaching style was," Mrs. Whitfield said. "Before they went into a classroom, part of the program is that you can't just tell them all the wonderful things about the profession. So we talk about a lot of things -- teaching styles, learning style activities -- not everything learns the same way so you have to learn to differentiate a lesson."

Students also had to do presentations in front of their peers, leading discussions and becoming more comfortable speaking before a group.

For some that was especially helpful.

"I'm very shy and the little kids, they're looking at you," classmate Denise Cashwell said.

Amanda said it was a challenge for her as well, even armed with a lesson plan.

"My teacher (at Grantham), she split the class in half and let me teach them," she said. "I was so scared. They were just staring at me like, this new person is in the classroom. At first I was really nervous but then they were doing a vocabulary-building lesson. I just let them come up to the board and write."

Make no mistake, though. The program is not an easy grade. There is much classwork and writing involved. But the benefits of allowing high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to get a jump start on experience are most priceless, Mrs. Whitfield said.

"Being a teacher, I had to go to college and I never set foot in a class until my junior year in college," she said. "You need to be in the classroom as early as possible to get a feel for teaching. You can't read a book and know what it's like. I can't give them a textbook. It has to be hands-on to give them a feel."

Juniors like Amanda, Stephanie and Denise, who will be taking the TAP 2 class in the fall, "will already have two years of being in the classroom," she said.

Stephanie, who initially envisioned a career in psychology, said she has been pleasantly surprised to realize that she may even be able to help more children as a teacher.

"I kind of expected to come in and learn how to teach people," she said. "We learn more about ourselves than anything else. I think everything we did in this class gave us more confidence."

Because of that, she said, "Now, instead of thinking about what I want to major in, it's about what school I want to go to and what I will do if I don't get a Teaching Fellow."

Their instructor has also learned a few things. In the process of getting her cadets to think outside the box, she said the process has changed her as well.

"I experienced things that I had not experienced during my teaching, and I've been a teacher for 14 years," Mrs. Whitfield said. "I learned right along with them ... It has made me grow as a teacher and I also have learned to think outside the box."

That's good news, since the ultimate goal of the program is to challenge and inspire others to replenish the teaching pool.

"That's our motto. We want to grow our own," she said. "Both of us (she and Ms. Wiggs) are products of Southern Wayne and Wayne County Schools. We tell our students, 'You need to do this and you need to come back to Wayne County.'"

Recruiting students into the academy is not only done through the Future Teachers club, but at feeder schools.

"We'll be doing orientation (for eighth-graders) as well as having them on our campus, taking a tour and telling them about TAP," Mrs. Whitfield said.

While they never want to turn students away, she said it would be ideal to have the program at capacity.

"It's something we hope will grow every year, that we will get to the point that it will grow to that point," she said.