Teachers-to-be head to classrooms earlier

Laura Jeffries, a university sophomore, is standing in front of a high school earth-science class getting set to teach about volcanoes. Her voice quavers. She is clearly nervous.

Yet the remarkable thing on this particular day is not how well Ms. Jeffries teaches - but that a college sophomore majoring in education is teaching a high school class in the United States at all.

Here and in a few other locales around the US, college and university teaching majors are getting their feet wet earlier than ever before. They are connecting theory and practice and becoming comfortable in front of a real-life class.

Since World War II, this sort of in-class reality-check for aspiring teachers has been reserved for education majors in their senior or possibly junior year. But after preparing her volcano lesson for weeks, Jeffries finally gets her shot.

So under the watchful eye of Ken Postal, earth-science teacher at Apex (N.C.) High School, she launches into plate tectonics.

A few props and 25 minutes later she is done. And glad about it.

"One thing I like about this class is that it can help you decide early if you really want to teach," Jeffries says. "In other courses, you can learn strategies for teaching all day long - but until you get into the classroom you don't fully know what to expect."

But that's not the end of her teaching-learning experience today.

After Mr. Postal's class she marches upstairs for a class with Susan Westbrook, a professor of education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She and 12 others will debate with Dr. Westbrook the best methods for teaching the sciences to high schoolers, drawing on each person's in-class observation or teaching experience that day.

Like Jeffries, Westbrook's other 12 education students were distributed in classrooms around Apex High in the class period preceding the professor's college-level class, held in a convenient chemistry lab. "I wanted to get kids more field experience," Westbrook says. "This is much better than being stuck back on campus. It allows our education students to always see a classroom as a classroom for their own professional development, they're always learning."

But the class - which is off campus and meets three days a week instead of two - is more expensive. There's also the cost of preparing and teaching a small class like this in terms of Westbrook's own tenure.

"A lot of my colleagues say, 'I can't spend that kind of time and still get tenured,' '' she says. "But I think this is pretty important."

A few other education schools at universities in North Carolina and some others around the nation are also experimenting with off-campus delivery of teacher education via "partnerships" with local schools.

Dixie Lee Spiegel, a professor of literacy studies at the school of education at UNC Chapel Hill, teaches a local high school English class. Meanwhile, her college students lurk in the back of the room watching every move like a hawk - what works, what flops.

"They can see me doing things wrong every once in a while," she says. "It gives them much greater confidence that if you have to make a decision on spur of the moment that's OK."

The result: Education majors that have seen her conduct classes are less anxious about it. Teaching is "demystified," she says.

"It's made an incredible difference" teaching [education students] in a K-12 setting, she says. "Often [on campus] it can seem just so abstract. But here, when you say something, and then what they see you do it - it helps them understand."

Several in Westbrook's class feel strongly about their in-class experience and think there should be more like it. Bob Gillen, a PhD in biology, recently retired from manufacturing. "Most friends of mine think I'm crazy," he says. "They say, 'Why don't you just go to Florida.' But you know, I love this class. I'd rather be here than anywhere else."

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