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College of Education > News and Publications > 2015: 04-06 news > Penn State, State College schools combine to prepare teachers in College of Education's Professional Development School program

Penn State, State College schools combine to prepare teachers in College of Education's Professional Development School program

Student teachers commit to entire 180-day school year with State College Area School District mentors.
Penn State, State College schools combine to prepare teachers in College of Education's Professional Development School program

Student teacher Lisa DiLorenzo

Lisa DiLorenzo
Student teacher Lisa DiLorenzo presents research at April Teacher Inquiry Conference.
Each and every day in the State College Area School District, about 65 prospective elementary and secondary English teachers enrolled in the College of Education’s Professional Development School stand up and give students a piece of their mind.

Penn State professors and school-district administrators wouldn’t have it any other way, because what goes into the makings of a good teacher is something those academic partners constantly have on their collective minds. 

The PDS program is unique in that its student teachers spend an entire academic year in the State College school system, not just a single fall or spring semester like traditional teacher-training programs. They attend August in-service days, faculty meetings and adhere to the district’s schedule, which means that they have a solid month’s work remaining after they graduate, not including a mandatory CI 501: Methods course yet to be completed. 

It’s safe to say it’s not for everyone. Jim Nolan, a professor of education and one of the coordinators of the elementary side of the PDS, can recite a list of qualities candidates should possess:

--“I think it’s for people who have a strong commitment to teaching.’’

--“I think it’s for people who are hands-on learners.’’

--“I think it’s for people who are willing to make that commitment to be a professional and step into that professional world because we have really high expectations.’’

--“And I think it’s for students who might need a little bit longer time to be the best teacher they can be,’’ Nolan said.

The program’s duration is lengthy; a student’s typical day is as well. Alyvia Walters of Harrisburg is a secondary English education major whose day consists of four sections of senior college writing, a reading strategy course, lunch and more college writing. 

Her seventh period is free but she opts to hang out in her mentor’s class and sometimes gets involved in teaching English 11. Add a weekly inquiry period, an every-other-week seminar with interns and advisers, a weekly meeting to discuss her inquiry of “Shifting Students’ Perceptions of Writing,’’ a random acts of kindness action team and a methods course, and time quickly evaporates.

Back on campus, Walters coaches two cheering teams and is on a THON committee.

Alyvia Walters
Student teacher Alyvia Walters of Harrisburg was part of the April 25 Teacher Inquiry Conference.
Walters entered Penn State as a public relations major before shifting to education. “I got through one semester and realized it (PR) was not for me. I wanted to be directly and positively influencing people,’’ she said. “I went back into education and found out about the PDS program. This program has been extremely helpful in solidifying my passions for English education.’’ 

And the full school year allows teachers to see how students grow academically over a nearly 10-month span, Walters said. 

The learning is a two-way street, according to Shannon Trozzo, who is from Bethel Park in suburban Pittsburgh and also a secondary English major. “The students I have amaze me every day,’’ Trozzo said.

“I have seniors, I have AP (advanced placement) seniors, and they’re going to Harvard, they’re going to Princeton -- they’re smarter than I am. They just teach me so much every single day. My juniors are college prep level and they teach me about the side that I’m not, like the creative side, the ones who like to do hands-on projects. 

“It’s definitely reinforced my want to be a teacher.’’

That’s what supervising teachers and administrators at State High want to hear. “We really believe that you learn by invention and you teach from who you are, so each student teacher brings his own strengths to the classroom,’’ said Veronica Iacobazzo, a professional development associate based at the high school. 

“I would say all of our interns show initiative, they are dedicated to students and they are looking to learn the practice the best they can and use each moment to be productive. Eagerness to learn is an asset to our program and a strength to our interns.’’ 

Hundreds of interns have come and gone in the program across its 17-year history.  About a dozen or more former secondary English PDS students – all currently employed -- returned April 24 for a luncheon with the 15 current interns. 

The gregarious and quick-witted students exchanged stories. When current interns asked for advice, they heard this:

--“Be open-minded.  You might want a high school job, but if a junior high job is there, take it.’’

--“Deal with tensions; do what you need to do to trust yourselves.’’

--“Don’t be afraid to ask for help; people want to help you, especially in your first year.’’ 

Shawn Bainbridge of State College, a 2014 graduate who completed the PDS experience and now is a senior-high English teacher at Midd-West High School in Middleburg, banked on the PDS reference on his resume to help him.

"I was very confident in knowing that I’d been given the very best education for educators that there was,’’ Bainbridge said. “That’s one of the answers I used during my interview when I was asked why should we give you this job. I was confident I had the best education to be an educator of any kind, hands down.’’

Bainbridge said a full year in the classroom as an intern went a long way to allay nerves. “Being able to be in the classroom with them and practice with them … they don’t know that we don’t know what we’re doing,’’ Bainbridge said. “It allows us to have mini-failures and be able to succeed despite our nerves.’’

Nerves should give way to optimism, according to Nolan. “An undervalued piece of leadership is a sense of optimism and portraying that sense of optimism,’’ he said. “Even if you’re not sure if something is going to work, you need to act as if you think it’s going to work. I think that’s really powerful.’’

Power is content knowledge, particularly on the elementary side. “When I look at second-graders and what they’re expected to do compared to 20 years ago, it’s phenomenal,’’ Nolan said. “So the teacher has to be a content expert but you have to be a content expert without losing that sense of compassion and caring and developing the whole child.

Jim Nolan
Penn State professor Jim Nolan, far right, participates in annual PDS Teacher Inquiry Conference.
Nolan’s PDS elementary crew does “a great job with that,’’ he said. “Planning a full day with different classes, different content day after day, that’s a tremendous workload. And you have parents who are giving their kids over to you for the first time. Teachers need to keep in touch with parents and say things are going OK, and they need to be able to say that things aren’t going OK. It’s a tremendously underappreciated job, it’s amazing.’’

Dana Kinek Susko, who graduated in 2007, is a K-8 library media specialist and remains invested in learning. She said her experience with technology while in the PDS program at State College “opened my eyes to how it can be used to leverage learning experiences, support various types of learners, supplement the curriculum and increase engagement and interest levels in the classroom.’’

She praised her mentor teachers and said they sparked her interest to obtain a library science masters degree.  She recently returned to school as a doctoral candidate in education media and tech (Curriculum and Instruction) in relation to teacher technology preparation and to integrate technology in the classroom.

Angela Single-Adelman, an English teacher at Overlea High School in Baltimore, said she constantly tells colleagues how well the PDS program prepared her. “I truly believe that the experience I had as an intern went above and beyond what any of my other teaching colleagues outside of our program experienced, even if they went through a PDS program with another college,’’ Adelman said. 

“No program I have seen so far was as well-structured as ours at PSU; the day 1 to day 180 experience was truly invaluable.’’

 Those involved with the program say the time span of 180 school days allows the Penn State students to follow their State College pupils’ maturation process.  

“They really do see the ebb and flow of the school year and see how the students change and progress,’’ State High’s Iacobazzo said. “They have the ability to put course-work theory right into practice. And experiment and take risks and be better productive and helpful to students that in a 14-week time period there just isn’t time for.

“Really, our inquiry-based model does allow them to go into depth with an interest and passion and pursuit and a need that they see in their classroom. That is an asset not only to students but to pre-service students in our program,’’ she said.

 Another intangible, according to Jamie Myers, a Penn State professor of education who heads the secondary English side of the PDS program, is having two teachers actively involved in the students’ instruction.

“We’ve had teachers report that particular students like the intern – ‘they don’t like me but that’s OK.’ Somebody is helping them and they’re receptive to that person. By having two personalities working together, they have a broader impact and are reaching a more diverse range of kids.’’

The older “kids” teaching the younger “kids” are deeply invested. All PDS interns participated in the 17th annual Teacher Inquiry Conference on April 25 at which they presented their yearlong research. They appear to be confident even if some deep-rooted nerves exist. Many said they knew at an early age that they wanted to teach.

And all subscribe to the College’s 4-E theory of Enhance, Ensure, Engage and Educate. In detail, that translates to:

— Enhance the educational experiences of all children;

— Ensure high-quality inductions of new teachers into our profession;

— Engage in furthering our own professional growth as teachers and teacher educators of all children; and

— Educate the next generation of teacher educators.

“We want growth for both teachers and university faculty,’’ Nolan said. “We expect us all to learn. I have learned more about teaching in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this than the 25 before. Without a doubt … just watching these teachers who are phenomenal teachers.’’

 Nolan said the interns see that teaching is complicated, that there are always problems and that not everyone’s exact needs will be met. “But when problems come up – and they expect that will happen – they’re not floored by it,’’ he said.

 Much of that also is due to the mandatory methods courses students must complete. “Each of our methods courses is co-taught by a teacher or a couple of teachers and a University person,’’ Nolan said. “So we have no methods courses that are taught just by University people.

 “Each of those courses has a group of teachers that works with it to make sure that the methods course fits into the State College curriculum and helps us get the best amount of learning that we can from that. They also help us design professional learning for teachers. Teacher learning has really been a strong core of what we’ve done.’’

 The same can be said for the secondary side of the program. “Teaching English in grades 9-12 is not a closed-door event at this high school,’’ Myers said. “They welcome each other into classrooms, they’re talking over lunch, they’re sharing failures, there’s just a lot more risk-taking and collaboration among the teachers than was evident when we began the program 17 years ago. The teachers will tell you that.’’

 Colleen Sheehan is a first-grade teacher in the district’s Gray’s Woods Elementary School. She’s mentored students for more than 10 years, she said, and was quick to say that she grows each year as a professional because of the PDS program.

 “It’s really helped me because I’m working with interns who are getting the new trends that are happening in education, so they’re coming into my room and I’m learning from them,’’ Sheehan said. “It’s kind of a two-way street. The interns learn from us but then we learn so much from them.’’

State College superintendent Bob O’Donnell also appreciates the collaborative effort. “The value that it brings to our school really relates to the fact that the mentors and interns are working together so closely with each other and our students, and it’s an incredible win for all parties involved,’’ he said.

O’Donnell has seen the program from both sides. ”I get to look at the PDS program professionally as superintendent interacting with Penn State folks as well as a dad because all three of our children had PDS interns during our time here,’’ he said. “So we’ve gotten to know those interns from conferences, being in the classrooms and also hearing stories at the dinner table. That has helped me to really see it from the inside in a kid’s eyes.’’

 The student teachers have their eyes on the future -- on securing jobs right out of Penn State and on their ability to make that happen.

 When I went to the career fair I never felt more prepared for anything in my life,’’ said Lisa DiLorenzo, a second-grade intern at Gray’s Woods Elementary. “I felt like the PDS applicants were standouts among the crowd and it was really impressive to see what we could do. I felt completely prepared to walk in there.’’

The steps to that end begin with the partnership, O’Donnell said. “We’re really lucky to have a program where highly committed interns are in our classrooms for an entire year,’’ he said.

 “That’s not the norm for developing teachers. Not only are we helping our students in our community, but we’re helping the profession by helping highly qualified and committed new teachers to join our ranks.’’

 Regardless of the top-flight preparation, students know they’re bound to encounter problems, awkward situations and circumstances they’ve never experienced when they walk into their first classroom as a professional.

 What the PDS partnership taught Bainbridge, the first-year teacher, was something he was eager to share with the interns:

“Don’t give up, just keep smiling,’’ he said. “Their worst day in the classroom is still going to be so much more rewarding than their best day in a typical 9-to-5 job. There’s just no other experience like it.’’

By Jim Carlson (May 2015)