Cambium: The Case for Teacher Apprenticeship

Situating a small teacher-training program within an independent K-8 school on a 20-acre farm could be a recipe for obscurity. With an ever-growing number of avenues through which to pursue an MAT and public school licensure in Oregon, the Arbor Center for Teaching’s Apprentice model has the potential to sit anonymously on the sidelines as larger universities scoop up promising graduate school candidates.

In the past few years, however, the ACT program has begun to make its mark. Leading through quiet example, our program embodies core principles we believe are essential elements of teacher education reform. In particular, we emphasize clinical practice via a “co-teaching” model and seek to interweave theories investigated within graduate school courses with the practical concerns of teachers’ day-to-day classroom challenges. And we aim to help move teacher training forward in other school contexts as well. ACT staff have participated in recent conferences hosted by the Chalkboard Project, reviewed grants in support of teacher training improvements throughout the state, and served as consultants to public school districts moving toward incorporating such principles.

One impetus for experience-focused training is the hope that this will lead to longer tenure in the teaching field for our graduates. The Distinguished Educators Council recently released recommendations for improving teacher training in Oregon, citing an emphasis on classroom experience and effective mentors as the top priority. “Most practicing teachers believe they could have benefited from more time actually teaching under a mentor teacher’s tutelage before they began independent practice. There is a sense that pre-service and in-service programs are designed and implemented in a vacuum from the realities of classroom instruction,” the report states. In the ACT model, Apprentices teach full time for two years within at least two classroom settings. As they develop their own style and “stance,” link assessment to the next day’s lesson plans, and work to balance a teacher’s heavy workload, they receive coaching, wisdom, and survival tips from mentor teachers working alongside them. With ongoing and immediate feedback throughout each teaching day, ACT Apprentices have a steep learning curve but are well supported as they learn what it takes to succeed in this challenging profession.

Apprentices are propelled into responsibility as full members of the Arbor School faculty by the simple fact that they are needed to make our classrooms operate. Our mentor teachers expect to run their classrooms using the co-teaching strategies advocated by the Teacher Quality Enhancement Center at St. Cloud State University, making differentiated approaches, stations, team teaching, and careful one-on-one assessments possible. Teaching over two years in multi-age classrooms enables Apprentices to come to know students and their families deeply and to participate even more fully as the curriculum, learning celebrations, parent conferences, and school events cycle around again.

As Apprentices work to hone their practice according to the coaching and advice of mentors, these “lead” teachers advance professionally as well. Coaching a beginning teacher requires clear explication of purpose, tying each task and lesson arc to the broader aims for the class. At Arbor, the mentor role is respected and recognized as an avenue through which teachers continue to grow. In part, mentoring requires a different set of skills than those needed to work with children and adolescents. Mentor teachers join in and lead graduate seminars and have become eager not just to coach, but to learn from the Apprentices they come to know so well. During our ACT admissions season, mentor teachers help interview potential candidates, searching for Apprentices who show initiative and creativity. They know their classrooms and their own practices will be enriched by co-teachers who are willing to start disco-dance sessions during rainy recesses, who will lead students to love mathematics by enthusiastic example, and who bring a new perspective and set of questions to traditional areas of inquiry.

A second hallmark of the ACT program is the close connection of theory and practice. Accordingly, graduate courses with a pedagogical focus such as math, reading, or assessment occur on site at Arbor School, although Apprentices also join the larger Marylhurst University MAT cohort for courses aiming toward broad socio-cultural understandings, ESOL strategies, or social justice theories. At Arbor, Apprentices rush from shepherding carpools or convening reading conferences to rigorous discussions of educational innovators ranging from John Dewey to Nancie Atwell, Alfred North Whitehead to Bob and Ellen Kaplan. Graduate coursework is designed to apply theory directly to practice, to provide an avenue for unraveling the day’s teaching conundrums within a group of trusted colleagues, and to support Apprentices’ work with their particular students. Planning for the day ahead, reflecting on and assessing student understanding, crafting thorough narrative reports, and developing “Back to School Night” presentations are the stuff of both graduate and K-8 classroom work at Arbor.

To further bridge the potential divide between the university’s aims and the K-8 school’s needs, we ask mentor teachers to make suggestions for graduate coursework assignments that will help both Apprentices and children move forward. For example, intense focus on differentiation in reading during ACT seminars helps hone Apprentices’ reading assessment practices in order to advance the widely ranging abilities of K-8 readers in multi-age classrooms. In addition, we see the Arbor faculty as a natural audience for Apprentice writing, presentations, and questions. Arbor faculty meetings are often turned over to Apprentices who share their current insights about a particular aspect of teaching practice or pose questions for discussion among the faculty as a whole. This provides a chance for experienced teachers to affirm or extend Apprentices’ understandings and also to evaluate their own classroom practices. Later this fall, Apprentices will formally present the results of “action research” focused on the social curriculum to the Arbor faculty. Their studies range from developing leadership within multi-age settings to encouraging active listening among second and third graders. In considering together where and how to move forward from the discoveries and subsequent questions generated by Apprentices’ research, the teaching practices of Apprentices and Arbor faculty alike are elevated.

Theory/practice connections arise from our collaboration with Marylhurst University as well. Graduate “supervisors” visit classrooms at least once each week, co-teaching, planning, and directly observing the situations Apprentices are wrestling with and the students with whom Apprentices are trying to connect. Even the director of Marylhurst’s MAT program visits Arbor classrooms twice each month in order to study the classroom contexts within which Arbor Apprentices work and to adapt the university’s support accordingly. MAT students placed in other cohorts have visited Arbor classrooms in order to see particular principles in action.

With our own teaching program continuing to develop an individualized and intensive preparation model, we remain enthusiastic about seeing our core principles take root in other contexts as well. We are intrigued by a generous collection of TeachOregon design grants the Chalkboard Project has just awarded to collaborations between various public school districts and university teacher preparation programs in Oregon. We hope to see that rigorous, experience-focused teacher preparation that intentionally links theory and practice can flourish throughout the state.

–Annmarie Chesebro, ACT Coordinator