Grey’s Anatomy, UCF, and the future of teacher prep

Like many other husbands, I’m coaxed to watch Grey’s Anatomy on Thursday nights. I resisted at first, but I’ve actually started to care about the characters at Seattle Grace Mercy Whatever-It’s-Called Hospital. I’ve also learned a thing or two from the show, like how colleges and universities can improve teacher preparation.

Grey’s is set in a teaching hospital, one where interns and visiting doctors can sit behind a glass window and peer into the operating room. They can see the wizardry of top-notch professionals live and discuss it as a group. In one episode, surgeons tweeted the steps of a risky procedure, complete with photo and video links, to teach colleagues worldwide.

Why don’t more university teacher prep programs take a page from this show’s script and the medical profession in general by utilizing more master K – 12 teachers who can demonstrate expertise for entire classes of college students?

The University of Central Florida is doing just that. My friend and fellow Hillsborough County teacher Megan Allen serves as their Educator-in-Residence. Allen was Florida’s 2010 Teacher of the Year and one of four national finalists for the same honor. A National Board Certified fourth-grade teacher, Allen is spending this year as a college instructor who offers pre-service teachers a real perspective of an educator still in the K-12 classroom. When she invited me to speak at UCF recently on the topic of teacher leadership, I jumped at the chance.

Allen greeted my wife and me with a smile as we arrived at UCF one bright morning over Spring Break. We headed over to the Hub, a half-lounge/half-resource center, where her students popped in gradually between classes. Some grabbed snacks and sodas; others brought their class projects for Allen to see. That week’s objective: create word walls, interactive vocabulary lessons posted on classroom walls that engage students and increase literacy year-round. As a few of the students joined us at a round table, their Educator-in-Residence introduced us and invited them to pick my brain.

We talked about everything from teacher leadership to classroom management. They even asked my wife for a spouse’s perspective on the true workload teachers face. Waiting to visit Allen’s 1:30 class, I suddenly realized, this was a class, an informal, non-threatening environment where students could gain insight and share ideas on their way to lunch or Economics. Allen invites her undergrads for regular sessions on a variety of topics. “How do you handle students who don’t speak English?” one woman asked me. “Do you use a word wall? How?” said another.

The questions continued in Allen’s elementary language arts class later. What started as a brief pop-in for encouragement turned into a two-hour Q & A session about their fears, misperceptions, and long-term goals. This room of young people inspired me with their honest questions and imaginative projects. They just wanted to learn how to survive as teachers, and they didn’t want to hear theories from Piaget, Vygotsky, or Rousseau. Not when there were working professionals standing in front of them.

I left UCF energized and flat-out impressed by the hunger these students showed for the teaching profession. The visit made me stop and think. What if more practicing teachers went into college classrooms and kept a foot in their own? What powerful lessons might result if Allen’s students could visit her elementary school in person, via Skype, or videoconference, returning to debrief with her in the university class the next week?

It could even work on a larger scale. On Grey’s Anatomy, attending surgeons in each department mentor individuals while also demonstrating for large groups. I envision a real teaching school like this, employing an entire faculty of hybrid teacher-professors, fully integrated with a local university’s teacher preparation program.

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2011 report,“Student Teaching in the United States,”  outlines the careful selection process of cooperating teacher mentors. Yet I haven’t found much evidence of teacher hybrid roles with universities where the cooperating teacher is also the college instructor, equipped to blend pedagogical theory and practice.

Other institutions of higher education would be wise to take the same risks as Central Florida. Invite more master teachers to serve as visiting professors, or better yet, in long-term hybrid roles where they teach children along with college students. Let these experts open their classrooms and lead by example, not by theory. We won’t all get to be Dr. McDreamy, but we sure can teach like he does.