Undergraduate internships in urban classrooms a good idea

Over the past three weeks I had the wonderful opportunity to work with an undergraduate intern in her sophomore year from Amherst College.  She dedicated this portion of her January recess to observe, assist, and finally try a few days of teaching in my classroom, during a tough stretch of preparation for the state ELA test.

My intern was from the Midwest and had never spent time in the “inner city” or in a public middle school (in fact, she was home-schooled for most of her own education).  But the sometimes-rough edges of my classroom, the school, and its surrounding neighborhood did not seem to deter her.  She was incredibly committed, non-judgmental, and enthusiastic about teaching.  My students and I came to truly appreciate her calm presence and thoughtful observations and suggestions. Though she came in a little shy to work with the entire class at once, she got past it.  She wrote in a letter to me, “You…gave me confidence to get up in front of the class and actually teach.  I surprised myself by hardly being nervous at all!”

I was thrilled when at the end of three weeks she shared that she would like to become a teacher in a public school and was strongly considering teaching middle school!  Score one for the team!

I was also pleased when she told me she would like to get her masters degree before entering the classroom.  In her words, “I just think I would be so much more confident that way.” She said she knows her experience at my school was positive in large part because of all the work us teachers had put into setting up our classrooms to be the learning environments they are.

It was somehow relieving to me to realize that this very young (age nineteen?), aspiring teacher understands the immense amount of work and skill it takes to teach and that she is still so excited about doing it.  I know one day, not so far from now, her students will be very lucky to learn from her.  That I had anything to do with this (and during test prep no less!) makes me really happy.

A few notes about undergraduates and the choice to teach today:

At some point, my intern mentioned that Amherst College does not have an education department and offers only a few education-related courses through other departments (like Literature and the Teaching of Writing–or something close to that).  This was strange to me because my alma mater, Brown University, had a vibrant education department with which many undergraduates were involved.

When I asked her if she knew why there was no education department at Amherst, she said, “Well I guess that since we are already paying so much for our degrees, the college assumes most people would choose careers that pay more than teaching does.”  Wow, I thought.  I completely understand what she is saying, but it came as a blow nonetheless and reminded me once again that I make a significant quality of life sacrifice in remaining a classroom teacher when so many other, higher-paying professions are available to me. (Note: I have no knowledge that my intern’s explanation for this is true, but it is telling nonetheless.)

On the other hand, she mentioned that, due to the current economic crisis, a major shift is occurring on campus.  Normally a high percentage of Amherst students go into banking.  Since this is not an easy option today, many more students are considering programs like Teach For America or NYC, DC, or Chicago Teaching Fellows, which promise an unusual amount of job security in troubled times.  The result is that said programs are becoming increasingly competitive.  Ironically, as candidates look for ways to improve their resumes, some undergraduates attempt to show an early interest in teaching by becoming interns.

I wonder how increased competition for one of the more secure jobs in the nation will play out for our profession and schools over the next few years.  Will it up the standards for who gets to enter the classroom without training and what kind of commitment they will need to demonstrate?  Will it influence many potential candidates to spend time in schools prior to applying; and will some make the choice, like my intern, to get a master’s first?

[first image is the author’s: taken of a previous student teacher I worked with in a different school  second image found at blog.derekjansen.com]

Related categories: