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At this elementary school, even professors sit in the little chairs

Mar 31, 2015

Mike Flanagan, Former State Superintendent of Schools, meets an Auburn Elementary student at a dedication ceremony in October, 2014.
Credit Auburn Elementary

In many undergraduate education programs, students spend a lot of time in the university classroom to prepare them for their student teaching in the final year. 

Until that placement, theory sometimes has little chance to meet up with practice.

"As a former Superintendent, I often heard from our teachers and principals how ineffective their relationships were with the universities that were sending student teachers into the district," says Bob Maxfield, now Dean of Oakland University's School of Education.  "Often there just seemed to be no connection at all with what we were hoping to do and what the students were prepared for."

Maxfield is heading a new program that aims to deepen the collaboration among university professors and education students and the Avondale School District in Auburn Hills.

The program encourages education professors from Oakland to hold their classes at the schools.

This term, Professor Liz Guzniczak is teaching a reading and language arts course at Auburn Elementary.

Her classroom of college students perches on little kid-sized chairs. 

Long before her official student teaching year, senior Ashley Brees will have observed multiple teachers in classrooms, worked with students one-on-one, and tried her hand at teaching.

She enthuses about the benefits of plenty of hands-on experience like this.

"If you have an opportunity as a student to take a class in a school building - do it," she says.  "I don't care if you have to drive further, or you have to pick an hour that's not your favorite hour of the day, like 8:30 in the morning.  It's so worth it."

Nancy Brown, Associate Dean of Oakland's School of Education, says the program follows the medical school model.   Future doctors don't just sit in classrooms, she says, and neither should future teachers.

"Think about in medical schools," she says.  "Going to a hospital (as a medical student) you would work with a doctor and you would work with the faculty.  You would observe and then you would try."

Oakland University students at class being held at Auburn Elementary
Credit Auburn Elementary

But Brown says the program is not about turning Auburn Elementary into a teaching or research lab.  The main goal is to improve kids' education and test scores.  University professors and graduate students are encouraged to do research at Auburn Elementary, but improving education for the children is the higher priority.

It'll be at least another year before there is enough data to show whether or not it's working to improve the quality of education at the school.

But Brown thinks mixing kids and teachers with university professors and university students is giving everyone more opportunities to learn and teach - including the kids.

"They (the children) believe they're training our pre-service teachers.  And they will give them great feedback.  'Oh, Miss Ellen, you're having trouble asking questions....why don't you try posing the question this way?'  I observed this in a third-grade classroom and just couldn't stop laughing."

Some Oakland University professors were leery of the idea at first, as were some teachers.  

Oakland's School of Education Dean Bob Maxfield says people in both fields tend to think of themselves as the experts.  He says the stereotypes didn't survive the first day of the two-week retreat that got the partnership off the ground.

"The teachers said, 'those university people know something.  They aren't a bunch of wooly-minded theorists!  They're a delight.'  The university people were saying, 'these teachers are amazing, I can't believe how sophisticated they are.  I can't believe how much they know.'  So that kind of mutual respect transcended a decade of misconceptions about each other."

Maxfield says the program would never have gotten off the ground were it not for the involvement of the teachers' union.  Teachers were asked to re-apply and re-interview to get a spot teaching at the reformed elementary.

The fact that the school also had a longstanding Teachers Lab program also helped the school launch the new regimen.  

Credit Auburn Elementary

 Teachers Lab is a voluntary program for teachers to learn from each other - meeting to discuss best practices, and observing each other in the classroom.

Marcia Hudson of Avondale Schools says Teachers Lab was "the dowry," that teachers brought to the Oakland University partnership. 

The down side to the program so far - if you can call it that - is that apparently, there's a huge demand in the state for closer collaboration between the universities that educate teachers and the public schools who employ them.

Nancy Brown says about 26 school districts in Macomb and Oakland Counties asked the university to expand the program into their schools.

The university had to turn most of them down.

Now it's hoping other Michigan universities will help to meet the demand by starting similar programs.