A group of Washington Elementary first-graders sit cross-legged on a colorful rug in classroom C4 as Natalie Lenzen, an Arizona State University student teacher perched on a chair in front of them, gives them a lesson about addends.
Radiating kindness and patience, she instructs her “friends” to head back to their desks for guided practice.
The students whisper excitedly among themselves as they march to their seats with their hands tucked behind their backs – forming their “ducktails.”
Lenzen praises their good behavior.
Angelia Adams, Lenzen’s lead teacher, calls several students to the back of the room to work one-on-one. These are the students who need a little extra help.
After class, Adams gives Lenzen feedback on her teaching style.
Lenzen then switches over to the classroom next door and teaches the same word lesson again – only this time, with Adams’ feedback in mind.
Lenzen swaps classroom with her ASU counterpart, Kaetlin Van Berkum, who will now teach there as Adams observes her.
Both Lenzen and Van Berkum are part of the new Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College student-teaching model, called Professional Pathways.
This “next-generation” teacher-preparation program seeks to not only change the future of the classroom dynamic, but also to expose student teachers to real classroom responsibilities that benefit students.
“It’s the start of training new teachers to work in teams where they can lean on each other,” said teachers college Dean Carole Basile.
“Teachers work in very isolated work environments,” she continued. “You are in a classroom all day with a group of kids and you’re expected to be the end-all-be for them and it is causes health problems – both mental and physical.”
As opposed to the previous one-to-one model, where one associate teacher assists one “master teacher” with a few lessons, Professional Pathways allows teams of certified teachers and student teachers to work across multiple classrooms under the leadership of an experienced lead teacher.
The overarching goal, said Basile, is to combat teacher burnout and teacher shortages.
From 2011 to 2016, teacher-prep program enrollment declined by 35 percent nationally and 25 percent in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re seeing a decline in the number of people coming into the workforce and people are leaving sooner,” said Basile. “This is a workforce development issue, not just a recruitment or retention of teachers issue – we need to build a new kind of teacher that works in a very different way.”
Burnout is “very real,” she explained, and the current workforce structure places insurmountable pressures on teachers.
“An individual teacher today cannot do everything that he or she is expected to do for a group of kids in a classroom,” Basile said. “Part of making this profession more attractive, and retaining people in it, has to be creating pathways for career advancement.”
So far, ASU is working with 11 partner school districts and offers preparation training for lead teachers, student teachers and principals involved.
The candidates must be juniors or seniors and are expected to complete a full year of teaching.
Once they are placed in a school, the ASU students will consult with each other, their lead teacher and a university faculty member working as a “site lead” that coaches and supports the teams.
At Washington Elementary, Van Berkum and Lenzen share a single class together, and take turns instructing Adams’ students.
Adams will generally observe and give feedback, while other times the associate teachers will take note of her teaching methods as well.
All in all, the three teachers are responsible for two classes as a team – making the teacher-pupil ratio 1 to 16, rather than 1 to 22.
“I think with the education system in the U.S., it’s hard for one teacher to have so many students,” said Van Berkum. “I feel so much more prepared for when I graduate.”
“I know how to talk to parents and hold conferences and take data from students now,” she added.
Lenzen echoed her partner’s claims, saying she feels confident trying new things and exploring her own teaching style.
“At first it felt very overwhelming, but once I realized the safety net I have here, I felt safe to ask questions,” she said. “I was nervous because they [ASU] can’t teach you how to confront upset parents or even how you make a positive phone call home.”
The dynamic also allows Adams, Lenzen or Van Berkum to work one-on-one with certain students during class time.
One of the many benefits of this, said Basile, is that the children have more opportunities to connect with at least one of their educators.
“The gist of it is that we want to breakdown the one teacher, one classroom model because we believe every kid needs to have access to a team of adults,” said the dean, explaining:
“If you went to a school and said, ‘Wow I have a team of teachers. This one is good at teaching me math, this one at reading and this one just at connecting with me and my interests.’ Now we have a team of adults who are working with you.”
Washington Elementary Principal Susan Jenni told the East Valley Tribune that she could not be more pleased with the implementation of the program so far.
“This has united our first-grade team,” she said. “Their conversations are much richer than other grade levels because it is all of them together.”
Jenni attributed their success to the strength of her lead teacher, Adams; the first-grade teacher volunteered for the role, despite taking on a major responsibility.
She has always wanted to “fill her cup” professionally, she said.
“I don’t have a desire to go into administration – I love teaching,” Adams shared. “Because I have such a passion, I want to share that with new teachers and I thoroughly enjoy coaching them.”
Adams meets with the two associate teachers every day after school to go over lesson planning and organization for the rest of the week.
Basile, Adams and Jenni all agreed that they hope the future of the education workforce will take on this team-based approach.
“Ultimately, we want to see all teachers working in these kinds of teams,” said Basile. “Every teacher I talk to about this gets very enthused because they realize the job is just too hard today and you just can’t do it.”