Rochelle Treger has a smile and a word of encouragement for each of her students as they walk into her student-teaching seminar at San Diego State University, straight from their own demanding stints in local public schools. Even after a hard day's work peppered with the typical challenges of student-teaching — from quieting rowdy classes to getting kids to finish their homework — the enthusiasm is palpable as students pass through the door.
"In a lot of ways, we're the lucky ones," says Angela Holbrook, a soon-to-be chemistry teacher who spends her days teaching 11th graders at the Kearny High Educational Complex's School of Digital Media and Design. "It's a lot to handle; I still have to get my lesson plan done for tomorrow. But we have a goal that makes it worth it. We're trying to get hired by Linked Learning schools."
Learning to be a teacher is rarely painless, and Holbrook isn't the only student teacher struggling to figure out how best to manage a high school classroom. But she and her classmates say they are more optimistic than many of their peers enrolled in other teaching seminars. San Diego State is a leader among a growing number of California universities that have recently adopted a modified teaching credential program designed to prepare student teachers for the state's expanding — and increasingly popular — network of Linked Learning schools.
These schools provide high school students with strong academics connected to real-world experience in a variety of fields, such as engineering, arts and media, and biomedicine and health — an approach with a proven track record of helping students gain an advantage in high school, college and careers. Linked Learning is seen by many in the education arena as the best way to transform California's struggling high schools and is being promoted by the Linked Learning Alliance,
a broad coalition of interests committed to making the approach available to all of California's youth.
Skilled and motivated teachers are a critical component to the success of these schools, and as the Linked Learning approach has spread, teacher credentialing programs have adapted to better prepare teachers for the new school models. In spite of their growing pains, students like Holbrook are the fresh-faced recruits these schools are counting on to make their classrooms more rigorous and more relevant to high school students' lives.
"Linked Learning is an innovative approach to improve the success of our high school students, but it needs to be coupled with effective teaching practices," Treger says. "This meshing of both the Linked Learning lens and effective teaching strategies is my goal for my student teachers."
For student teachers and their professors alike, this is no small burden, and it has forced many teaching programs across the state to reassess their missions — and to ask themselves, What is the best way to teach teachers to teach?
SDSU began grappling with this issue three years ago, when Nancy Farnan, director of the university's School of Teacher Education, heard stories of administrators in local Linked Learning schools who were spending precious time and resources on additional professional development so that teachers could effectively teach within the Linked Learning approach. "They were basically saying teachers didn't know how to work in (this new environment)," Farnan says. "They didn't know enough about why they're doing this work or how to do it."
The primary focus of Irvine's Youth program is to support and advance the Linked Learning approach, and teacher training was seen early on as a critical component to achieve success. "It didn't take us long to figure out that one of the areas we need to be focusing on the most is teacher professional development and coaching," said Anne Stanton, director of Irvine's Youth program. "Well-trained and highly motivated teachers — and common planning time among them — are the foundation of high-quality Linked Learning practice. We expect the energy and skill these new teachers bring to the classroom to have a ripple effect not just on student outcomes but on the teaching field."
With the help of an Irvine grant in 2008, Farnan worked with faculty at San Diego State to revise the Single Subject Credential Program's curriculum to incorporate a Linked Learning "lens" into existing classes, emphasizing more collaboration among teachers and refocusing instructors on bringing real-world experience into their classrooms. "This has been right under our noses this whole time — the importance of making learning relevant to students' lives as adults," says Farnan. "It's simple, it's logical. It should have been obvious 20 years ago."
San Diego State soon received an additional $1.5 million grant from Irvine to develop a replicable model of their approach so other schools could use it, a product that has proven remarkably popular. To date, eight universities have adopted the SDSU-designed Linked Learning lens in their teacher training programs, including six California State Universities, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Claremont Graduate University. More than 300 graduates have now received this modified teaching credential, many of whom have moved into teaching positions at Linked Learning schools.
As this new teacher training effort expands, it is being put into practice in different ways in different programs, but the fundamentals remain the same. At SDSU, Treger's students spend their time between classes teaching in San Diego's 14 industry-themed academies, small schools-within-schools that focus on preparing students for both college and careers. In their classes at SDSU, credential candidates are learning not just the basics of lesson planning, but how to create the interdisciplinary projects, work-based learning opportunities, and rigorous college prep courses that are cornerstones of the Linked Learning approach.
SDSU's student teachers are divided into interdisciplinary teams every semester, where they are required to work together with other soon-to-be-teachers studying a range of subjects, from social science and English to math and music. Throughout the year, the teams collaborate on group projects, including classroom presentations and basic lesson planning, a constant reminder of the importance of teamwork in teaching.
This new approach to teaching may be in its early stages, but it has already energized many future teachers. Angela Holbrook, for one, spent five years working in after-school programs at a 2,500-student high school in San Francisco before enrolling in the program at SDSU, and she says the two experiences could not be more different.
"I thought that's what school was — teachers never talked to each other or even wanted to. You were on your own," she says. Holbrook is now training to be a chemistry teacher at the School of Digital Media and Design in the Kearny High Educational Complex, a successful Linked Learning program. She describes with enthusiasm how Linked Learning teachers at Kearny work together in a weekly Tuesday meeting to discuss lesson plans and coordinate schedules and projects. "What we do at DMD, we're modeling (at SDSU)," she says. "It's just really exciting."
Teaching at Linked Learning schools is still teaching, of course, and small learning communities don't absolve young teachers of the many challenges facing California's high schools.
"It's not easy, and there's still a daunting spectrum of kids in your classes," Holbrook says. But that is not what she worries most about when she walks to the front of a class of high school students. "My greatest fear is not getting hired by a Linked Learning school," she says. "I know this is what I want to do."