Nestled in the mountains of Happy Valley lies a quietly growing program that is training future teachers in the newest methodologies, best practices, and cutting-edge technology. Well known for their academics, Pennsylvania State University is home to one of the most unique and effective teacher preparation programs in the country. The Elementary Professional Development School (PDS) has gained nationwide recognition with its approach to teacher training.
Student Teaching at the Next Level
Unlike most student teacher programs, the PDS focuses on immersing student teachers in a year-long classroom experience. They credit their success and their ability to provide such a program to the relationships they have built over their 14 years in existence. Those relationships are formed between interns or student teachers, mentor teachers, faculty and staff (PDAs), the local school district, and the community. The PDS believes so strongly in forging those close relationships that they limit the number of yearly participants in the program to approximately 25% of all student teaching candidates. The process to be admitted it rigorous and acceptance into the program requires students to dedicate themselves completely to the position during their final year of undergraduate work.
A two-week “Jumpstart” program is held in the middle of August to prepare interns for the beginning of school. Unlike other seniors in college, the interns in the PDS adopt the local school district’s academic calendar forfeiting long winter and spring breaks. Instead of leaving the area after graduation in May, they are required to finish out the school’s calendar year. Their dedication to the program is one of the reasons why school districts have begun to actively recruit interns before they graduate.
In addition to their strong belief in relationship building as a key component to the program’s continued success, the PDS also focuses heavily on an inquiry stance method. It challenges interns to think about what approaches they can use in their teaching that will enable students to learn the most and the most effectively. Interns are expected to go after their problems instead of shying away from them. With a strong support system in place, they have the opportunity to explore new ideas and discover the answers to their questions with the help of their mentor teachers and professors.
In fact, the PDS and the local school district believe so heavily in the importance of having classroom teacher experience and advice available during the internship that they contract to hire teachers to serve as “Hybrid Teachers” or mentors in the program. These experienced classroom educators commit 1-3 years to work with the PDS students and are, in return, guaranteed the same grade level position and school placement that they left when they went to work with the university. It is one of the many unique aspects of the PDS program that makes it stand out above other teacher preparation programs in the country.
The use of cutting edge technology and integrated platforms is another way that the PDS is transforming the student teaching experience. All interns, mentors, and PDAs are required to have a MacBook Pro for seamless integration and dispersement of information. The PDS is currently piloting a K-2 iPad2 initiative for Apple that focuses on the use of tablet technology in the elementary classroom. Apple technology is also allowing mentors and professors an opportunity to give instant feedback to interns in the classroom. Video-taping a lesson and reflecting on it together is a common occurrence during evaluations and observations. Interns also complete online portfolios and leave the program with many of their first year projects completed. A classroom set-up and a first letter home to parents are required before graduation.
While the majority of their time is spent co-teaching and working in the classroom, interns are pulled out for methods classes during the week. This gives them the opportunity to discuss, problem solve, and learn about new approaches and technology in education. Yardsticks by Chip Wood (2007) and The First Six Weeks of School by Paula Denton and Roxann Kriete (2000) are two of just many of the required professional development books that students are expected to study and discuss. The broad scope of current, relevant teacher education information that the PDS provides for interns from current teachers, research, and technology is unparalleled in teacher preparation programs.
Challenges of the program are focused mainly on the lack of diversity in the partnering school district. Situated in central Pennsylvania, the student population of the school district is mostly middle-income and caucasian. Attempts to broaden interns’ understanding of other school situations come primarily in the form of video conferencing sessions with students who are student teaching in Penn State’s inner city school initiative in Philadelphia. Although the experience is vicarious, the PDS interns gain a broader understanding of the challenges and triumphs of working in a variety of school settings.
What does is take to be an intern in the PDS? A passion for learning, teaching, discovery, and reflection are required. A commitment that is far beyond the typical student teaching program requirements must be given from the moment the application is submitted for entry into the program almost a year before student teaching even begins. The highly selective process for acceptance ensures that those with the most dedication and perseverance will succeed in the program.
With over 600 graduates of the PDS program, most of whom are now leaders in their schools and districts, Penn State’s initiative has touched thousands of elementary students’ lives. Mutual respect and reciprocity, an inquiry method that challenges interns to think outside the box, and a strong relationship between the university and the school district makes the PDS a teacher preparation program the success that it is today. For any intern graduating from the program, there is definite pride in saying that they have been a student of Penn State’s Professional Development School where challenges are embraced and students blossom.
To find out more about the Professional Development School, click here.
Special thanks to Dr. Bernard Badiali, Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, for his time and insight into the PDS.