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April 23, 2013 - Christina Hunt has the job of her dreams. She’s a third-grade teacher.
A native of the Philadelphia suburb of Phoenixville, Christina earned her B.A. in Government and Law at Lafayette University. When she explored graduate school options, she followed her heart and chose the Teacher Education Program (TEP) at Penn GSE. “Penn has a focus on urban education, and I was interested in working with underserved students,” she says. “The program aligned with my personal goals.”
TEP students are immersed in the communities in which their schools are located. Their education in the 10-month, full-time M.S.Ed. program begins in July. Those who follow the Secondary Education path spend the summer working in community-based organizations, while students interested in Elementary Education do a study of the neighborhood surrounding their assigned student teaching school. The program’s summer start means that TEP students are ready to teach on the first day of school, giving them more in-class experience than the 12 to 14 weeks typical of most teacher education programs.
“Penn’s focus on the neighborhood around the school is about getting to know where the students come from and what assets they bring to the classroom,” says Christina. “That really sets the program apart, because we were able to focus on the positive. Students love bringing in foods that represent their ethnic background and sharing them. You also have families that are part of cultural organizations, and students bring in information from those organizations.”
Christina worked at two Philadelphia schools as part of her student teaching assignment. “It was a different experience for me but I was ready for it,” Hunt says. “I knew I’d be working with city kids, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else. Penn equipped us with the necessary content knowledge, but also with the management skills to deal with an entire classroom full of children on a day-to-day basis. It really helped foster my love for education and teaching.”
After completing her master’s degree at Penn GSE, Christina was hired to teach the third grade at Mount Eagle Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia. Christina is thriving at Mt. Eagle, despite the challenges of working with a highly diverse population drawn from a variety of ethnic groups and representing different socio-economic backgrounds.
“The school district is really terrific to work for,” says Christina. “They provide us with a lot of support as first-year teachers. We check in with other teachers once a month, and the school really fosters collaboration with other teachers…they are huge on cooperation.” She adds that cooperation was the watchword at Penn as well. “As student teachers we were placed in partnerships so we could learn how to collaborate with another teacher and learn how best to serve the students.”
The inquiry-learning approach at Mt. Eagle, in which students explore concepts and arrive at their own conclusions under the guidance of a teacher, also mirrors Christina’s own experience as a student at Penn. “Penn does an excellent job of preparing students for a career in teaching,” she says. “GSE equipped us with the skills we need to teach in modern classrooms…and to move those classrooms into the future.”
A lifelong interest in education and social justice paved the road for Kristen Bryant’s journey to a fifth-grade classroom in Alexandria, Virginia, via the Penn GSE Teacher Education Program (TEP).
“I was attracted to Penn for my undergraduate education because of the rigor and challenge Penn offers,” Kristen says. “Since I wasn’t set on a specific career path, it gave me the opportunity to study in an interdisciplinary way. When I first got there I looked into medicine because I had always been interested in helping people. Then I watched a documentary on education systems in urban areas, and because I was born in Newark, New Jersey, something about that resonated with me.”
When she was six years old, Kristen’s family moved to the relatively rural community of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. By the time she was considering colleges, she was ready for a change. “There was nothing to do there, and I didn’t see any opportunity. As a young person, the city environment appealed to me because of its art, science, research, and many museums,” she says.
At Penn, Kristen became involved with several Philadelphia schools as part of her work/study program and as a volunteer. That experience solidified her resolve to become a teacher and she applied to the Teacher Education Program for graduate work.
The student teaching portion of Penn’s GSE program was important to her preparation, says Kristen. “I was able to observe other teachers teaching, and they were excellent. I’ve taken what I learned from them and implemented those things in my own classroom. Penn is a very theoretical place with a lot of research going, and it’s wonderful to learn all these ideas about practice. But my favorite part by far was the student teaching.”
Today, the classroom Bryant envisioned as a student has become a real fifth grade one at the Weyanoke Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. Because her school serves a largely disadvantaged population, Bryant has to be aware of much more than academics. “It’s giving me insight that I didn’t have before,” she says. “Students are dealing with personal issues at home and in the community. Some kids haven’t eaten in the morning or don’t have coats when it’s 30 degrees outside. This affects how they are able to learn, as well as how effective I can be as a teacher.”