Raising the Grade

by Wan Jing Lee, A15

Tufts Urban Teacher Training Collaborative student teacher Duncan H. MacLaury, G14, instructs a ninth grade humanities class at the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester in May, 2014.

Tufts Education Department Chair David Hammer believes that due to limited training, many new teachers are unable to teach effectively. Novice teachers often lack rigorous preparation such as the Tufts Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) offers. With the rise of Teach for America and similar programs, says Hammer, many young teachers view teaching as similar to enrolling in the Peace Corps. "You come in and do a couple of years of service before you go on to other things," Hammer explains. "We know that this underestimates the subtlety and intellectual challenges of what it means to be a teacher. It takes real training and education to be effective in the classroom."

Duncan H. MacLaury, G14, helps a student in his 9th grade humanities class at the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester.

Hammer, who is also a physics professor, studies the learning and teaching of science from young children through adults, and he is particularly interested in how instructors interpret and respond to student thinking. He explains that the substance of a class and the activities within it are two closely intertwined components in teaching. Students should learn, says Hammer, "to assess the quality of their own and others' ideas, because that is what scientific thinking is really about." He emphasizes that with little training, teachers simply aim to convey information and to judge students based on their retention of that information. 

Hakim Lucas , (G00), speaks at the 2013 Men of Color Conference.

If a student's response is not in a set body of information or answer key, it's often considered wrong, explains Hammer. "That's how school works when it's not working very well, and it is antithetical to how science works," he adds. "Teachers need to understand the student's thinking - a challenge that is all the more difficult when the students are from diverse backgrounds - and need to ground their thinking in the intellectual practices of the discipline they teach." The rigor of the Tufts (MAT) program is its emphasis on developing teachers' skills in learning to elicit, attend and respond to the substance of their students' thinking. 

Men of Color Conference participants,(from left to right) Danny Wilcox (G01), Aaron Shelby (G08) Murales Louis (G11), Hakim Lucas (G00), Juan Matos (G05), Jerib Carson (G10), Banjineh Browne (G10), Nakia Keizer (G02), and Khoury Peterson-Smith. (Photos by Pearl Emmons, Tufts University)

Candidates for the MAT at Tufts may apply to work in the Urban Teacher Training Collaborative (UTTC), a partnership between Tufts and public schools in the Boston area. Linda Beardsley, Director of Teacher Education and School Partnerships, says the program seeks to place pre-professional teachers in schools that are "really doing the hard work of making the schools work for all students." "The UTTC partner schools are always trying to improve, and they also believe it is important to help prepare future teachers," adds Beardsley. The UTTC program has formed partnerships with Fenway High School, Boston Arts Academy, Mission Hill School and Codman Academy in Boston, as well as with Malden High School, Malden's Linden STEAM Academy and Somerville High School. 

In contrast to teacher training programs that only require a ten-week teaching experience, students in the Tufts UTTC program work with a teacher-mentor for the entire school year - a timeframe the partner schools insist upon. "It's very important in urban education for students to have strong relationships with their faculty and so the teachers in training need to be on site consistently," says Beardsley. The most effective teacher training models are those where universities and schools work closely together, putting the university in a position of learning and sharing good ideas," she adds. "We get to learn closely with schools that are facing challenges and rewards every day, and Tufts professors integrate what we learn from local schools into the education curriculum."

The Tufts faculty has also been actively working to attract teachers of color to the MAT program. Tufts has had great success in the past in recruiting teachers of color, but in recent years, partially due to the increasing number of programs that help teachers launch careers, recruiting has become more difficult.

Hammer and Beardsley agree that funding the UTTC program is a challenge. The program needs scholarships to attract potential candidates, as well as stipends for teachers who are working in urban schools in the Boston area where living costs are high. In the past, the Tufts MAT program has relied on endowed fellowships, anonymous donors, the Provost's office and grants to fund the program.

In 2013, a group of Tufts UTTC graduates gathered for a retreat to help their alma mater find ways to revitalize the program. Participants in the Men of Color Retreat came from across the country. "They had an amazing opportunity to reconnect with one another," says Beardsley, who adds that it was clear how much the teachers had been influenced by their professional preparation here at Tufts. The group has offered to support Tufts in revitalizing the UTTC by advocating for the program in the community; supporting its partnerships; recruiting and mentoring students; as well as by developing interest among funders in the critical work of preparing teachers for urban classrooms. 

For Hammer, the significance of the work of the Tufts Education Department lies in the potential impact it has on the classroom. "At Tufts," says Hammer, "our faculty study learning and teaching, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and what we learn informs how we approach teacher education." He compares teacher education today to medical education 150 years ago, "when it was haphazard and driven mainly by folk wisdom." "Education went through a societal transformation toward intellectual depth and rigor about 100 years ago," he explains, "and teacher education needs something similar today."