Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers Today

Teacher Cadet program gives students the opportunity to gain real world teaching experience

Steffi Lau, news editor
El Estoque
February 3, 2006

Junior Aneesha Nilakantan clearly remembers a favorite experience from first semester in which she read a story to a third grade class. Amidst her hectic schedule of studying for tests and balancing rigorous classes, she found solace for four days a week teaching younger children.

“I read a story about teasing,” she reflected with a smile. “I was sitting in the chair and freaking out, ‘I can’t believe [the teacher] is going to make me read in front of the class. What if I mess up and ruin their whole lives?’ But in the end I was completely into it with all the voices and you could tell [the kids] were enjoying it. They were pointing to pictures and saying things to each other like, ‘Hey, did you notice that fish?’ ”

Nilakantan is part of the Teacher Cadet program at MVHS in which students, otherwise known as Cadets, obtain hands-on experience through working with students of all ages. Math teacher I-Heng McComb teaches the course. The Cadets each have one free period in the day in which they go off campus to do fieldwork at various schools. They meet once a week after school to learn the curriculum.

In the first semester, Cadets focus on exploring differences in development between age groups. They are assigned placements of three different age groups: preschool to second grade, third to fifth grade and sixth grade to high school. Nilakantan was placed with a first grade and a third grade class at Lincoln Elementary and a Japanese 1 class at MVHS. In the first semester, the Cadets do not actually teach. Instead they work with kids who need individual attention, assist in activities or simply observe.

Each year a few students return as second year Cadets and are able to immediately begin teaching with just one placement. Junior Monica Ramakuri is one such person. In her first year she worked with preschool, kindergarten, fourth grade classes and Kennedy.

“It was at a preschool. I was really scared,” Ramakuri remembered of her first fieldwork experience. “I tried to get to know each one, but little kids don’t just come up to you. But by the end of the day I was playing with them. They actually became attached to me.”

After the first semester, the Cadets begin advanced fieldwork, choosing one of the three age ranges that they most enjoyed. Nilakantan chose her first grade class. “I bonded the most with them. They probably show the most respect and interest in me,” she said. “That makes me want to help more.”

Of the differences that come with the age levels she said, “High schoolers do respect you less because you’re the same level as them, but they still want to know what they’re doing wrong. I definitely learned that as kids get older, the method you teach them with changes…”

“There’s not a lot of difference between first and third graders, but first graders are more open. Third graders are more inquisitive like, ‘Why are you here? Do we need your help? I don’t think so.’ But first graders are more like ‘Oh cool, another person!’ ”

Although Ramakuri enjoys working with young children, she chose a MVHS Spanish 1 class as her placement this year. “I’m already good with little kids and wanted to teach people my own age,” she explained. “I get nervous talking to the class, like stage fright, so talking in this program helps.”

In the second semester, the Cadets take on a more interactive role as they begin to teach lessons to the entire class once a week. “The first lesson is something that you remember forever,” said McComb.

For younger grades, there is more flexibility in teaching, so Cadets are more likely to teach whatever topic they choose; however, for older grades, students will usually be given a topic the teacher wants taught and then design their own lesson plans.

Ramakuri decided to teach origami to her kindergarten class as her first lesson ever. “We made origami frogs and butterflies,” she remembered. “I made posters of each step, so that they could look at it, but I also had to help individually.”

When not helping students, the Cadets grade or merely observe. They receive a worksheet each week to help them observe aspects of child development. “One week it might be on the physical domain or moral domain of kids, so we write notes based on our observations,” Nilakantan explained.

Asked if the schools truly benefit from having the Cadets or if it is a favor to the program, McComb said, “In some cases it is more of a favor, in some cases, the teacher and the Cadet really work together and the teachers get new ideas for lessons. They say they like the students’ creativity. And since the Cadets help individually, the teacher can focus on the rest of the class.”

McComb once received a note from a teacher telling her about a student who had previously never talked in class, but after working with the Cadet individually, began to talk. “Most elementary school teachers are women and mention that it’s good to have a guy in the classroom as a model for the boys, especially if they come from a single parent family,” she said.

Though McComb says that Teacher Cadet is not just for those who aspire to be teachers, some participants have gone on to pursue teaching. One of her past Cadets enjoyed working with kindergartners and decided to pursue becoming a teacher yet had poor grades. She became motivated to pass her classes to attend college through her decision.

“It makes me feel appreciated,” Nilakantan smiled. “There’s this one kid who whenever I walk in, whether he’s in a corner or busy with the teacher, will say ‘Oh look, the helper’s here!’ ”

Though Nilakantan does not have plans to become a teacher, she still finds the program rewarding. “One of the students I was working with got a 30 percent on a test, but after I worked with him, he got a 100 percent,” she said. “It just feels great to see the effects of your hard work.”

Asked if she wants to become a teacher, Ramakuri replied, “No, I do Teacher Cadet because I love working with kids. I want to become a pediatrician so this helps me connect and gives me an opportunity to lead and improve my communication skills.”

Unlike many other classes, Teacher Cadet is not just based on theory; it is an experience. Students learn by doing. “The best part of the program is that for the thirty minutes you are working with the kids, you’re focused on just that,” Nilakantan said. “You’re not thinking about your three tests tomorrow or that you have a lab due…it takes your mind off of everything else.”

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