The George Lucas Educational Foundation Edutopia

A Place to Discover the Teacher Within

University Partnership Immerses Teacher Interns in Hands-On Classroom Experience

by Virginia Watkins and Cecelia Wambach

What happens when you bring a cohort of 30 teacher education students into an urban school? You sow the seeds of powerful and lasting change--both for the university teacher education program and for the school--in this case, John Muir Elementary School in San Francisco.

The Muir Alternative Teacher Education Program (MATE) is the result of a collaboration between San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Unified School District. Its mission is to create a new model for elementary school teaching and a new model for teacher preparation. At the heart of this five-year-old program is the concept that each of us--administrators, teachers, and students--is unique and has wisdom to share with others. In mentoring one another, we have created a nurturing, caring learning community where children are thriving educationally, emotionally, and socially, and teacher interns are learning how to teach.

Interns arrive at Muir during August while teachers are setting up their classrooms. They visit from class-to-class and talk with teachers about their curriculum, teaching styles, types of classroom activities, summer vacation, and other matters of the heart. After spending time with the teachers, interns select which grade levels they want to teach for the upcoming year: K-1, 2-3, or 4-5. The chemistry that emerges as the first step to establishing the mentoring relationship is something we can't write into the process. After two days of classroom visits, the interns meet with the entire teaching staff to share personal stories. After getting to know the students, each teacher then selects two candidates whom he or she believes will work well as interns in class.

Planting Seeds

Keeping in mind the preferences of both the interns and the teachers, we create pairings that represent as diverse a group as possible for our children. In forming mentoring partnerships, we consider issues such as gender, race, and special interests. We see this process as planting the seeds of a long-lasting professional relationship.

Instead of taking classes at the university and spending just one semester as a student teacher, MATE interns teach and take their courses at this inner-city elementary school. We have found that our immersion approach to teacher education works best for interns who want the rigorous experience of participating in solutions for urban education. Working side-by-side with classroom teachers, professors, and students--many of whom are often in crisis--the interns bring their ideas to the classroom challenges, and in so doing, construct their own knowledge about being a teacher.

Our interns become our curriculum assistants and idea partners, providing mini-group instruction in our classrooms and helping us to devise better ways to educate our students. They provide one-on-one instruction and interventions to students whenever special help is needed. They are storytellers, game teachers, and writing assistants. Sometimes they become the teachers, while the teacher assists. And when they are comfortable doing so, they serve as substitutes when teachers are out of the classroom for workshops or other professional development experiences.

Developing Mutual Respect

Teachers and interns alike are committed to supporting and sustaining one another to realize our common goal of educating our children. Over time our relationships deepen, as does the level of collaboration and mutual respect between interns and their teacher-mentors. The mentor teacher depends on the intern to ensure that all of the classroom needs are met, and the interns rely on their mentor teachers to guide their developing practice of teaching.

As interns begin to open up and take risks in their teaching, the entire classroom community wakes up to what learning is all about. For our interns, this is what it means to "discover the teacher within." In this place of self- discovery, children begin taking risks with their own thinking and begin working in deeper ways. They become inquisitive learners, relishing time for reading, participating eagerly in projects, proudly performing their latest drama, and showing off their first published novel in 2nd-grade!

Mentorship relationships between interns and mentor teachers are one facet of our supportive school community. As co-principals, we mentor and guide each other and the teachers. The entire community mentors the children. When we arrived five years ago, we were the initiators, but not any longer. Today, our school is the creation of our entire community. Our namesake, John Muir, once said, "The sun shines in us, not on us." This school is a beacon of light for our community. The quality of the relationships we establish is the determining factor of success for all school community members.


Before the move to a co-principalship and the implementation of the MATE program, John Muir Elementary was one of the lowest-performing schools in the San Francisco Unified School District. Now, after several years of hard work by the entire community, this school of 300 students is showing strong signs of success. In addition to its innovative teacher credentialing program, the school has a state-of-the-art technology lab, a parent university with ongoing parent education and support services, a counseling center providing services for the children, parents, and staff, a thriving native-plant learning garden, and numerous community partnerships. During the first three years, students posted a 16-point increase in reading scores--one of the highest gains in the district.


picture--see caption
8 AM Third-grade mentor teacher Debbie Ruskay (center) plans a sentence combining activity with interns Tanya Kaiser (left) and Ariel Kendall (right). They discuss the morning schedule of story reading and smaller reading groups emphasizing phonics and vocabulary.

picture--see caption
9 AM Debbie shifts the lesson to combining sentences of similar meaning. Ariel records students' responses.

picture--see caption

picture--see caption
10 AM As groups of two to four students rotate through stations, Ariel and Tanya lead their own activities. With three teachers, the students receive personalized attention and the interns work closely with all students.

picture--see caption
1 PM Technology coordinator Erin Boo-yá leads a seminar with the interns who spend the afternoon taking university courses on-site.

picture--see caption
4 PM Ariel, Debbie, and Tanya meet at the end of the day to discuss progress of individual students, address intern questions, and plan the following day.

picture--see caption
Reflecting on their MATE experience, Ariel says, "I never had the opportunity to see an experienced teacher teach and learn how teaching strategies work in the classroom." Tanya agrees: "Having the chance to ask Debbie questions and have support from my cohort helps me become a better teacher." Debbie adds, " I find that I take more risks with my teaching. The interns push me with opportunities to develop a more rigorous curriculum."

Photo Credit: Steve Klein

Back to top