When Teaching Teachers, Experience Matters

Published October 1, 2006

Dr. Erika Pierce has set out to prove that preparing tomorrow’s teachers can best be done by current teachers with fresh, hands-on classroom experience.

That the teacher-education community still considers what she does to be strange and unorthodox reflects how disconnected its professors are from the needs of today’s K-12 classrooms, said one education expert.

Pierce began teaching at Charlottesville High School in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1996. While continuing to teach, she earned her master’s degree in administration and supervision (2002) and her Ph.D. in social studies education (2004) from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

But Pierce has charted a different course from all her university colleagues: Even after taking a faculty position at the university in 2004, she still spends three mornings a week teaching United States history to high school juniors, mostly minority students considered to be at risk.

Ivory Tower Educators

This fall, Pierce’s tenth as a high school teacher, is also her last instructing teachers as part of a three-year grant through the Teachers for a New Era initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation, Annenberg Foundation, and Ford Foundation. The grant will not be renewed beyond 2007.

To perform her dual educational role, Pierce has had to overcome skepticism from some of her university colleagues.

She has made a strong case that her continued high school teaching contributes value to her college-level work, but not enough support has emerged to continue or expand the practice.

George Clowes, senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute, said that attitude gives schools of education a negative distinction.

“In other disciplines–chemistry and music come to mind immediately–a college professor would be considered a dilettante if he or she wanted to teach a subject but not practice it,” Clowes said.

Unlearned Lesson

Pierce’s case illustrates how little progress has been made in connecting schools of education to the K-12 world since the release of two significant reports nearly a decade ago. A 1997 Public Agenda survey revealed one in six education professors had no K-12 classroom experience, and more than half had not taught K-12 in the previous 15 years.

“Public Agenda surveyed education professors and found their views on education–particularly those on practical classroom management–out of touch with those of school teachers, students, and the general public,” Clowes said.

“It’s a reflection of how out-of-touch education professors still are when they are skeptical of Pierce teaching in high school while training prospective teachers to teach in high school,” Clowes noted.

Also in 1997, Mark C. Schug and Richard D. Western wrote in a report for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute that new teachers learned considerably more from their student teaching mentors than from education professors.

Two Worlds

Those reports appear not to have convinced Pierce’s faculty colleagues, who administered her grant.

“It was important in their minds to keep [teacher training and classroom experience] separate,” Pierce said.

And at first, she tried to do that, but now she can hardly imagine keeping the two worlds apart. Not only does she take her university students to Charlottesville regularly to observe her teaching, Pierce also invites her history students to attend her evening education classes at the university.

“It boosts their self-esteem and gets them excited about coming to college,” Pierce explained.

Last year, more than half of her 23 high schoolers came to at least one session, while several students attended more than half the semester.

Candice Stafford, now a senior at Charlottesville High, said her visits to last year’s evening sessions have removed much of her fear of college.

Program Connections

While Virginia’s Ph.D. program equipped Pierce with more tools and strategies to reach kids with different aptitudes, last year she came to realize she needed to build stronger personal connections with her high schoolers to make a real difference.

In 2005, her husband, James, became principal of Charlotteville’s Clark Elementary. He walked door-to-door to meet with the parents of every student in his school. That influenced Pierce to meet personally with all of her history students’ families.

“If I want them to be successful, I need to forge that relationship first,” Pierce said.

Pierce’s personal outreach has influenced her education students.

Lija Diem, a middle school language arts teacher in Lititz, Pennsylvania, has adopted her former instructor’s practice of calling or visiting all of her students’ homes before the first day of school.

“It keeps the line of communications open and positive, and right off the bat,” Diem said.

Current, Future Colleagues

Pierce’s education students primarily are the “late deciders,” those who steered into the teaching program later and are still weighing their career options. Many get practical urban instructional experience through alternative licensure programs such as Teach for America and D.C. Teaching Fellows. Others are current instructors working on graduate degrees.

Regardless of whom Pierce is teaching, the impression she leaves is tremendous.

“She sets an example in class at UVA that she clearly follows at her high school,” Diem said. “One of the most valuable things about her as a professor is that you know she applies those things herself.”

For Pierce, a strong and sincere passion overwhelms the busy demands of her innovative dual role.

“It’s a monster, but it’s a great monster,” Pierce said. “I wish I could do what I’m doing forever.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.