Professors on the front line

Ivory tower? UF Lastinger Center affiliated professors are in the trenches

The Florida Master Teacher Initiative professors-in-residence work in high-poverty neighborhoods and low-performing schools yet they shepherd their students, who themselves are teachers, through a revolutionary program that enhances student performance through improved instruction.

“We go out to schools and work within the context of our students,” says Magdalena “Magdi” Castañeda, a professor-in-residence in Miami-Dade County. “So we create relationships with the schools and the principals and the district in which our students teach.”

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade school system, examined the Master Teacher program in action at Lillie C. Evans Elementary in Liberty City. He emerged a strong supporter.

“What I saw there exemplifies exactly what we represent and what we need,” Carvalho said.

Initial funding for the Master Teacher program – a joint effort of the Lastinger Center and the College of Education’s School of Teaching and Learning – came largely from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which remains a strong supporter, now joined by the Helios Education Foundation, other foundations, government organizations and school boards.

“We think it’s a really fantastic way not only to grow the teaching craft but also to transform schools and empower communities to take ownership of those schools and the education of their children,” said Greg Taylor, Kellogg’s former vice president for program strategy. “Teachers want to continue to create and to grow their ability to educate kids.”

Two bursts of background:

  • The Master Teacher program’s graduate component offers teachers a UF master’s or specialist’s degree in education. It’s free for teachers (except for the cost of books and other materials). Because it’s job-embedded, the program gives teachers the ability to immediately put their new skills into practice and share knowledge with their peers.

Offered in Miami-Dade, Collier, Pinellas and Duval counties, the program is spreading through scores of schools. It’s has been recognized and endorsed by the state Department of Education and by the U.S. Department of Education, which recently awarded it a $6 million grant (including $1 million from Kellogg). And the graduate component – the Teacher Leadership for School Improvement Program – won the Association of Teacher Educator’s coveted 2011 Distinguished Program in Teacher Education Award.

  • Leading the charge of the Master Teacher program are the professors-in-residence. Their job is multifaceted and utterly unconventional.

They teach onsite and online courses. They help their teacher-students form and lead Professional Learning Communities within each school or district, spreading knowledge to non-participating colleagues. They consult with principals, district officials and others.

“I had often thought I wanted to be a campus-based professor,” said Vicki Vescio, a professor-in-residence in Pinellas County. “But doing this work for a couple of years made me realize how valuable it is to be out in the schools, to be really connected to teachers and principals and kids.”

All the professors-in-residence have doctorates and began their careers as K-12 teachers. They tend to be highly organized, each able to juggle handfuls of duties simultaneously.

“We’re teachers at heart,” said Raquel Munarriz Diaz, a professor-in-residence in Miami-Dade County. “We’ve been there. We have a context within the district we work in. We get it.”

The work is transformational for the teacher-students who are recruited and taught by the professors-in-residence.

“I was a timid beginning teacher when the program started and now I’m passionate about making a positive impact on our children,” said Rachel Wolkenhauer, a UF education doctoral student who taught at Dunedin Elementary in Pinellas County. “Not only am I better learner because of the Lastinger Center, I am definitely a better teacher – and a teacher leader.”

With more studies underway, initial data show that students in Lastinger schools achieve improvement on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Professors-in-residence see other positive changes in their schools.

“In a lot of ways, it’s magic,” said Philip Poekert, a Miami-Dade professor-in-residence. “You can see it. You hear it when they [teacher-students] talk about their work. It’s a sort of passion that’s ignited in people that brings them back oftentimes to the reason why they got into education in the first place.”

Boynton, the Pinellas County professor-in-residence, takes special note of the reduced turnover of teachers in Lastinger-partner schools. Nationally, almost half of all teachers quit during their first five years, according to several studies. The problem is particularly acute in the inner-city and rural schools that tend to partner with the center.

“They stay in their schools,” Boynton said. “They’re committed to their students, and their level of commitment increases as they go through the program. They learn how to help their colleagues. They help everyone on the team. Those things are hard to quantify, but we have oceans of anecdotal evidence that supports that.”

Much of the credit for that resides with the front-line professors-in-residence, Lastinger Director Don Pemberton said.

“They are in some of the highest poverty schools in the state,” Pemberton said, “and they are there to provide support and they are also there to develop these new models and to take our innovations and demonstrate that they work, so they can be shared widely.”

Sharing widely is just what Crystal Timmons, a professor-in-residence in Duval County, has in mind for the Master Teacher program.

“This is something that will be good for teachers across the world,” she said. “This will lead to something that’s greater than we are.”