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Taking Notes from Two Master Teachers-in-Training

December 10, 2009

The Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) Program at Duke provides its students with a challenging twelve-month period of study within a specific academic discipline while preparing them for careers as high school teachers. The program combines graduate level work in English, mathematics, science, or social studies with education courses and a two-semester internship teaching high school in the Durham Public School System. Harry Maxon and Carolyn Starz, two M.A.T. students in the Class of 2010 who have both recently completed their first semester of internship, discuss why they chose Duke’s M.A.T. Program, share the motivations and challenges they face as new teachers, and leave fellow Duke graduate students who are assuming teaching assistant (T.A.) roles with some advice and helpful insight.

Harry Maxon, who holds a B.A. in English from Occidental College, an M.S. in English from New York University, and an M.F.A. in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute, spent the fall teaching English I and Advanced Placement English III to freshmen, sophomores, and juniors at Jordan High School. Carolyn Starz finished her B.A. in Biology at Luther College and spent two years working for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control in the Bureau of Air Quality before coming to Duke, and, like Harry, spent fall semester at Jordan High School. Carolyn taught Anatomy and Physiology to upper-class students and Honors Biology to ninth graders in Jordan’s Freshman Academy.

Harry has always known he wanted to be a teacher. He says, “Whether it’s explaining to my mother how to work e-mail, or explaining to a director or studio executive how a character decision will reverberate throughout a film and affect the audience, I happen to love helping people understand things that are unclear to them.” While it wasn’t until after she graduated from college that Carolyn knew she wanted to teach, she says she recognized, throughout her schooling, “the central importance of education to [her] life’s work.” After realizing her desire to pursue secondary school teaching as a career, Carolyn began to research her options. At first, it was overwhelming. She asked herself, “Should I get an M.A.T.? Should I get an M.Ed.? Do Teach for America? What about alternative routes to certification? In the end,” she says, “I decided I wanted to gain as much knowledge and practical experience as I could before being on my own in the classroom. Duke’s M.A.T. Program was committed to a longer, sustained student-teaching experience based on an apprenticeship model, which I believe is preparing me well for my future classroom.” Harry, too, appreciated the Duke M.A.T. Program’s emphasis on both “teaching experience and educational instruction.” In addition, he says, “the Duke M.A.T. Program offers a greater mentored teaching experience than other programs. By offering two internship placements, in two schools, Duke grants an unparalleled opportunity for growth. Not only do we get to experience two different learning environments, but we get to learn from two mentor teachers.”

And there’s a lot to learn, a lot of challenges to overcome as a teacher, an individual committed, as Carolyn says, “to changing the lives of [her] students,” and finding opportunities “to help young people.” Harry is challenged by “the disconnect between the classroom and the world we live in.” It is difficult, he says, “to prepare students for the world they will enter without having access to the tools everyone else in society uses everyday.” He continues, “My students do not have access to computers or the internet in class. There is no social networking with classrooms across the city, country, or world to engage in investigation of text; there is no digital research of fact or interpretation during class; there is no engaging with the world beyond our closed door.” This lack of resources and engagement makes learning difficult because the learning is without relevance. Harry says, “Of course, all students would become more invested in education if they could see its relevance to their worlds and futures.” Carolyn, when asked what is the biggest challenge she faces as a teacher, hits upon the same theme. She says, “I’m constantly asking myself: How can I make science relevant to my students? How can I help my students interact with the material and engage as active learners? How can I get authentic science into science class?” Despite these challenges, however, both Harry and Carolyn are motivated to teach because of the impact education can have on their students. Carolyn says, “I am motivated by my inner belief that quality, impassioned education has the power to change people’s lives.” Harry, similarly, is motivated to teach because of the joy he gets from “helping people understand,” knowing that his students’ “lives have been improved through understanding.”

When asked what advice she would leave with Duke graduate students who are currently in, or will be assuming, T.A. roles, Carolyn offers the following insights:

  • “Be confident, but flexible. You may be nervous about teaching; I certainly was! The key is to, as trite as it sounds, ‘fake it till you make it.’ However, don’t kid yourself into thinking everything you do will work-it won’t. Be willing to own up to your mistakes and fix them; your students may even have some great suggestions to help!”
  • Collaborate with your colleagues. There is NO need to reinvent the wheel every time you plan for class. If something worked fabulously for one of your professors or fellow teaching assistants, why not adapt it for your class?”
  • “Engage students in active learning. Just because you “covered” it doesn’t mean your students actually learned anything! Passively soaking up information is one of the worst ways to retain it, so try to encourage active engagement with material in your classes. You’ll have fewer students nodding off that way, too!”

And Harry, when asked the same question, reminds graduate students in T.A. roles that “the goal isn’t to teach, it’s for the students to learn,” and in light of this idea, offers the following advice:

  • “Have patience. Try to remember the frustration you felt when you couldn’t understand something. What appears simple to a teacher can be terrifyingly difficult for a student. And this can happen to any student at any time.”
  • “Smile. As several of our visiting lecturers have mentioned, if we’re not having fun, how can the students enjoy the lesson? Learning is supposed to be an enjoyable challenge.”
  • “Listen. Students know they don’t understand, and if you can hear through the complaining, rejection, and excuses, they’ll tell you what isn’t clear. From that knowledge, their understanding can be constructed.”

For more information about Duke’s M.A.T. Program, please see the Web site: http://www.duke.edu/web/MAT/