Theory and practice mix for aspiring New Hampshire teachers

A partnership between Keene State College and a nearby elementary and middle school doesn't just put aspiring teachers in the classroom -- it brings their college courses and professors along, too.

Rather than doing brief student-teaching stints to practice what they've learned, education majors selected for the new program immerse themselves in Marlborough School for three years. And their Keene State professors accompany them, teaching courses right at the K-8 school instead of on the college campus, so students get an intensive mix of theory and practice.

Marlborough School Principal Reuben Duncan came up with the idea in 2009 as he watched construction begin on his school. Looking at the town, fields and woods surrounding the concrete slab, he realized that the building itself would be the least important part of the education delivered there. What the school needed, he decided, was more people who cared deeply about the students. Making the school a center for teacher development was one way to do that.

"From the moment they started taking any education classes ... I wanted them in our school, and I wanted the professors at the college to be in our school as well to create a lab environment," said Duncan, who described the program's inaugural year at a conference Keene State hosted this week for teachers from around the state.

The goal is to give the participants, called apprentices, a deep understanding of the school and its students and make them part of its teaching community, he said.

"Though they are apprentices, they will be functioning ultimately as teachers. They will understand how a school actually operates, the camaraderie, how to work together," he said.

Nancy Lory, who has been teaching at Keene State since 1975, said the college's education department has long emphasized classroom experience and has many internship programs with area schools. But the "real world" experience always came after the college seminars rather than at the same time. Duncan's idea was an opportunity to change that, she said.

"I no longer could be satisfied with giving them little crumbs of the real classroom," she said.

Now, when the apprentices learn about the developmental differences between a first-grader and a sixth-grader, they see it firsthand right away. And because Marlborough is a very inclusive school, they are learning to be teachers of all children, she said.

"A lot of young people come into college thinking they're going to be elementary teachers and special ed is for somebody else," she said. "I really wanted them to see that they need to be prepared for all learners."

Erica Nash, who teaches middle school science at the Goshen-Lempster School, was impressed by what she heard at the conference about the partnership. Although she said her school isn't in a position to start one any time soon, she said she would have loved to participate in one during her college days.

"Given the option, I would've jumped on that opportunity," she said. "I remember thinking in my first year of teaching, there are so many different pieces that you have no idea about until you walk into a classroom. These particular candidates won't have that sort of blind-sided wake-up call."