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Tackling the Texas Teacher Shortage: UTeach turns liberal arts and natural sciences students into educators

Ask many adults which person inspired them as a youngster, and they often mention a favorite teacher who brought a subject to life by having a passion for it that came from knowing a subject well.

Dr. Michael P. Marder
Dr. Michael Marder co-directs the UTeach initiative in the College of Natural Sciences.

Producing teachers of this caliber who can share their passion is the focus of a trailblazing teacher preparation program developed five years ago at The University of Texas at Austin.

A hallmark of the program, called UTeach, is early classroom exposure that permits undergraduates who are seeking majors in the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Natural Sciences to discover immediately whether they find teaching rewarding. This early exposure also can open their eyes to the direct impact they will have on children’s lives as future teachers who will help overcome a shortage of qualified educators in the nation’s schools.

The need for qualified teachers is evident from statistics for Texas, which mirror national numbers. A 2001 review of teachers in grades 7 to 12 found that about one in five instructors in the state’s public schools were teaching outside of their areas of expertise for classes in English, foreign languages, math, social studies and science.

“The number of non-certified teachers covering math and science can rise to as much as 50 percent for some classes of students,” said Dr. Michael P. Marder, a physics professor who co-directs the UTeach initiative in Natural Sciences. “And in computer sciences, nearly 75 percent of the teachers are not appropriately certified.”

“Public schools are experiencing a shortage of certified Spanish and social studies teachers,” said Dr. Linda Ferreira-Buckley, co-director of the UTeach program in Liberal Arts. “These are areas in which we can make a real difference by making sure that students have both teaching skills and subject skills.”

Student performance scores in math from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995
Student performance scores in math from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995. Scores from U.S. students are highlighted with black boxes.

Certification doesn’t guarantee that an educator can inspire young minds, but inadequate instruction is thought to underlie poor student performance in many subject areas. An international study in 1995 of math and science skills, for example, found that although U.S. fourth graders performed well, American students fared among the worst in the world in math and the second worst in physics by the time they reached 12th grade.

“Kids don’t have a decent shot at learning the material if their instructors lack a real understanding of what they’re teaching,” Marder said.

“On the other hand, we’ve all known teachers with deep expertise in their subject matter who are ineffective in the classroom,” Ferreira-Buckley noted. “Excellent educators marry a concern with subject matter and approach.”

The UTeach program seeks to address this need by providing incentives for undergraduates to dip their toes into the teaching world, and by rewarding those who do so with a framework of support that enhances their teaching experiences.

Dr. Linda Ferreira-Buckley
Dr. Linda Ferreira-Buckley is co-director of the UTeach program in the College of Liberal Arts.

UTeach courses are made available to all students in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, with tuition covered for the first two, introductory courses of the Natural Sciences track. Part of the introductory coursework involves teaching at an Austin area elementary school under the supervision of a mentor teacher.

That experience is what changed the career path of Siobhan Doss, a junior who initially planned on becoming a veterinarian. Doss taught a science lesson her first semester at a local elementary school and was immediately hooked on teaching.

Another experience she and others in the UTeach-Natural Sciences track have, a paid internship at a non-profit with an educational focus, cemented her decision to become a middle-school math teacher. Doss developed science lesson plans as an intern at the Texas Memorial Museum, where she also was a summer camp counselor. She taught up to five hours a day during camp, and learned first-hand that an exciting curriculum makes a difference.

“The hands-on approach is a much better experience than telling students what happens out of a book,” Doss said.

Pedro Hernandez, a senior majoring in history, agreed.

Pedro Hernandez is a senior majoring in history
Pedro Hernandez is a history major and UTeach student in the College of Liberal Arts.

“I had no idea what it would be like working in a classroom,” he said. “The experience of working with children in elementary and middle schools has been great. What better way is there to learn, than to be part of the class working on teaching strategies and lesson plans?”

Though he has two sisters who are teachers, Hernandez said that during his first years of college, teaching as a career option wasn't even a consideration.

“In my freshman year, it wouldn't have entered my mind to be a teacher,” he said. “But the experience with UTeach has convinced me that this is what I want to do. It has also helped me appreciate what my sisters talk about and what to expect as a student teacher.”

UTeach participants also benefit from opportunities to motivate each other during the small classes they take that form the backbone of the pedagogy program. The courses are taught by faculty from the College of Education and master teachers in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences who were invited to become university faculty based on their exemplary educational skills and experience as teachers in central Texas schools.

The classes, which were designed by faculty from all three colleges and other educators, emphasize the need for teachers to understand how their students process information and ways to use that knowledge in the classroom.

Dr. Lawrence Abraham
Dr. Lawrence Abraham is chair of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education.

Dr. Lawrence Abraham, chair of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, said this approach creates educators who can “think carefully and reflectively and critically about their own process of becoming facilitators of learning.”

The University of Texas at Austin instructors leading the UTeach classes also oversee the undergraduates’ field experiences, in which each student works beside one of hundreds of Austin public school teachers to gain classroom instructional experience.

This and other aspects of the program occur within the framework of a four-year degree plan so that students don’t have to extend their college years to obtain certification and can enter classrooms sooner.

The popularity of the innovative program is evident in its growth. Enrollment in the Natural Sciences track has grown from 28 students in 1997 to more than 300 students today. A waiting list exists for entering the program, which will begin certifying teachers for grades 4 through 8, in addition to grades 8 through 12, in fall 2003.

The Liberal Arts program, begun in 2000, now includes 200 students, with more on a waiting list.

Siobhan Doss, a junior in mathematics
Siobhan Doss, a junior in mathematics, discovered her love of teaching through UTeach.

“UTeach-Liberal Arts expects to double in the next four years,” Ferreira-Buckley said. “Although we’re eager to accommodate all undergraduates who wish to become teachers, we do not want to compromise quality.

“The quality of the UTeach programs comes in part from the close attention each student receives from the master teachers, the advisers and the public school mentors,” she said. “This approach encourages students to build on their individual strengths and overcome their weaknesses.”

UTeach participation may even motivate students to become better educational achievers themselves. In Natural Sciences, for example, the average grade-point average of UTeach students is slightly higher (3.05) than that of other Natural Science majors (2.9) and the average student at the university (3.0). In addition, students in UTeach, which has a high minority participation rate, are half as likely to drop out of the college as traditional Natural Science majors. Students participating in UTeach-Liberal Arts are required to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average overall and in their teaching subject before going on to student teaching.

Early results suggest that UTeach participants also stick with teaching. Of the 90 or so UTeach graduates so far, the majority are teaching. These educators and their liberal arts counterparts who will begin graduating next year will continue to receive support from the university through networking and mentoring opportunities.

Though their numbers can’t overcome the need for thousands of subject-certified instructors in Texas and elsewhere, UTeach is being touted as a model for teacher preparation by organizations such as the research council of the National Academy of Sciences. As a result, UTeach graduates from The University of Texas at Austin may someday work alongside peers who have benefited from similar programs at other institutions.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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