DAHLONEGA, Ga. – Lumpkin County Elementary School in Dahlonega, Georgia, doesn’t look much like a training ground for college students. But that’s exactly what it is for juniors and seniors at North Georgia College and State University studying to be early childhood or special education teachers.
This is Anita Ledbetter’s first grade class. But today – like every day so far this school year – she’s freely handing off leadership of her classroom for part of each lesson to her student teacher, junior Michelle Olden.
“You want to do the days of the week?” Ledbetter asks Olden, who brightly agrees to lead the students through a word exercise.
“Okay! Who’s my helper?” Olden asks, selecting a student out of the group assembled on the carpet in front of her. “Who can tell me what today is?”
Olden is one of several hundred North Georgia students placed in classrooms around the Dawson, Forsyth, Hall and Lumpkin County school districts. This is the first year that all undergraduate students in North Georgia’s early childhood and special education program have been studied and worked full-time in local primary and secondary schools. By the time students like Olden graduate, North Georgia officials say they will have spent 50 percent more time in classrooms than is required for teacher education programs.
Olden takes her college classes here, in a spare room at the elementary school. And the rest of the time, she’s in classes, teaching and assisting her mentor teacher.
“It has been a blessing, especially being in Ms. Ledbetter’s class,” Olden says. “She allows me to do pretty much whatever I want — mind you, under a watchful eye, I can’t just go crazy. But I’ve already taught two lessons.”
Even though they’re just a few weeks into the school year, Ledbetter says she can already see the improvement in Olden’s teaching. And Ledbetter takes her responsibilities as a mentor seriously.
“I want to make sure she’s getting a good experience,” Ledbetter says. ”She did her first phonics lesson, I thought she was going to cry on me. She got halfway through, and I’m like it’s okay! And we sat down and we talked about and she did another one yesterday and she aced it.”
Leaders of North Georgia’s education program say that kind of early, supported success is key to keeping new teachers in the profession down the line. And Ledbetter says that the immersion helps student teachers get a full sense of a teachers’ duties, beginning even before students arrive for the year.
“She was able to see what she’s going to face when she gets her own classroom,” Ledbetter says. ”She walked in and the room was a wreck.”
It’s that type of hands-on experience – learning how to set up a classroom, meeting parents at back-to-school night, adapting to all the other ins and outs of a school’s ecosystem – that experts say teacher training programs need more of.
Ledbetter says that when she first started teaching, her experience was much different.
“I had never seen anybody take attendance, I had never seen all of the paperwork, and it’s scary!” she says. “The first day you walk in and your tables are all a mess, and they’re like, here’s your books! So this is awesome, that they’re seeing it from the very beginning to the very end. You know I’ve always said, they need to be in the classroom more.”
In addition to giving the student teacher invaluable experience, there’s an added value for the school. Having an extra adult in the class lowers the student-teacher ratio at little cost. As Leadbetter leads a lesson, Olden weaves her way among the students’ desks, giving individual assistance.
And Sharon Head, who runs Lumpkin County schools’ human resources department, says there’s another big benefit to the district.
“These students are potential future employees,” Head says. “So when we have openings, our principals have actually had a chance to observe them for a year at a time, to observe their work ethic, see what kinds of teachers they would really be.”
In other words, by partnering with North Georgia to train student teachers, Lumpkin County is not only helping make sure they have a ready supply of new teachers to fill their classrooms, but that the new teachers are coming in with enough classroom experience to begin making a difference right away.