By Lisa Shrewsberry
Bearing in mind the drawbacks to the sacred profession of teaching, ones that have developed into full-blown stigma, it was without surprise when Drema McNeal learned her daughter, a pharmacy student, didn’t want to tell her dad she’d enrolled in classes beginning “EDU” her second year of college.
“Here, will you tell Dad?” she asked, holding out her class schedule, afraid of what he’d think about the switch to follow in her mom’s footsteps.
A teacher for two-and-a-half decades, McNeal is to her students as the North Star was to sailors of old — a highly visible, dependable source of direction when the horizon is uncertain. Her experience in the public school system as a language arts instructor has left her without idealistic notions — attempts are often thankless, successful and not, and standard compensation is near the bottom of national pay scales.
Add to the more traditional teaching stereotypes the come-lately potential for physical harm and a focus on high-stakes testing and the cons handily outweigh the pros.
Why teach? Likely, the answer, from a teacher destined-to-be is: “In spite of everything, I believe I can make a difference.”
A 2011 West Virginia Teacher of the Year winner, McNeal is now heading a program at Academy of Careers and Technology that steeps high school kids interested in the field of education in the art of being a teacher. Not entirely a baptism by fire, students in ACT’s Teacher Cadet program are exposed to life at the head of the class, building bulletin boards, lesson plans, leveraging technology and leading lessons as assistants in actual classrooms.
Patterned after the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement (CERRA) program in the South Carolina school system, ACT’s program is similarly designed to recruit the best and the brightest potential teachers and to build both their knowledge base and confidence within the field.
Intended for serious education candidates only, the Teacher Cadet program begins with the basics of education theory and advances to a full-scale, monitored six-week practicum inside real classrooms within Raleigh County. Students from any area high school who prequalify as future teaching candidates, either through expressed interest or earnest promotion from a school counselor, can earn not only valuable teaching experience, but college credit through New River Community and Technical College and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College while still in the high school program.
McNeal believes she will soon secure college credits through other universities in response to the course’s rigorous, comprehensive design and to demand from future education majors.
The program, McNeal assures, is “no joke.”
“My students have learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory of multiple intelligences, the importance of play to social and fine motor development and how to use technology in the classroom. The first step is preparation, ‘this is what teaching is,’ then getting them ready to be put with kids to teach.”
Also a published children’s book author, McNeal had her students design and publish their own children’s books geared toward character education— one of many portfolio-based projects to earn them hands-on experience.
“I remember when my daughter walked out of college with her portfolio of lesson plans and teacher’s notes; these guys have to do exactly the same thing. They have to log hours just like they would in student teaching,” says McNeal.
ACT’s mission of “Educating Future Teachers” is personal to McNeal. “Teachers are getting a bad reputation. Good teachers are getting discouraged. We’re putting these kids out there to help teachers and to help the profession,” she states.
In South Carolina, where McNeal observed the mature CERRA program in developing her own curriculum, Teacher Cadets are in high demand as classroom assistants by the public school teachers.
“They grade papers, lead projects, instruct and tutor,” she offers as examples. If it sounds a lot like a college-level student teaching assignment, it should. “That’s exactly what it’s like,” says McNeal.
After six weeks of focusing on the development of lesson plans next semester, some of McNeal’s students will advance to real classroom leadership roles; she will observe and coach them in the field to harvest the best experiences both for them and their assigned teacher mentors.
McNeal’s students are preparing to interact with 51 visiting Raleigh County preschoolers at ACT this week, teaching them letter and color recognition and patterns. She collaborated with fellow instructor Rene Shiflett, who directs the Dental Assisting Program and who invited the children as a way to expose her students to the experience of interacting with different ages from a professional perspective.
McNeal’s students have tweaked the lesson plans of the dental assisting students while Shiflett’s students, in turn, provided feedback to the Teacher Cadets before going live in front of the kids. The carpentry program led by instructor Scott Pack further demonstrated ACT’s interdisciplinary environment by cutting out wooden ornaments for the kids to color and take home for their trees. Principal Charles Pack also participated by reading a Christmas story to the preschoolers.
McNeal’s own daughter Ashley is now a second-year science teacher at Shady Middle School and has no doubts she made the right decision.
“She is a born leader. (Her peers) thought because she was young the kids would walk all over her,” but, adds McNeal, she learned from Mom how to keep that from happening. How to be in control of a learning environment and still have fun is a crucial component to success which McNeal also imparts to her ACT students.
“Education is only going to get harder. These kids understand computers and technology. They don’t know anything about being a teacher,” she states.
Students with a strong interest in pursuing the field of education have had their confidence boosted by the Teacher Cadet program.
Rylie Hall, an Independence High School senior, comes from a family of teachers.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. Mrs. McNeal’s class has definitely confirmed it for me. She is amazing.”
Hall’s plans upon graduation are to earn more practical experience working at a day care while finishing her preliminary education classes nearby, actively pursuing her degree in elementary education.
Others enter with an inkling they might want to teach, only to earn experience telling them they’re not cut out for it, a valuable lesson saving both time and money potentially wasted on the wrong career pursuit.
Madison Vipperman, a Woodrow Wilson High School senior had the opposite experience — she believes she found herself in the Teacher Cadet program.
“All of my life, I wasn’t really interested in anything. I didn’t have a sense of belonging. I always loved working with kids; but Mrs. McNeal’s class has changed my life. I don’t dread coming to school anymore. Now, every morning I feel like I have a purpose. I definitely want to teach.”
McNeal encourages school guidance counselors to refer serious candidates only to the Teacher Cadet program. Her first semester students are now preparing to enter classrooms for their second semester, to become valuable resources within area schools and to learn from seasoned mentors in the field for six weeks. The opportunity for prospective teachers is unparalleled, McNeal believes.
“In three years, I want this program to be so big that every teacher is calling me asking for help from one of our cadets.”
For more information on the Teacher Cadet program, visit www.wvact.net or call 304-256-4615.
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