April Baker stood in front of a sleepy-eyed Millard North class and began to teach about knighthood in the days of King Arthur.
The students watched the University of Nebraska at Omaha education major scroll through her PowerPoint presentation and listened as she explained the guiding principles of the chivalric code. The student teacher had their attention, but something was missing: They didn't have their notebooks out.
“Those are four things that would be excellent for us to jot down,” said Baker's co-teacher, Millard North High School English and drama teacher Michelle Williamson.
Kids pulled paper from their bags, and Baker picked up where she left off. It's a universal moment for a student teacher, trial by fire before the job is hers alone.
UNO is making changes designed to make student teachers like Baker more confident and competent first-year teachers.
Two out of three metro area teachers have a UNO degree, and teacher education department chairwoman Sarah Edwards said the university is striving to go from a very good program to a great one.
This semester, the college started a pilot program for future middle and high school teachers that focuses on more field experience and more feedback.
Edwards said UNO wanted to shake up the program based on new research, which consistently says that more experience before graduation means stronger teachers post-graduation. School districts were excited to partner in giving students more experience, she said.
“Teaching is a practice, and teaching candidates need practice,” Edwards said.
Student teachers work daily in classrooms, have regular coaching meetings and share a more collaborative approach with their teaching mentors under the revised program.
Juniors will spend two hours a day in the same class for five straight weeks. In the past, they would just fit periodic visits into their schedules.
Seniors in UNO's student teaching class will spend a full year with the same class as a co-teacher, instead of just one semester.
All student teachers will get multiple sessions with new instructional coaches whose job is to give good feedback and ensure that they are learning to manage their classrooms.
So far, the pilot is just for secondary education students, but the department is planning to roll it out to all students next year.
There are no plans underway for similar changes to the teaching programs at the Kearney or Lincoln campuses of the University of Nebraska system.
David Ritchey, executive director of the Association of Teacher Educators, said recent research supports exactly the kind of approach UNO is taking, and Ritchey's organization is rewriting its own standards now to call for more mentoring and more classroom time.
“It sounds like they're kind of ahead of the game,” Ritchey said. “We feel it's tremendously important, that kind of preparation, and something a lot of programs don't do a good job at providing.”
This pilot has far less of a “throw them to the wolves” kind of feel, said Williamson, who is co-teaching with Baker at Millard North High School as part of the year-round student teaching pilot.
In the past, student teachers in Williamson's room have often spent some time observing, then completely took over.
“Now I'm more of a mentor,” Williamson said. “I facilitate her teaching, and she does the same for me.”
Baker, who is originally from Las Vegas, said the extra semester is helping her learn to think on her feet — especially with students who'd rather be in bed.
“It's hard to adjust to anticipating what kids will say or not say,” Baker said. “Will they stare at me, not answer my question, not be engaged?”
On a recent morning a few weeks into his placement, UNO junior Saul Knoblauch was walking around chatting up Millard North students in a writing lab when UNO instructional coach Christi Krehbiel popped in.
If Knoblauch hadn't been in the pilot program, he'd be spending the same number of hours in the classroom spread throughout the semester.
But instead, Knoblauch spent the first five weeks of the semester in his regular teaching methods class at UNO, discussing theory and classroom management. After that, his class was released from lectures to spend two hours every morning teaching.
That means Knoblauch is seeing students more regularly, building rapport and getting a bigger picture of what it means to be a teacher, said Kelly Welsh, a UNO professor involved with the pilot.
While Knoblauch was advising the Millard North students trying to get past writer's block, Krehbiel stood quietly behind him, taking notes and filming a quick video.
A longtime teacher at Omaha Christian Academy, Krehbiel was hired at UNO this year to serve as a full-time instructional coach. She and other faculty members keep a schedule of the pilot students' teaching and visit with each student at least three times per semester.
After class, she takes her notes and video to student teachers for review and feedback, asking them to rate their own performance and select goals for improvement by her next visit.
“My role is to evaluate and share,” she said. “We're always saying, 'Off your seat, on your feet.' We're making sure they're getting a picture of what it's really like to be a teacher.”
Though student teachers have always been observed by their professors, this type of coaching is new at UNO, and visits aren't tied directly to a grade. Conversations are geared toward self-reflection so student teachers can see where they need to improve.
Knoblauch said he is already spotting growth opportunities, often in problems that never came up in college lectures.
What do you do when a student is late? How do you address the problem, but still make sure that student doesn't get left behind in the lesson? It's one of the issues he's working on, and he expects to feel more ready when his turn comes for year-long student teaching than he would've otherwise been.
“It's exciting to be in the classroom and a lot easier to learn those little things,” he said.