An icebreaker activity at the collaborative meeting of Teacher Academy classes in November at Sehome High

On a November morning, the Sehome Commons buzzes with young voices. They belong to students in the Teacher Academy classes taught at Bellingham, Squalicum, and Sehome high schools. Today, all 3 classes have come together for a collaborative morning of student-designed group exercises to practice teaching skills.

Once activities are underway in different areas of the commons, Mary Hooker, Teacher Academy instructor at Sehome, notes one group choosing to switch to a new activity partway through their time. Student leaders share with her the first one wasn’t engaging enough. “That’s a teacher thing to do,” she says. “When something’s not working, you have to get creative.”

In its fifth year at Bellingham and Squalicum and second year at Sehome, Teacher Academy is a year-long class that introduces students to careers in the classroom. A Career and Technical Education (CTE) course, the class was created by BHS teachers Lori French and Jeremy Louzao in 2018. It’s Bellingham Public Schools’ answer to the statewide Recruiting Washington Teachers program, which aims to recruit educators with a “growing our own” initiative. Like many states, Washington faces a looming shortage of high-quality teachers, particularly from diverse backgrounds that reflect our communities.

Teacher Academy, which may go by different names in other school districts, helps BPS students explore whether teaching is a career path for them. Students also receive five “College in the High School” credits from Whatcom Community College. The three instructors, Lori French (Bellingham), Mary Hooker (Sehome), and Angelica Garcia (Squalicum), collaborate regularly and facilitate group activities across the high schools. Program interest is growing—with Sehome already offering two sections in only its second year.

Often, students learn about the class from friends or one of the schools’ instructors, French says. And many learn along the way that they love connecting with younger kids. “The class is great because I get to know the kids one on one, and I get teaching experience for when I get to college,” says Squalicum senior Jayme Ackerlund. She’s taking an optional second year of Teacher Academy.

In the first semester, students are introduced to the fundamentals of education, including how to create a lesson plan, classroom management strategies, and instructional best practices for K-8 classrooms. They learn about “equity pedagogy,” which includes understanding and identifying learner differences, best practices for students with special needs, and strategies for students learning English.

“They also have five classroom observations first semester,” French says. “The idea is that they get to pick which classroom they want to work with.” During the second semester, students work in a classroom with a mentor teacher, interacting with elementary or middle school students twice a week for an hour each time.

During her first year of Teacher Academy, Ackerlund worked in Tawni Eisenhart’s  fifth grade class at Northern Heights. “Jayme helped students during our math workshop time,” Eisenhart says. “She connected with a group of girls and played math games, helped them with math problems, and shared her math knowledge.” The younger kids enjoyed working with a high schooler and looked forward to her arrival each week.

Bellingham High junior Evan Turner says Teacher Academy is his favorite class, and he plans to pursue teaching as a career. He loves meeting with younger kids and fielding their many questions, he says. The opportunity to explore teaching before college is also an important feature for him.

Each high school’s Teacher Academy class works with classrooms from feeder elementary and middle schools and nearby private schools. BHS Teacher Academy, for example, works with nine northside feeder schools and Assumption School. Squalicum works with seven feeders and Bellingham Christian School. Sehome works with its district feeder schools which includes Carl Cozier, Happy Valley, Lowell and Wade King elementary schools and Fairhaven Middle School. The instructors are always looking for host teachers at elementary and middle schools.

Anna Whelan, kindergarten teacher at Assumption School, says the program has been great for her youngsters, who look forward to interacting with the high schoolers. The program helps her, too. While she works with her groups, the Teacher Academy students work on reading activities and reading aloud to other kindergartners.

Even if students decide teaching isn’t for them—and some take the class without thinking much about it—they grow in a number of ways, including developing a sense of purpose, pride, and self-confidence as role models to younger kids. “They know they’re making a difference,” French says.

They also appreciate giving back, says Squalicum instructor Angelica Garcia. “Students discover the class allows them to give back to their community within school-day hours,” she says. That’s a big deal for busy high schoolers.

Another appealing element: it’s a hands-on class, Hooker says, with student-to-student interaction. “The assignment to create an activity to teach is really motivating to them because it has a purpose,” she says.

Students say they gain new perspectives on the role of the teacher as they observe elementary classrooms in action, such as seating assignments and classroom management. “You really get to see what goes on and how and why it happens, and how the teacher influences it,” says Jack Hodson, a junior at Sehome. It makes him think about the classroom as a teacher, not a student.

If students have skills in languages other than English, these can be a bonus. Teacher Academy supports learning how to be a bilingual teacher, which benefits younger students, and can also bestow confidence on Teacher Academy students and assist mentor teachers in the classroom. A BHS student from Afghanistan, for example, who feels nervous about her English skills, is a valuable addition to a Parkview classroom with three Afghan students. “They want her there to work with those students,” French says. “She’s done some demonstration lessons in Dari, and many of the students said it was their favorite lesson.”

Squalicum junior Rosalinda Rodriguez speaks Spanish and will work in an Ethnic Studies class at Squalicum next semester. That’s not typical—most students work with younger students—but her bilingual skills make her an asset to Spanish-speaking students in the class. “I joined Teacher Academy not knowing much, but I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I’ve learned a lot,” she says.

All high school students in grades 11 and 12 are eligible to take the Teacher Academy class. Students interested in more information should talk with their counselor or register for 2023-24 classes.

 

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