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A Tutoring Partnership Grows in Texas, Part 2

This is the second in a series on a partnership between Dallas College School of Education (SOE) and Dallas Independent School District (DISD) to mobilize aspiring teachers as tutors in high-need schools.

Pricila Cano sits at the far corner of a light-filled library alongside a 4th grade student. They’re huddled around the following math problem:

Katie has 3,437 stamps in her collection and Steve has 942 stamps in his collection. How many stamps do Steve and Katie have in all?

Pricila begins by inviting the student to consider what kind of math sits at the heart of the question: “What clues are there that can tell us whether this requires addition or subtraction?”

Having established that addition is the order of the day, she grounds the task by activating the student’s prior knowledge: “Do you remember when we used blocks to break down a number into its place values? Now we’re going to do the same for the numbers in this problem.” 

Carefully, patiently, Pricila then works with the 4th grader to determine the place values found in 3,437, then 942, before applying that understanding to solve the problem.

The student completes the calculation perfectly—but rather than moving on, Pricila spots a chance to deepen understanding by having the student process the steps they have just taken: “Can you explain how you got to your answer? What did you do to find the total number of stamps?”

Teaching moves like the ones demonstrated above—focusing student attention, activating prior knowledge, and deepening understanding through effective follow-up questions—are exactly what we would hope to find in the classrooms of teachers across the country.

But Priscila isn’t yet a classroom teacher. She is a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Teaching. She’s able to access this opportunity due to an innovative collaboration between Dallas College and Dallas Independent School District to mobilize teacher-candidates as tutors in K-12 schools.

The benefits are many: to the community served by the district and the college, to the local K-12 schools and students, and to aspiring teachers like Pricila who get to cut their teeth in real-world educational settings much earlier than would otherwise be the case. We met with Pricila to find out what this experience has meant to her.

 

A Productive Struggle

Unlike typical teacher preparation pathways which tend to front-load theory and only introduce real-world teaching experiences towards the end, Pricila’s early field experiences have been at Bush Elementary: a real school, with real students, doing real work. As such, one of the first things one notices is the clear-eyed way she talks about the challenges and productive struggles that come with the experience. 

Pricila’s first encounter with the classroom environment came as something of a shock. “As a college student, I only felt prepared with the theoretical part, the knowledge and the coursework…but I didn’t feel prepared as a person,” she says. That began to change when she became a tutor. She now shares a very different experience: “I’ve gotten the hang of how to have control within a group, how to execute the material, how to become a smaller version of a teacher.”

For many novice teachers around the country, hard-earned insights like these might not come until their first full teaching role. By contrast, Pricila’s early field experiences have provided a realistic insight into the profession she hopes to enter. What’s more, she gets paid for her time and has quickly become an asset to her new setting—with school administrators quick to acknowledge the positive impact she and other tutors have made.

 

Learning All The While

Starting this spring, Dallas College students completed coursework and Deans for Impact-designed modules on high-impact tutoring. Around two dozen of them then entered their placements at schools around Dallas ISD. Like Pricila, each was able to apply their emerging understanding of the theory to practice in real time within the supportive environment of a school setting—and they’re starting to see the green shoots of progress as a result. 

For Pricila, this combination of theory and practice has transformed her approach to instruction—particularly when it comes to taking on the perspective of her tutees as learners and the trust that allows her to build. She says, “I had to think how the student would think, not enforce what I knew.” Concentrating on “what students were thinking throughout their whole process of solving a problem” meant she was better placed to understand them as learners and provide them with the support they needed.

Pricila’s evolving theoretical understanding is informing her practice, and her opportunities to practice are sharpening her understanding in return. Her appreciation of what it takes to be an effective teacher—something learning scientists refer to as a ‘mental model’ of teaching—is evolving.

 

Looking Ahead

For Priscila, serving as tutor has revealed the nature of school life and the many nuances of working with young people—both of which only come from real-world experience. Despite those challenges, or perhaps because of them, it has confirmed teaching as both her passion and her purpose.

Luckily for her, the leadership team at Bush Elementary have had a front-row seat to Pricila’s ongoing development—and they’ve already seen enough. In the words of Principal Crowling of Bush Elementary, “I would hire anyone with this degree of preparation in a heartbeat.”


Deans for Impact


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