On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Making Connections in a Complex Community

By Michael Fischer

K-12 education has long been a major concern, especially in New Mexico. The state projects a serious shortage of elementary and secondary school teachers as enrollment grows and current teachers leave the profession. Although many retire, others resign , often after completing only their first or second year of teaching. New Mexico faces the additional problem of a large percentage of secondary school classes already being taught by teachers lacking a major in the subjects that they are teaching. In 199 8, the New Mexico Roundtable on the Future of Higher Education, a coalition of educators, business leaders, and government officials, consequently called for “New Mexico’s colleges and universities to devote more of their institutional resources in workin g with our public schools to improve the quality of education throughout the state.”

Several of the leaders issuing this call felt that teacher preparation was being marginalized, particularly at the University of New Mexico, the state’s flagship university, a Carnegie Research I university of 24,000 students. According to this view, t eacher preparation was a high priority at the University of New Mexico only in the College of Education, supposedly the college with the least prestige at a large research university. Allocating more institutional resources to improving K-12 education acc ordingly meant redirecting more funding to the College of Education, even at the expense of other programs. The problem of teacher education was that urgent.

As Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I had mixed feelings about this plea. On the one hand, no dean — myself included — welcomes the prospect of losing funding to another college. On the other hand, as a parent of two high school children as we ll as a faculty member and administrator, I shared the Roundtable’s concern about the quality of K-12 education in our state. For me, too, teacher preparation was the key. Although student success depends on many factors, a crucial one is certainly excell ent, engaged teaching.

I wanted to make strengthening teacher preparation and the professional development of teachers one of the highest priorities in the College of Arts and Sciences. I began by surveying what we were already doing in this area. I was pleasantly surprised. Our participation in the public schools started with individual faculty members working with K-12 students and sharing their expertise: setting up mathematics contests, staging chemistry shows, judging science fairs and discussing their scholarly interes ts with students of all ages. Our special college facilities — our museums, observatory, and laboratories — regularly hosted visits from school children and other community groups. Several of our funded research projects, such as the NASA-sponsored Space Science Education for New Mexico MESA Students project, reached stu dents from middle schools and high schools across the state, often drawing on Hispanic and Native American students underrepresented in the sciences. Finally, I was reminded that numerous Arts and Sciences courses are required of education majors.

These contributions to K-12 education — and many others I could cite — were invisible to the larger public: hence the misperception that our college was indifferent to public education or, as the stereotype had it, interested only in esoteric research and graduate students. Although valuable, the efforts I have described depended on the good will and personal interests of individual faculty members. When the opportunity arose to apply for funding to establish the Albuquerque Teachers Institute, it thus could not have come at a better time. Such an institute not only built on what was already in place, it offered a way of making our participation in K-12 education even more direct and substantive — an institutional commitment on our part that would reinforce the personal initiatives of some of our faculty.

The Albuquerque Teachers Institute features seminars taught by Arts and Sciences faculty on topics chosen by Albuquerque public school teachers. The first series of seminars, held in fall 1999, dealt with such topics as the environmental consequences o f urbanization and the political culture of New Mexico. The teachers targeted by the institute work in six of the Albuquerque high schools with the highest dropout rates, along with their feeder middle schools. As well as providing professional developmen t for teachers, the seminars focus on creating new curricular strategies for teachers to take back to their classrooms. The seminars enhance the performance of teachers early in their careers, assist teachers in dealing with educational change, and reinvi gorate experienced teachers.

Creating the institute required collaborating not only with local school teachers and principals but with the Albuquerque Public Schools system. It was initially difficult for us to find a point of entry into the school system, partly because a new sup erintendent was reorganizing the administration but also because our contacts with the schools had been ad hoc and informal — a high school teacher, for example, getting in touch with a faculty member who happened also to be a parent or neighbor. Administ rators at our University of New Mexico College of Education, with their longstanding ties to the school district, introduced us to the right people and explained how public schools work. From the outset, we had included representatives of the College of E ducation in our discussions of the proposed institute not just to be courteous but to benefit from their much more extensive experience with K-12 education. We made it clear that we were not trying to displace or outdo our colleagues in the College of Edu cation but to complement their work.

Our collaboration with the College of Education paid off not only in facilitating our access to the public school system but in helping to make ongoing funding for the Albuquerque Teachers Institute a top university legislative priority. Our College of Education was interested in training pre-service teachers to incorporate technology in their classrooms. At the Albuquerque Teachers Institute and in the College of Arts and Sciences, we were interested in the professional development of current teachers . Putting together our interests resulted in a joint proposal that became the university’s highest priority for the upcoming New Mexico legislative session.

Although support from within the university has not yet secured funding from the state, it is an excellent start. I measure the considerable success of the Albuquerque Teachers Institute in the partnerships it has made possible, the teachers, classroom s, and students it is beginning to transform, and the Arts and Sciences faculty it has attracted — some of the very best faculty members at the university. In addition to providing a public service, these professors are getting something in return. They r egularly report learning from the teachers in their seminars. The participants’ enthusiasm for the institute comes through in evaluations like these: “Connecting with other teachers who are excited about what they do and truly love kids and teaching is a shot in the arm.” “Participating in the seminar helped me feel connected to my profession and my commitment to my students while it also helped me grow personally.” One sign of the institute’s success is that assessments like these come equally from Colle ge of Arts and Sciences professors as well as from their colleagues in the schools.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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