If Nicole Morales ever dreamed of a job other than teaching, she doesn’t remember it.
“The materials have always come really easily to me. I’ve always done well in school,” says Morales, a senior Early Childhood Education major from Rockford.
“Even when I was growing up, there were classmates of mine who came to me for help – and I always found that I was able to show them the material in a way that the teacher wasn’t able to do,” she adds. “I could shine a light in a way that wasn’t there before.”
“When I read about Educate U.S., I knew that I would get to see what it’s like being in a first-, second- or third-grade setting and the opportunity to get a feel of a primary classroom before I had to start my clinical observation,” she says. “Getting that experience before I had to do it for school was really good.”
NIU College of Education candidates in teacher licensure and athletic training have submitted applications for the trip in January, when more than 20 will get to take their turns in Houston.
All are eager for the donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experience to view, practice and live in an out-of-state school district that hires a significant number of new teachers every year.
More than 215,000 children are enrolled at Houston’s 284 campuses, which are home to innovative programs that include dual language schools offering immersion in cultures and languages including Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and French.
Participating pre-service teachers live in the homes of HISD administrators, gaining a unique perspective of the business side of schools.
Jeff L. McCanna, the school district’s human capital officer who visited NIU in October to recruit for the program, places a great value on NIU’s pre-service teachers.
“The opportunities students are given through the NIU College of Education really prepare them to go to large, urban school districts and to be change agents and difference makers,” he says. “Many students here at NIU are the first generation in their families to go to college – and are committed as teachers to give other kids those same opportunities.”
Although Educate U.S. is only one week – the 2017 edition takes place from Sunday, Jan. 8, through Saturday, Jan. 14 – McCanna believes that pre-service teachers who participate always grow considerably in their professional skills.
“Educate U.S. gives them an experience that’s really entrenched at a campus for a week in a co-teaching environment. They’re really learning theory, and they start taking that theory and putting the art into the science,” McCanna says.
“They’re differentiating their instruction when they’re working with the kids. They really get to know their kids. They’re designing lessons to meet the kids where they’re at and getting them to where they need to be,” he adds. “That week will wear you out. You’re mom, dad, coach, cheerleader and counselor.”
By Friday, he says, there are plenty of hugs, tears, goodbyes and unexpected takeaways.
“Many find a true passion for working with underserved populations. We’re an urban environment, and if they like Houston, they can get jobs here and develop the skill sets to be successful,” he says. “But they’re going to be able to go anywhere and be good with what they learn here.”
Morales, who stayed with McCanna’s family last January, would agree.
Once she put her nerves aside to teach language arts to third-graders, she picked up ideas for different instructional strategies and a “vast repertoire of multiple activities you can use to teach a skill because not every students is going to get it one way.”
“I learned not to be afraid,” Morales says. “My cooperating teacher had me watch the first day, but from the second day forward, she threw me right into the curriculum. I did a lot of the read-alouds in front of the kids. I definitely got more of a sense for what a third-grader is able to do in terms of reading and writing, and I’m feeling more capable.”
As she confidently prepares for a spring semester of student-teaching in her hometown Rockford Public Schools, she heartily endorses the Educate U.S. experience.
“It is a chance to maybe work with a group of students at an age level or setting that you might not get to do back home, and I still stay in touch with my cooperating teacher. If I ever have questions, I feel that she’s one of the people I can go to,” Morales says.
Working in the children in Houston was a “privilege,” she adds, telling of sweet farewell cards they presented her on her final day there.
“You feel like you really got to know the kids well in that week, and you want to know them more,” she says.
“It definitely makes you feel like you did well,” she adds. “If a student can recall an experience you shared with them, a new skill you helped them to understand or a read-aloud you gave, you really feel like you made a difference – and you know what you’re doing is working.”