Ashley Grazutis realized in middle school that she wanted to become a teacher when she grew up.
So did Saul Amaya – and for the same reason.
Both now are students in the NIU College of Education, pursuing licensure in Middle-level Teaching and Learning.
“Middle school was when I learned how to become a person. I learned how to work hard, and I learned how to fight for what I want,” says Grazutis, a senior from Palos Park. “I want to assist and inspire students to become the most competent and engaged students they can be.”
“I want to teach middle school because that was a struggle for me,” adds Amaya, a junior from Carpentersville.
“Middle school is such a transition, and not just education-wise. It’s more of a personal and awkward time for students. It was for me,” he adds, “and I feel like knowing that, I can relate to the students. I can do different methods and really just connect with students in a different way.”
Grazutis and Amaya were among 22 students from the College of Education who traveled to Texas in January to spend a transformative week observing and working in the Houston Independent School District.
NIU’s Educate U.S. program provides select students with donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experiences to view, practice and live in an out-of-state school district.
Beyond equipping NIU graduates with a great advantage in the job market, Educate U.S. reinforces several values and priorities of the student-centered College of Education. Those include diverse and innovative real-world learning opportunities through collaboration with schools, communities, agencies and businesses.
And Houston, which hires a significant number of new teachers every year, is an excellent partner.
More than 215,000 children are enrolled at Houston’s 284 campuses, 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.
Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development in the NIU College of Education, calls the week “above and beyond” a typical clinical experience.
She’s accustomed to hearing Educate U.S. students say “once-in-a-lifetime” – and she agrees with their assessment.
“The reason we’ve reached out to partners from other parts of the country is to allow our candidates the opportunity to broaden their perspective in the areas of classroom environment, of professional development, of teaching methods, of instructional methods and management methods, and of culture and language,” Johnson says.
“They’ll be able to really enrich what they already know … and see other places and ways of doing things,” she adds. “They’re not just learning and hearing about other ways to do things, but (getting) to experience them.”
For Grazutis, that became true on Day One.
She was assigned to a seventh-grade class in Life Science – “I love science, just because science is all about asking why,” she says – but was surprised by an email she received from her cooperating teacher before the trip.
“I was looking at this, and I was like, ‘Am I really going to teach this on my first try at teaching?’ It was sexual reproduction – different types of birth, male vs. female reproduction, sexual vs. asexual,” Grazutis says. “I was just really proud that, after that first lesson, I was able to get through it in such a professional way with grace and poise.”
Amaya also appreciated the immersion into teaching math to sixth- and eighth-graders.
“By the end of the week, I was able to prepare myself for a full lesson. Prior to that, I had yet to teach a full lesson, and that was my first time. It was a great feeling,” he says. “Having all those students just look at you, and actually answer the questions you’re asking, and paying attention, all eyes on you – it’s a great experience. I know I passed on the knowledge that I have to them.”
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A junior Special Education major from Elmhurst, Moyer hopes to teach Life Skills in high schools. His assignment in Houston offered preparation in just that and, he says, he’s stayed in touch in the hopes of returning for his student-teaching.
One of the students he taught there has autism – and is a member of the football team.
“He gets a jersey, and he goes to football practice every day. I got to go and coach football with him for a while,” Moyer says.
“It was amazing how all the football players completely embraced him as one of their own. We’re cheering for him when he was doing his drills, and just completely backing him up in everything he did,” he adds. “It’s just so amazing to see how they made him feel like he was one of the players rather than just someone tagging along like a little brother.”
Moyer understands why: Students with special needs bring joy to everyone around them.
“Their happiness just glows,” he says, “and they just project it so much that it’s impossible working with them not to feel their happiness and (to) go home feeling amazing. The amount of energy and excitement and happiness they bring every single day just makes you feel like there’s so much more out there than what you see every day.”
During his time in Houston, Moyer worked with students on employment skills such as shredding paper, sharpening pencils and mopping floors.
He also realized what else occupies a special education teacher’s day, including meetings on Individualized Education Programs and communication between teachers, students, administrators and parents.
Sarah Paver, a second-year graduate student pursuing licensure to teach physical education, spent her Houston adventure at Pin Oak Middle School.
Her days began at 6:30 a.m., when she and her home-stay teacher left the house to arrive at school by 7 a.m., and the long hours continued until 8 or 9 p.m. each evening after assisting extracurricular sports coaches and athletes.
“It wasn’t like a clinical class at NIU, where you go from 1 to 3 or however long the class period is. It was truly living the life of a teacher for one week,” says Paver, who grew up in Big Rock.
“I would be there during the lunch hour. I’d have time to prep assignments. After school, I would have to manage all the students in the locker room or in the hallways. It really opened my eyes to what teachers to, and how much work it is,” she adds.
“However, it was also very rewarding. By the end of the week, students were coming up to me and saying, ‘You taught my class yesterday.’ It was very rewarding to have the students remember you.”
Paver found in Houston a perfect place to implement her NIU preparation.
“The things I have been learning at NIU have been reinforced,” she says. “How to manage a classroom. Make sure you provide positive reinforcement. Keep students on task. Walk around to observe all students. Never turn your back. In Houston, I applied all of those skills.”
Like many, she remains in contact with her host family. “They still text me every week just to see how I’m doing,” she says. “That’s the kind of relationship you build down there.”
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“My mom has been an early childhood educator for 20 years,” says Tapia, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Belvidere.
“After years of going with her, and when she finally allowed me to start story times, or just helping the kids out, you start growing a passion for it,” she adds. “And then seeing some of the differences you start making, and then seeing them happy … it’s amazing.”
In the Houston Independent School District, where the poverty rate is 76 percent, Tapia found children and teachers who buck the conventional wisdom.
“We hear that students who live in poverty are already 18 months behind if they’re 4 years old. If they’re a minority, they’re behind. You just have these kids that have so many statistics that are holding them back,” she says.
But “when you look at a school district like HISD, you see that they’re breaking the boundaries. ‘They haven’t even started yet and they’re already behind?’ That’s not how we should view them as teachers. We have to help them continue and grow. I love that. That’s something I want to do as a teacher.”
She left empowered.
“From the first day, my teacher said, ‘What can you do? What do you want to do?’ She right away allowed me to be a part of her classroom. She said, ‘Play with the kids. Talk with the kids. When they’re doing their center times, do everything,’ ” Tapia says.
“She showed me, and she sat me down and told me, what she was doing and why she was doing it,” she adds. “It was an amazing experience. I learned how to be a teacher.”
After three days of watching his cooperating teacher in action, Shea took over.
“I was able to teach the lesson that my teacher taught. I was able to see what he did, kind of change it to how I wanted to teach it, and then do it in the classroom,” he says. “I’d never taught a lesson prior going to Houston, and being able to do that for two straight days – the full day – was amazing.”
First-time jitters caused him to talk too quickly, he says. “I wanted everybody to like me. I wanted everybody to learn everything they can.”
His second round showed great improvement, he adds, and by the third time, his cooperating teacher praised his work. Lessons learned? “Relax. Truly trust yourself as a teacher. If you don’t necessarily reach Point B, it’s OK as long as the kids are learning.”
“My biggest takeaway from Houston is that I know I can teach,” he says. “I know I can touch lives, and I know I can create educated people.”
Unlike some of his classmates in the Middle-Level Teaching and Learning major, Shea’s motivation to teach took root outside the classroom.
The junior from Schaumburg spends his summers as a camp counselor for children in fifth- through seventh-grades.
“They just make my day go by so fast. I love being with them. I thought it would be the perfect job for me,” he says. “I like that they’re still learning about who they are as an individual – but then they’re also at that point where they want to move on to abstract thinking and thinking for themselves.”
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Not everyone who visited Houston in January is necessarily bound for the classroom: Ariel Russell is an Athletic Training major.
But with “Educate” in the program name, and the Houston Independent School District as the destination, classrooms served as the learning ground.
Russell was assigned to a high school, where she observed an athletic trainer who spends two class periods each day rehabilitating student-athletes.
“During the rest of the day, I helped teach in her sports medicine classes, so it was a little bit different for me,” Russell says. “Instead of attending practices and games, I was actually in the classroom, helping teach coursework which I had previously learned here at NIU.”
She is grateful for the opportunity to see a different part of the country and observe how another state’s rules and regulations impact how her profession is practiced. She also enjoyed making connections with other athletic trainers while gaining exposure to working in a high school.
“Having a clinical experience in a high school setting is really important,” says Russell, who plans to work in a clinical or a school, and is considering pursuit of a master’s degree. “I was able to work one-on-one with a student athlete with ACL rehab.”
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Asking Jennifer Johnson what she observed in Houston yields many memories.
- Children who become attached to their NIU students and don’t want them to leave.
- Tears on the last day, not just from children but from college students and cooperating teachers.
- Proof that NIU’s programs are sound.
“We are perceived, not just in Illinois but in other states, as a place where you want to recruit teachers from, a place that has graduates who are able to step into a classroom and make an impact – a positive impact – immediately, who come prepared to teach and learn,” Johnson says.
NIU College of Education students “are so, so authentically devoted to their profession, and passionate about what they want to do, that I know they’re going to be outstanding when they graduate,” she says.
“So many times during the (Educate U.S.) interview process, they would walk out of the room, and I would think, ‘Oh, I have goosebumps. That is who I would love to have teach my children.’ That’s the kind of bar I set,” Johnson says.
“They consider the students first – the children they’re going to be in the classrooms with,” she adds. “They were all very open to learning about new people, new places. They really had the idea that they would be going to learn how others learn, and that to me was huge. These students are doing this for a great reason.”