Program provides year of in-classroom experience for elementary education majors

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After the diplomas are awarded and the lines of graduates waiting to have their picture taken at the Nittany Lion Shrine have disappeared, most recent Penn State graduates are moving on to new lives, but College of Education seniors who are participating in the Professional Development School (PDS) program are still in State College.  These dedicated future educators have committed to a full school year inside local classrooms for their senior year. Their internships begin in August, before Penn State classes, and end in June, weeks after their graduation from Penn State.

The PDS is an intensive, field-based program where learning to teach is accomplished through teaming with a mentor teacher and a University-based educator. Annually, about 60 Penn State PDS interns spend their year in State College Area School District schools where they receive extensive training in actual classrooms. Lauren Jeffrey, a fifth-grade intern at Park Forest Elementary School, said she has learned more than she could have imagined throughout the course of the year.

“I have learned about the type of educator I would like to become and my values about education, which have grown and strengthened throughout this experience,” said Jeffrey. “Being in the classroom for the entire year has been the most valuable part of this program. I was able to see my students grow each day and have learned how to adapt and modify lessons based on student needs.”

PDS intern Lauren Jeffrey working with student

Lauren Jeffrey, PDS intern, works with a student on a web-based project.

Image: Penn State

The yearlong classroom experience was what attracted these students to the internship. Andi Zirkle, a first- and second-grade intern at Park Forest Elementary School, said the PDS program drew her to Penn State for her education degree.

“I wanted a yearlong experience instead of 15 weeks,” said Zirkle, “because I knew that more time in the classroom would be valuable to me in practical learning.”

Becky Oliver, a kindergarten intern also at Park Forest Elementary School, said that she has learned a lot about her approaches to teaching.

“I have had multiple opportunities to observe teachers,” said Oliver. “This has helped me determine my own teaching preferences. Observing has also shaped me because I am able to model what I do after what my colleagues have successfully used.”

Andi Zirkle, PDS intern, reviews a writing assignment with one of her students.

Andi Zirkle, PDS intern, reviews a writing assignment with one of her students.

Image: Penn State

Another advantage of the PDS is spending a full school year with a mentor. Jeffrey said her mentor has been her biggest supporter and greatest teacher.

“I think that being in a classroom all year with the same mentor allows you to build that relationship with your mentor, which is important because you feel comfortable when it is your turn to take over the class,” said Jeffrey. “You also know that the feedback you are getting is authentic and will only help you grow as a professional. (My mentor) has helped me grow tremendously throughout the year and has helped me become the educator I am today."

PDS interns also get practical experience with other skills. Zirkle said her internship taught her to be a life-long learner.

Lauren Jeffrey (right), PDS Intern, speaking with Nick Reitz, her PDS mentor at Park Forest Elementary.

Lauren Jeffrey (right), PDS Intern, speaking with Nick Reitz, her PDS mentor at Park Forest Elementary.

Image: Penn State

“Rather than trying to give us all the answers, PDS has equipped me to be a life-long learner,” said Zirkle. “Being inquisitive about my profession is the best way to grow and develop. (It) also sets a good example to my students.”

Oliver added that she learned that it is important to teach the student and not the lesson.

“There were several times that I needed to be flexible because the students were not ready for something, or (they) needed more practice,” said Oliver. “Likewise, everyday is different and requires the need for flexibility.”

The students said their yearlong experience had fond memories mixed in with their professional development.

“My favorite memory is probably the first week that I took over math,” said Jeffrey. “I was teaching a lesson, and one of my students said, ‘Oh! I get it now!’ I think those ‘ah-ha’ moments from my students are some of the best memories. It helps me see the difference I am making with my students.”

Jeffrey said she would tell someone who is considering applying to the PDS to just do it.

“It is the best experience you can get before having a classroom of your own,” said Jeffrey. “It gives you the closest experience to what it is like as a first-year teacher. The things you will experience and learn will only benefit you. PDS is definitely the way to go for a pre-service teacher.”

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Last Updated June 13, 2013