The professor knelt on the brightly carpeted floor to introduce herself to a small child.
“My name is Dr. Fox and I’m going to be in your classroom today,” she said.
Why is a college professor teaching kindergartners and first-graders? Because she’s “practicing what we teach’’ in an innovative program in the College of Education and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Education professors regularly advise their students to be ready to step into an unfamiliar classroom and take charge. Now, some of those professors are demonstrating the needed skills by stepping into classrooms themselves.
In an unusual project that began last fall, about a dozen faculty members volunteer to teach as substitutes one morning a month at LINCS (Lincoln Inquiry Charter School) in Whitewater.
Their arrival provides precious team planning time for classroom teachers and sends a powerful message of support to educators on the front lines from educators on campus.
It also keeps professors up to date on timely issues in a busy elementary school that’s trying to produce strong thinkers for the 21st century.
Education students from UW-Whitewater who join the professors get an early look at classroom teaching and benefit from seeing exactly how their instructor handles a lively crowd of youngsters.
“It seems to be a win-win for everybody,” said Robin Fox, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education and Professional Studies.
That opinion was echoed by Jo Bernhardt, principal at LINCS, who appreciates the professional support from UW-Whitewater as the new charter school forges partnerships with families and community members.
“We can’t thank them enough,” she said. “We can all learn from each other. It’s all just great for kids.”
After two years of planning, LINCS opened last fall as Whitewater’s first public charter school, with about 370 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Classrooms combine kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grade.
The LINCS inquiry-based education concept calls for developing children’s curiosity and creativity.
As a practical matter, for example, teachers are working on ways to help children read and understand nonfiction texts, as students as young as kindergartners pursue knowledge and present their findings.
It’s a concept that demands careful collaboration among teachers as they work as a team to encourage children to ask questions and investigate things. That collaboration requires time, which the UW-Whitewater volunteers provide by substitute teaching for an entire morning.
“It is just incredibly valuable in terms of the planning time,” Bernhardt said.
For the university educators, returning to the classroom reminds them of the hard work, challenges and rewards of teaching that they are trying to impart to UW-Whitewater students.
It also allows the faculty members to demonstrate the techniques and respect for children they talk about in Winther Hall. For example, they remind students not to assume that every child celebrates Christmas. And they demonstrate hands-on techniques by, for example, responding to a student who’s an auditory learner by walking over to explain something instead of pointing to words on the board.
“We are practicing what we tell our students they should be doing in a classroom,” Fox said. “We’re modeling what we tell our students to do.”
It’s an education for the professors, too, as they confront issues that didn’t exist when they were classroom teachers. When Fox taught 20 years ago, no child ever asked to email his mother or make a quick cellphone call. Even perennial problems like name-calling reflect contemporary insults.
“That just helps me be a more complete university instructor, when I come back here, just to know the words students use to be hurtful,” Fox said.
University instructors gain credibility with UW-Whitewater students when they suggest a teaching technique and can mention “I used this the other day.”
UW-Whitewater undergraduates in the Future Teacher Program have joined the faculty volunteers at LINCS, gaining an early introduction to real-world classrooms.
“I learned that teaching is a lot harder than it looks,’’ said Danielle Olivas, a sophomore majoring in elementary education. “It was intimidating to be put in charge, but it went well because it was reassuring that teaching is something that I want to do. It was fun overall.”
Freshman Jenna Hoeffert, also majoring in elementary education, said she learned skills she can use, particularly different methods of teaching.
Assisting professors at LINCS “allows our students to see proven teaching techniques and strategies in action and provides outstanding opportunities for self-reflection and mentoring,’’ said Marijuana Sawyer-Clardy, director of the Future Teacher Program and a LINCS volunteer herself.
One student, junior Karen Cano, appreciated a discussion about how recess helps children release energy and how some school districts are cutting recess.
The faculty volunteer program grew out of discussions among Bernhardt, Dean Katy Heyning of the College of Education and Professional Studies, Fox and others about how the college and the school might work together.
“I think what teachers need more than anything else is time, especially when they’re starting something new,” Fox said.
She has been gratified by the response of her colleagues, who have readily volunteered as substitutes. Even Dean Heyning donned jeans and a purple Warhawk sweatshirt to handle playground duty.
When LINCS asked for university experts who might help children interested in specific subjects, scores of UW-Whitewater faculty and staff members signed up as potential consultants offering expertise in subjects ranging from fossils to radio production. One LINCS fifth grader found a university math mentor.
“It makes complete sense to me,’’ Fox said. “Inquiry-based to me means that the teachers at the school will get to know what the children are interested in and develop activities geared toward that interest. Teachers need to have time to think about how that might happen.”
She hopes the volunteer teaching will lead to other partnerships between UW-Whitewater and LINCS along with other area schools.
“It’s just good for everybody,’’ she said. “It’s such a simple idea to give back to the field we came from.”