For more than two decades, an immersive Tufts program has prepared new teachers to make a difference in urban schools
If Stephnie Lin, AG22, learned one lesson as a student teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School last year, it was this: Don’t assume you know what goes on outside those classroom doors.
For example, one of her students was brilliant in class but always late with her assignments. Frustrated, Lin decided to talk to her. “I said, ‘I want to know why you’re not turning in homework on time, because I know you’re understanding everything we learn in class.’ And she opened up to me.” It turned out that the teen had to work during the week to help support her family and spent her weekends caring for her aging grandparents.
That lesson is something Lin is carrying with her in her new job as a social studies teacher at West Somerville Neighborhood School. She expects some of her students have backgrounds very different from the one she had growing up in Taiwan; learning their individual stories will help her be a better teacher.
“I feel like my toolbox is so much more stocked than it would have been had I interned through another program,” she said.
Lin’s internship was part of the Urban Teaching Training Collaborative (UTTC), a program developed by Tufts University’s Department of Education. Started in 1999, it pairs Tufts Master of Arts in teaching (MAT) students with partner public schools in the Boston area for an immersive student-teaching experience that is about more than pedagogy. It is also about helping new teachers avoid assumptions and learn about the cultures and histories of the ethnically, linguistically, and economically diverse communities they will work in.
Student teachers may go into their assignments having heard the descriptions of certain neighborhoods: poor, crime-filled, downtrodden. The hope, said Ryan Redmond, director of Tufts’ middle and high school MAT programs, is that UTTC will reframe their thinking.
“To put it plainly, they need to dispel the mythologies about the communities from which their students come and name them as real places with human beings living their lives,” he said.
Learning about the Community
Linda Beardsley, AG82, became director of teacher education and school partnerships at Tufts in 1997. At the time, she said, education reform was being fueled by the idea that “teachers in classrooms can work to improve education in a very real way.” She saw progressive energy in Boston’s pilot schools, and she wanted to tap into it. So she tried something that hadn’t really been done before: She asked the pilot schools what universities could do to help them.
“The first thing they said was, ‘Let us have your interns for longer than a day a week. Let us have your interns work not only in classrooms, but also in extracurriculars and outside of the classroom.’”
That became the cornerstone of the UTTC program—the amount of time student teachers spend in their schools. Unlike the traditional MAT model, where students work two days per week and ramp up to full time, UTTC interns spend four to five days per week at their schools from late August through May—full time for a whole school year.
Lin said the extra time helped her connect to her school. When hundreds of Rindge and Latin students staged a walkout of classes to protest sexual assaults and harassment, Lin stayed to listen while student teachers from other programs went home. “It was hours long, people lining up to share their stories,” she said. “It made my heart ache.” Later, she and her students spent an entire class discussing the walkout.
Can student teachers really know a place after just one year? “I think we were very real about that,” said Eileen Shakespear, a longtime Boston Public Schools teacher who helped Tufts establish UTTC when she was the intern coordinator for Fenway High School and the Boston Arts Academy. “I get a little irritated sometimes when people use words like ‘understand the community,’ because how can you, unless you immerse yourself in it for years? I think what we gave the interns was the openness to that, to thinking, ‘I probably don’t know that much about this kid or this community, and it would be good for me to pause and learn a little more.’”
UTTC faculty, led by Beardsley and Senior Lecturer Steven Cohen, developed lessons, activities, and community encounters that would help the interns see through their students’ eyes. The experience was also transformative for the primarily white Tufts faculty, who had a lot to discover about diverse classrooms. “All of us learned that sometimes we need to be humble and to ask for help, to ask someone else's insight into what's going,” said Beardsley.
“There’s a working to the school, there’s a movement to the school, and you need to become a part of that to understand.”
Today, most educators are familiar with the concepts of culturally responsive teaching and equitable practices in the classroom, but UTTC championed those approaches before the terms were common, said Mirko Chardin, AG03.
Chardin completed his UTTC internship at Malden High School in 2003. Since then, he has worked to promote social justice and intercultural understanding in urban schools, first as a middle school teacher and administrator and later as the founding head of school at the Putnam Avenue Upper School, a public school in Cambridge.
“I feel that the program was somewhat revolutionary in committing to that work at that particular time,” he said. “I believe it was on the ground level of laying the foundation for the significance and importance of that work.”
As head of the school in Cambridge, Chardin succeeded in recruiting staff who reflected the diversity of the student population, making it the most representative public-school staff in Massachusetts. “There were over forty different languages that were spoken within our school community,” said Chardin, who now consults with schools and school systems internationally as chief equity and inclusion officer at Novak Educational Consulting.
Shakespear has seen many alumni like Chardin who have made an impact on education, describing “cohorts of Tufts interns who went all over the country, went back to the communities that they came from, and brought the progressive philosophy and the reflective teaching piece” to more schools.
Full-time in the Classroom
At Somerville High School, where many UTTC students have trained over the years, interns start the year at the same time as the school staff and are included in the staff meetings and parent-teacher conferences that their mentor teachers attend.
“If you’re coming here once a week, you’re an outsider,” said Somerville teacher Dave DiPietro, AG13. “There’s a working to the school, there's a movement to the school, and you need to become a part of that to understand.”
DiPietro, who was himself a UTTC intern in 2012-2013, remembers how quickly he and the other interns were treated as contributing colleagues. “By October, we were hands on in the classroom. By November, we were leading lessons. By December, I had fully taken over the class.” The school hired DiPietro right out of his internship.
“I feel like it was never mentioned that you were an intern,” said Chadwick Johnson, AG02, who interned at Fenway High School. “You are learning, but you are a teacher—you’re here, you’re present, you participate.”
Fenway High School has been a UTTC partner since the program’s start. Johnson remembers the mentor teachers taking the time to explain the school’s history, its progressive approach to education, and its relationship to the community. “That was one of the things that really stuck out to me, this sharing of knowledge and sharing of culture,” he said. Now Johnson, who has taught math at Fenway for more than 20 years, is passing on that history.
A highlight of the internships, said Rawchayl Sahadeo, AG02, was when UTTC interns from the different schools would come together to share their experiences. “It was a safe environment where we could say how we failed or what our challenges were.” Many UTTC alums say that their “cohort” of fellow interns became lifelong friends and important parts of their professional networks.
In a similar way, their mentor teachers became long-term supporters. “Pretty much all of them have remained in contact with us, have mentored us throughout our careers,” said Sahadeo, who spent 18 years teaching humanities and filling various leadership roles at Fenway before joining the faculty at Boston Day and Evening Academy, an alternative public high school in Roxbury, Massachusetts. “Even now, I can email them, I can call them, and they still are giving that mentorship.”
While the share of Black, Hispanic, and Asian American teachers in U.S. classrooms has increased in recent decades, it has not kept pace with the rapid growth in the racial and ethnic diversity of students. By the 2018-19 school year, children of color made up more than half of students, but 79 percent of teachers identified as white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Experts agree that when students can’t relate to their teachers, it is more difficult to establish trusting relationships, which can impede student learning.
DiPietro, who is now the interim chair of the history and social studies department at Somerville High, looks to hire teachers who reflect his school’s diversity. About 60 percent of Somerville students are people of color, and as a white man, DiPietro is aware of what he can bring to a classroom—and what he can’t.
“I do some things really, really well and there are things I will never be able to do,” he said. “I will never be able to stand in the room and reflect the identity of many of my students.” That point was emphasized last year when he co-taught a course with a teacher who is Salvadorean. “There were ways that kids opened up and felt seen and safe when Beatriz framed something for them. It’s not the first time I saw it, but it was powerful for me to see that kids want to have a teacher who looks like them.”
UTTC has strived over the years to bring in more teachers of color, and its network of Black alumni, including Johnson and Chardin, still actively spread the word about the program. But fewer people overall are going into education.
“Right now we’re at a crisis point in attracting people to teach,” said Beardsley. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 44 percent of schools reported teacher vacancies this year, with half of those due to resignations. “We’re just not able to prepare people fast enough to fill those spots.”
To encourage people from all economic backgrounds to enter the profession, the UTTC provides stipends of up to $10,000 for its interns, sometimes paired with tuition scholarships, through the support of the Margolis Family and the Tufts University Provost’s Office.
Adam Aronson, A12, AG13, was one of those scholarship recipients. He taught high school special education in Chelsea, Massachusetts, before spending three years as dean of students. Then, in recognition of the work he was doing to develop strong relationships with students, he was tapped to design a new alternative high school called the Chelsea Opportunity Academy. “We are a school of 150 students, all of whom are overaged and under credit, and either are at risk of dropping out or have already dropped out, and we re-engage them,” Aronson said. “We’re in our fifth year of operation, and we’ve graduated 106 young people.”
Without the scholarship, Aronson said, he probably would not have attended UTTC and started down that path.
Building Equitable Communities
Redmond admits that the goals of UTTC are pretty big. “It is not just about preparing them to teach the stuff, the content,” he said. “It's about preparing them to work to build communities—communities that had often been abandoned or set behind by generations of inequity.”
That idea—“that public schools are the central future-generating civic institution in this country”—is often what attracts teachers to work in urban schools in the first place, Redmond said.
For DiPietro, it’s why he chose UTTC, and it is still the reason he gets up for work in the morning.
“There are days when I certainly feel that we are not accomplishing this, but in my dream world, I think education really is the opportunity to make social change, that it is the lever to make the most change that we can,” he said. “That is why I come here every day.”