“When I was growing up, I didn’t think I’d be a teacher. My parents were both teachers; my sister is a teacher; it’s the family occupation,” explains Aaron Stites, a fresh face in this year’s Teacher Education Program cohort at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. “I was a probation officer for the State of Colorado for over four years, volunteered for six months to teach in Latin America and ended up as the director of an education program down in Nicaragua for 22 months. I was the program coordinator for a teen homeless shelter for a year and worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver in an educational summer camp teaching 5th grade. I learned firsthand, that teaching was what I enjoyed most.”
His work experience, time abroad, and his family’s influence, along with some inspiration from teachers back home in Grand Junction helped Aaron confirm his passion for teaching. After deciding on a career path, Aaron started researching Teacher Education programs in the state of Colorado. “DU is head and shoulders above other programs in the state,” commented Stites. “It’s a selective, one year program based on a gradual release model, where students are placed in cohorts for a brief classroom period before learning InContext with an apprentice teacher and a classroom of students. I applied, interviewed, got accepted, and now I’m here.”
Among several cognate options, Aaron selected focused coursework around culturally and linguistically diverse learners for his masters degree in Curriculum and Instruction. Before starting classes at Morgridge College of Education, Aaron received his apprentice teacher and classroom assignment at Bryant-Webster Elementary School in the Denver Public School System to learn from and teach with Ginger Skelton and her 5th grade classroom. Bryant-Webster is the only early childhood education through 8th grade dual-language school in the state. Students at Bryant-Webster are on the course to be bilingual, bi-cultural and bi-literate in both Spanish and English by the 8th grade.
The first quarter of classes at DU started with four intensive courses: Second Language Acquisition with Dr. Maria Salazar, Teaching and Learning Environments with Jessica Lerner, Special Education with Dr. Molly Leamon, and Teaching Mathematics for Elementary Teachers with Dr. Richard Kitchen and Dr. Terrence Blackman. Stites elaborates: “In a matter of weeks, everything we’ve learned feels like six months of coursework. But I’ve already developed baseline fundamentals of managing a classroom, working with diverse populations and breaking down the subject most elementary teachers fear the most, math. All of these classes moved quickly to get us in our classrooms where it all comes together with experiential learning. You start with your classroom on their first day of school and observe the apprentice teacher for a while; eventually, you teach a lesson, then a few lessons, a full day, and ultimately a full week. It’s overwhelming, everything teachers have to do, but we get to see the whole process, from day one to the end of the year, all with the same group of kids.”
Before students filled the classrooms and hallways, Aaron joined Ginger and other Bryant-Webster faculty and administration for professional development, reviewing the philosophies of the school and the district and setting goals for the 2013-2014 academic year. Aaron describes his first few weeks in his apprentice classroom: “It has been rewarding to observe Ginger the past few weeks. She is a consummate professional and with 16 years of teaching experience, she has everything set up perfectly and collaborates often with other teachers. That first week with students is all about establishing expectations, behaviors and routines. It surprised me how much she went over transitions like changing classrooms or sitting down for floor time, but the kids really responded to it. I am excited to get to know my 5th grade classroom better; it’s a really interesting age because the kids are getting ready to transition to the next level, but are still definitely kids.”
Throughout the year, the InContext learning at Bryant-Webster will be coupled with many more classes at MCE. Stites reflects on his experience at MCE so far: “My cohort is filled with people of all different ages, from various places and diverse backgrounds. People came from occupations such as finance, the corporate world, international education, or are recent graduates. Most of the students are from Colorado, but many of my fellow classmates are from New York, California, and Tennessee (as well as other states). It’s enlightening for everyone when you have that kind of diversity. And each professor I’ve had has been extraordinary; no matter what the situation, they’ve ‘been there, done that’. Our teachers do the things that we need to do in our classroom, like setting up different ways of learning and displaying objectives for the day; they are modeling how to be an effective teacher.”
There are months to go and there is much to learn, but when asked what his dream job is, Aaron answers, “I’m concentrated on being a good teacher, to feel like I’ve made an impact and that my kids are getting the knowledge and understanding they need to move on to the next level … that, is my dream job.”
Click here to learn more about the program Aaron Stites is in, the Teacher Education Preparation program.