Teachers of Tomorrow Teaching on Site Today
The UCATS program places students in local schools so they can get practical training before they graduate.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Sept. 20, 2007

Julia Blazev scuttled back and forth in a J. Robert Hendricks Elementary School room full of first grade children.

One group of children gathered in a corner around the teacher, Sara Merriman, for a reading lesson.

Blazev was monitoring one child working on sentence constructions, a group gluing paper leaves on paper palm trees and yet another group stamping letters onto sheets of paper.

One girl rushed up to Blazev, who was in the middle of several different tasks, and asked for help with the alphabet.

Blazev immediately pointed to the alphabet stamps and, in a tender tone, began: “A, B, C, D, E, F….”

After a short pause, the girl picked up the letter “G” stamp and hurried back to her station, to which Blazev answered, “there you go.”

Such is the life of Blazev, and about 150 others in The University of Arizona’s UCATS program, a field-based teacher preparation program for College of Education students.

The program places undergraduate teachers-to-be in classrooms in the Tucson area and pairs them with clinical teachers and professors who train them in various methods and subject areas.

“We’ve been able to try teaching on for size before we’re put out there on our own,” says Blazev, a special education and rehabilitation major who will begin leading lessons next week in Merriman’s first grade classroom.

“It’s nice to know that if I were to do something wrong she (Merriman) is there, so it won’t be a total disaster,” Blazev says. “I think that by the time we finish and start student teaching we’ll be fully prepared to do what we have to do.”

Merriman says she is impressed with Blazev’s work, and with the program.

“It’s wonderful to see how the program has blossomed,” she says. “I really enjoy the program because I get another set of hands and the students bring new ideas and techniques – ones that, once you are out of the university for 28 years, you may not know about.”

A delegation of education officials visited the elementary school Tuesday to learn about the program. Among the group was Arizona Board of Regents member Dennis DeConcini, College of Education Dean Ronald Marx and Nic Clement, the Flowing Wells School District superintendent, among numerous other supporters of the college and program.

“The highest quality graduates are the ones we hire who have completed an immersion program, who have student-taught or who come from UCATS,” Clement says.

He also said UCATS students are in a sort of “teaching hospital” model. “That is very effective.”

This semester, students have been placed at five sites in the Tucson, Sunnyside, Marana and Flowing Wells school districts. The students spend Monday through Thursday of their first semester taking methods courses off-site with teachers and UA faculty. During the second semester, the group will engage in student teaching.

Also, a select group is involved in the “immersion” part of the program, which allows them to have paid substitute positions on Fridays.

“The advantage is that it is field based,” says Shirley Fisher, director of field experiences for the College of Education. “And the districts have a chance to look at the students for a year. At that point, the students understand the climate and the culture of the school district.”

Later in the day during a meeting with UCATS students, Clement said: "This is our investment in you now, but I’m thinking about five years from now when I’ll have to hire another 50 teachers.”

During a late-morning conversation with students in the program, the visiting group had the chance to ask about the program.

A number of the students pointed out that the program has made them stronger educators before they actually place in schools.

For some, it was the ability to build community in the classroom that mattered most.

For others, the greatest advantage was having an experienced educator who could walk them through the highs and lows of being new to the classroom.

During that same discussion, former Arizona Senator DeConcini told the UCATS class: “I thank you for doing what you do. It’s so important, and may not always recognized, but so important.”

A number of UCATS students also said they were pleased to have learned early that the grade level they were determined to teach after graduation did not mesh well with their personalities after all. And several said they had experienced a great deal of personal growth and practical knowledge in the short time spent in the program.

“Just being able to get the experience as a teacher before we graduate is good,” says Stephanie Salazar, an elementary education major. “And it’s great to do it at a school site. We’re walking through the hallways, using the teacher lounge – just being a teacher.”

Nikki Leetch has wanted to be a teacher for years, and the program has only strengthened that desire.

“I love kids,” says Leetch, another elementary education major who is in the immersion program.

“I think everybody should learn this way, just like going to another country to learn another language,” she says.

“You learn fast, and it’s kind of overwhelming, but you use the same teaching techniques,” she added. “It’s great because if you don’t know what to do, it makes you figure out what to do.”

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