Masters at teaching

Recognition came as a sweet surprise for four students in the Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies’ Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. In their final semester of the program, all four were recognized as outstanding “rookie” teachers by the Houston area public schools where they’ve been interning in their first year of teaching.

Elisa Cardnell received Carnegie Vanguard High School’s (Houston Independent School District) 2013-14 “Beginning Teacher of the Year” award; Grace Magnani received both Ridge Point High School and Fort Bend Independent School District’s 2013-14 “Rookie of the Year” award; Ranjani Sheshadri received Manvel High School’s (Alvin Independent School District) “Teacher of the Month” award for January; and Andrew Touma received Kempner High School’s (Fort Bend Independent School District) 2013-14 “Rookie Teacher of the Year” award.

Judy Radigan, director of the Rice University Teacher Education Program, said the MAT program made a commitment to go into Houston’s public schools, and the awards speak to this commitment. “We’re pleased and surprised,” Radigan said. “Surprised because it wasn’t our goal. We did want them to be leaders, we did want them to feel more than competent in what they did and we pushed for them to be successful with their students.”

All four students are teaching on a state of Texas probationary certificate as a full-time, salaried teacher in the area and at the level of the certification being sought. They receive extensive support from both a field supervisor and a mentor teacher throughout their entire year of teaching.

Touma, who teaches Advanced Placement (AP) English to juniors and seniors, said he became interested in becoming a teacher because he saw it as one of the most ancient and important of all professions. “I can’t think of any job that is more worthwhile, meaningful and rewarding,” Touma said. “I believe that helping young people make sense of the world through language arts and literature is a critical part of ensuring that our kids stay open-minded and inquisitive in this brave new world we live in.”

The so-called lightbulb moments, when one can actually see students make a connection for themselves, is what enthuses Rice alumna Cardnell ’07 about teaching. Cardnell, who teaches pre-AP physics and pre-AP geometry, was drawn to become a teacher after leaving active duty in the U.S. Navy. “I was looking for a career that allowed me to continue to serve, to let me get back in touch with my inner nerd and was a new challenge,” Cardnell said. “The MAT program provided the foundation I needed to transition to a new profession. In my particular case, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to customize my course of study and draw on resources from across the campus.”

Magnani, an English teacher, said her interest in social justice combined with her passion for reading and writing inspired her to become a teacher. She particularly enjoys having her students take control over their own learning. “My favorite days are when the kids, armed with questions, conduct their own Socratic seminars,” Magnani said. “Witnessing my students critically engaging with the world around them, genuinely listening to their perspectives on pressing issues and watching them question their classmates’ – and sometimes their own – beliefs can be quite mind-blowing.”

Sheshadri teaches AP and standard English to juniors. She enjoys the research she does when preparing a lesson. “I might be as well-versed on the Jazz Age as I am on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life by the time we get to the second chapter of ‘The Great Gatsby,’” Sheshadri said. “I enjoy sharing interesting facts with them, and recently, rare and interesting photos. I spend so much time on the Internet at home that I’m always finding something they’ve never seen before, and to hear that soft gasp when I pull up a vintage picture of a skyscraper of stacked barrels of prohibited liquor is deeply satisfying.”

Considering her students’ success, Radigan said effective teaching is an art that can be learned. “It’s (teaching) learning how to do some really basic things: to put together lessons of instruction that as soon as that kid walks in, that kid has an activity to do that lets him or her know you’re in a classroom now and we’ve got work to do and this work isn’t too bad,” she said. “You do a strategic activity that gets the student engaged in the classroom and it’s usually something that relates to the kid’s life and whatever the lesson is going to be.”

Radigan said another key to success in today’s classroom is to focus on student-centered learning, which entails “less talk from the teacher and more talk from the students.”

“We want to go into a classroom and see students being center stage and working in groups,” she said.

For more information about the MAT program and teacher certification, see http://teach.rice.edu/master-arts-teaching.

About Jeff Falk