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Future teachers gain skills in diverse urban classrooms

English education major Alison Wagener spent just a week working with students in an urban Milwaukee middle school but the experience made an impact that she thinks will last a lifetime.

"I think my biggest misconception going into the experience was how much I would bond with the students," says Wagener, an English education major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "I didn't think that I would be able to form any real connections with them in only a week, but that happened with almost all of them within the first day."

Wagener and 16 other UW-Eau Claire students in an education studies class taught by Dr. Eric Torres spent their spring break working alongside teaching professionals in a K-8 school for the arts in Milwaukee. Throughout the immersion week, students volunteered as teacher's aides, helping their cooperating teachers with lesson planning, classroom management and teaching curriculum.  

The domestic immersion experience left Wagener thinking differently about the students she may someday teach, as well as the responsibilities that go with being an educator today. 

"I was placed in a middle school setting, and the hardest part for me was getting to know the students who were really struggling, not just academically, but also emotionally," says Wagener, a Janesville native. "I had to take a step back and understand that school wasn't always their main priority, even though it's mine as a teacher. It was difficult for me to find the right balance between being their friend and being their educator. I still think about those students every day." 

Giving future teachers an experience in a school environment that is different from anything they've experienced is important in preparing them to meet the needs of the diverse students they will likely someday have in their classrooms, Torres says. 

Immersing students in a school in Milwaukee — one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. — will help them better understand the ongoing impact of systemic racism and how it relates to education even here in Wisconsin, Torres says.  

"The 2012 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Wisconsin in the last place in the country in state-to-state comparison of the well-being of African-American children," Torres says. "In the midst of that scenario, we are mandated to provide equal educational opportunities. Milwaukee offers a perfect scenario to understand the intimate connection between public education and democracy."

Being in a school environment that was so different from what she knows was a powerful experience, says Emily Herkert, a social studies education major from Marshfield, adding that she would recommend the immersion experience to any student who wants to become a teacher.

"As you learn to teach, I think it's important to observe in as wide a variety of school settings as possible, especially those that are different from the schools we attended growing up," Herkert says. "This trip really expanded my horizons and got me to think about teaching in new ways." 

Karissa Mueller, a social studies education major from Chippewa Falls, agrees. 

"It's important for us to see a school system that varies from that of Eau Claire and the surrounding area," Mueller says. "The school we were placed in had a great deal of student diversity in not only race, but also in regard to socioeconomic status, student ability, educators and more. Not many students get this kind of experience." 

The immersion taught her what it takes to be a teacher, says Savannah Heller, a special education, cognitive disabilities and learning disabilities major from Madison.  

"You have to be compassionate and understanding," Heller says. "You have to take the time to get to know your students. You have to understand that each student comes to you with different abilities. You have to be flexible, and you have to truly care. Most of all, you have to wake up every morning ready to put your heart and soul into your students and their education." 

The opportunity to learn from experienced teachers also was an invaluable experience, Wagener says.

"Just being able to be around and interact with experienced teachers every day was impactful for me," Wagener says. "Being in the classroom and getting hands-on experience in a field that I'm passionate about was more than worth it. I know that this opportunity has definitely helped myself and my classmates grow as future educators."