STEP program pushes the boundaries of education

Aug. 9, 2012, 2:29 a.m.

“Just because you are smart and deeply knowledgeable about something does not mean you will be an excellent teacher,” said Kirstin Milks Ph.D. ’09 M.A. ’10.

Milks, a current high school science teacher at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, Ind., is a former student of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). After completing her doctorate in biochemistry, Milks looked into teaching as a means of bringing together her love of collaborative learning and science. She decided to enroll with STEP to explore these combined interests.

“I knew I wanted the time and resources to develop integrated understandings of teaching, learning, students and science,” she said of choosing the program.
STEP, established in 1959, is an intensive, yearlong masters program at the Stanford University School of Education (SUSE) that offers teaching credentials for aspiring K-12 teachers like Milks.

“We are preparing elementary and secondary teachers, and we are preparing them to do their best to serve students, their families and the communities in which they live,” said Rachel Lotan M.A. ’81 ’83 Ph.D. ’85, director of STEP.

The overarching program includes STEP Elementary and STEP Secondary– the elementary program for aspiring teachers interested in educating multiple-subject classes in elementary schools and the secondary program for teachers interested in instructing single-subject classes in high school.

Classes are taught based on research and techniques developed by SUSE, which investigates areas such as the use of technology in teaching and how society contributes to what kids do in schools.

“We use state-of-the-art theories and findings to support the work that we do,” Lotan said. “We want to prepare the teacher candidates to support their students in learning.”

Admission to the program is highly selective, and STEP looks for a pool of diverse candidates who have experience with youth and strong academic backgrounds, not exclusively Stanford graduates.

In addition, Ira Lit ’90 M.A. ’91 Ph.D. ’03, assistant professor of teaching at STEP, says that 50 percent of the program’s admits are students of color, and a large number of them are first-generation college admits in their families.

“We welcome and are excited by a diverse pool of applicants of all cultures, races, religions and ethnic origins, with wide-ranging interests and experiences,” he said.

However, the most important characteristic for any prospective STEP student is, without a doubt, a genuine love for teaching. For STEP professor Maren Aukerman, educating youth should be any prospective student’s main priority when considering the program.

“[You] really [need to] think about what is exciting to you about engaging with kids and really make it about kids rather than about you,” she said. “I think that if the focus is really on what kids are doing and what kids are able to do, and if that gets you excited, STEP’s the place for you.”

For Lotan, this dedication and focus is also what makes STEP students– and,
eventually, STEP teachers– stand out.

“[The students] are an incredible group of people who can do anything they want to do, and they choose to become teachers,” she said. “Basically, they choose the profession that makes all the other professions possible.”

In STEP classrooms, not only do students learn about current research and education techniques, but a large emphasis is also put on having students reflect concretely on their practice and the teaching techniques that they have developed.

“We have students videotape themselves, generate transcripts and analyze [their work],” Aukerman said. “There is an emphasis on looking at what the students themselves are doing in the classroom and trying to make sense of it to improve instruction.”

Furthermore, Aukerman sees the attention that the program puts into educating its students and preparing them for their futures in the classroom as the largest contributing factor to her success and what makes STEP unique among other teaching programs.

“I know there are many caring, thoughtful, intelligent people, from Stanford and other places, who go into prestigious teacher programs that require minimal up-front time and a short commitment to high-need students,” Milks said. “Personally, I know my students are grateful to have me as a teacher largely due to what I learned in STEP from my students, my cooperating teachers, my professors and my fellow STEP colleagues.”

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