Ed students get hands-on classroom experience

It’s 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning at Middleton Heights Elementary school. About 20 first-graders sit at their desks. Their eyes intently watch College of Idaho sophomore Shanna Madsen. It’s the end of her six-week stay in first grade, as part of the C of I’s Intro to Teaching class. And now, it’s Madsen’s turn to take the reins and give a lesson.

She shows the kids they’ll be making paper flowerpots, a gift for Mother’s Day. Each flower stem describes a different thing the kids love about their mom. The project incorporates penmanship, spelling and construction skills. But giving and being graded on her lesson doesn’t make Madsen nervous as much as self-conscious.

“Are they going to think ‘this is stupid?’” she said. “Are these first-graders going to judge me for having them make flowerpots?”

Intro to Teaching is designed to help students answer the question, “Do I want to be a teacher?” The course is an annual favorite of education professor Dr. Debra Yates, who enjoys finding “diamonds in the rough” as students morph and transform through the semester.

“I think it’s really important to get them out and experiencing real-life skills,” Yates said. “Especially in education—to make sure this is the career path they want to take. Frankly, I think I’d rather have them know now as freshmen and sophomores than to wait until junior or senior year.”

The students spend six weeks studying at the College before diving into a classroom at either Middleton Heights Elementary or Middleton Middle School. The students then observe and help out in the class until it’s time to giver a lesson of their own.

And that first day of ‘on-the-job’ training can be an eye opener.

On a late-winter’s morning, Madsen and her classmates wait to get on a bus for their first trip to Middleton Heights. It’s 7:15 a.m.—a forsaken hour that doesn’t exist on many college students’ clocks. Many coffee cups warm hands and propel brain function for these walking dead.

Once at Middleton Heights Elementary, the students slumber off the bus. On the playground, kids flash by like electrons—no need for coffee. The college students’ eyes swivel around like a chameleon’s.

“At that point, the college students are very vulnerable, pretty scared, but very excited,” Yates said. “The van ride is always very entertaining. I love to drive and listen to all of the things that happened during that very first day.”

One by one, each student meets the teacher they’ll be shadowing. Madsen is paired with Ms. Aitchison, who lines up her kids and leads them inside. In the first-grade classroom, planets made from balloons and papier-mâché hang from the ceiling.

“Ms. Aitchison hit Uranus,” one kid quips. The blue planet swings back and forth.

As the children take their seats, they stare at their new visitor. Possibly an alien from Mars?

“I didn’t know when I first signed up for Intro to Teaching that they just threw you into the classroom,” Madsen said. “I had no idea that was a thing. It was weird. I’m in college—I haven’t been in first grade in 15-16 years. To have them stare at you like you’re a wild animal in a zoo is strange.”

But strangeness quickly fades, especially as one little girl hugs Madsen as she leaves after an hour. The children accept Madsen into their classroom, as she observes and helps in any way possible.

For freshman Tabby Barrington, teaching is all she’s ever dreamt about. Originally wanting to teach elementary school, she decided to pursue middle school in order to specialize in math. She joined Mr. Kershaw’s sixth grade math class and taught about circumference—an experience which made her a little nervous.

“I’m not really good in front of large groups of people, which is one reason classes like this one are important if I want to be a teacher,” she said. “During the lesson, I wasn’t sure if I was explaining it well enough—if it was too complicated, or too simple. It’s kind of the problem of wondering where everyone is at [in their comprehension]. But, it was pretty fun.”

Intro to Teaching only reaffirmed for Barrington and Madsen that teaching is for them. While getting classroom time and experience was important for Madsen, the class imparted something else to her which can’t be learned—passion.

It came in the form of one little girl who had a tough time reading. She struggled with easy words and read about one line per minute. After Madsen was assigned to work with her, she rapidly progressed to read as fast her classmates.

“Knowing that I’ve been around to watch her progress like this, I think that’s the main reason I want to teach—to see that progression and see how excited she gets that she can read a whole page now,” Madsen said. “I love first grade and seeing the students’ ‘ah-ha’ moments.”

And that’s what it’s all about for Yates as well, watching her own students have those ‘ah-ha’ moments and progress over a semester. Seeing them teach their own lesson at the end makes her feel like a “proud momma.” As much as Yates would like to think all 25 students are going to choose a career in teaching, she knows they won’t. But, she does know each one will walk away with professional skills—having to dress up every day, show up on time, and the basic skills of being adults.

“At the end, I can see what they’ve learned along the way,” Yates said. “No amount of money could pay me a salary that is worth that right there every semester. And that’s why we continue to do this class.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit