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Learn to teach by teaching

Assistant Director of Teacher Training
Learn to teach by teaching

Tamara Nikuradse in Glenda
Colón’s 5th grade class at the
Hugh R. O’Donnell School in
East Boston.
(Porter Gifford photo)

Tamara Nikuradse is in her first year of teaching at Milton Academy, but she is not a typical first-year teacher.

She’s a parent, a former executive at a Fortune 500 company, a published author and a graduate of Bowdoin College, Harvard University and Shady Hill School’s Teacher Training Course, which collaborates with Lesley University.

Educated in both public and private schools in the United States and abroad, she understands the value of an excellent education for all children, especially those with limited resources. So, when she made the decision to teach, she chose to learn how at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge and the Hugh R. O’Donnell School in East Boston.

Her teaching journey began last year at Shady Hill School, a progressive, pre-k to 8 independent elementary school with one of the best teacher preparation programs in the country. She was one of 15 apprentice teachers chosen from a large number of applicants to study and learn from teachers who love to teach and want to mentor apprentices. Some apprentices came to the school knowing they wanted to teach in a public or independent school after their apprenticeship. Others were unsure if teaching in a traditional classroom would be their life’s work. All were certain of one thing — they wanted to learn to teach by teaching — at Shady Hill.

Shady Hill is a unique place. Aspiring apprentice-teachers who come to the 11-acre campus for tours and interviews often say the gray, wood-paneled buildings that serve as grade-level classrooms look like cabins. They notice the joyful and carefree way in which children in grades pre-k to 8 meander along grassy, tree-lined pathways to the woodshop, the library for story time, or the gym for P.E. While 4 year olds can be found digging in the mud making tunnels in the nature area, third graders are sketching whales, studying their anatomical make-up, and learning how they evolved over time. Sixth graders examine artifacts from Africa to determine their significance and use, while eighth graders collaborate in small groups to make movie trailers that explain the historical significance of the Enlightenment. The applicant vying for a spot in the teacher training program gets this snapshot of what we do every day in our classrooms. The apprentice actually gets to teach it.

Apprentices like Tamara spend a whole year immersed in two different classrooms working with a mentor. The mentor is a coach who demonstrates effective instruction, talks about it and gives advice on how the apprentice can do it, too. Sure, lessons succeed and fail. Learning what works for children is the goal. Experienced mentors like Jake Hopkins gave Tamara the opportunity to take the best of what was modeled in his third grade classroom, put it into practice and reflect upon his feedback — daily.

After spending several months in Jake’s third grade classroom, Tamara transitioned to Glenda Colón’s fifth grade class at the Hugh R. O’Donnell School in East Boston, where C. Sura O’Mard is the principal. The school is situated in a busy, vibrant and ethnically diverse community. Almost 300 children attend O’Donnell; 80 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are white and the other 6 percent are African American and Asian. Early in the morning, mothers, fathers and grandparents walk young children up the steps to enter a large brick building. Behind the building is a huge, well-equipped playground for children to enjoy during recess.

As O’Mard gave Tamara and a group of apprentices a tour of the school, a parent walked by with a puzzled expression, clearly needing some assistance. O’Mard acknowledged her immediately and answered her question fluently in Spanish. Witnessing this connection to children and families was all Tamara needed to make her final decision to make the move from Shady Hill and work with Colón in her fifth grade class.

From the start, Colón told Tamara she saw her as a teaching partner. With several months of apprentice-teaching experience behind her, Tamara began teaching math to her new class of 23 fifth graders. If Colón attended a professional development session after school, Tamara joined her. Occasionally, mentor and apprentice taught side-by-side. The charts on the wall reminding students of effective strategies for analyzing and discussing a text took on new meaning for Tamara when she facilitated guided reading lessons for a group of students. In the back of the room, Colón observed Tamara teach and gave her written feedback. If Tamara struggled with classroom management, Colón was there to encourage and to suggest other ways to engage the group. Some of the hands-on projects and experiences that are common at Shady Hill were seen in action at O’Donnell. MCAS tests took on new meaning when Tamara assisted in proctoring the exam. She understood the goal was not limited to making sure children were passing tests proficiently, but also to prepare children for success and college readiness, a goal for all children in the Boston Public Schools.

Tamara gained an invaluable experience that is unique to Shady Hill School’s teacher training program. She learned how to teach in two schools — very different and yet similar in important ways. O’Mard values the partnership that Shady Hill and O’Donnell share.

“Shady Hill has an outstanding program that is well organized and connected to reputable institutions of higher education,” she said. “Oftentimes teachers being trained in the private sector find themselves in urban public schools, which challenge them to provide instruction to all children.”

This year, 60 percent of Shady Hill School’s apprentice-teachers will follow Tamara’s lead. Ten will work alongside master teachers at Shady Hill and continue learning from master teachers at Haggerty School in Cambridge, Mass., Watertown Middle School and the O’Donnell School.

Asked if she would do it again, Tamara said, “Most definitely. I truly believe that all teachers should have the opportunity to work in an independent school and an urban public school such as O’Donnell. I think it gives you an appreciation for the American education system. You have to use your ingenuity to make a lesson interesting and memorable for children.”