By Nathan Pitner, Principal, Brookwood Forest Elementary, and Cora Brasfield Causey, Ph.D., UAB School of Education

It is Wednesday and the carpool lines at Brookwood Forest Elementary School are watching some fifty college students walk a quarter mile up a hill in misting rain to join the school’s learning for the day. Space in the building is limited and the parking lot is too full for the additional traffic, yet all parties are excited about the sight. “In my day, I walked up a hill in the rain to school,” is indeed one of the most exaggerated clichés used to describe the hardships of traditional schooling, but the excitement and smiles reflect this literal description of the first signs of a wholly progressive partnership between UAB School of Education and Brookwood Forest Elementary that is improving learning for everyone involved.

The partnership between the UAB School of Education and Brookwood Forest Elementary (BWF) is based on a simple observation. An overwhelming majority of the best hospitals in the country are learning hospitals, defined as such by the hospital inviting medical students to learn about practice with acting doctors. It is a relationship that places learning about best practices above all things in a process that improves practitioners as a means of benefitting patients. The partnership between the college and elementary school is intended to answer a single question: If learning hospitals are so successful, why don’t we have more learning schools? Contextual learning is recognized in the medical school as clinical rounding or bed-side teaching. Research shows that a similar model of teacher training and development supports effective teacher education as well as individual students and works to close the achievement gap (Summerlin, 2016; Darling-Hammond, 2006).

After years of hosting student teachers and building relationships between the university personnel and the elementary teachers, BWF and UAB met to discuss building a structure that would embed the UAB Pedagogy class in the elementary setting to directly observe, discuss, and implement best practices in elementary classrooms.

“UAB students/teacher candidates being in our classroom is a win for all involved,” says Perry Wright, kindergarten teacher at BWF. “The UAB students get to watch real teaching and learning moments from BWF teachers, and then in turn, get to practice what they have learned with actual children. It moves away from simply textbook learning, to real life and real time application. BWF teachers get to experience and watch UAB students implement lessons that are new and fresh. It also provides BWF students with extra support while the UAB students are with us. If this experience had been available while I was in college, it would have been a game changer.”

A brief introduction to the process for UAB students often includes a discussion about the difference in simply reading about practice and actually participating in the learning process. Within an hour the college students will be working throughout the building with elementary students and teachers to experience the difference first-hand.

“Being in the classrooms at BWF helped me learn by allowing me authentic classroom experiences. Through practicing lesson planning and teaching students, I was able to learn how to implement effective teaching practices,” says UAB student Bethany Hilyer. “I was also able to learn through failure-what to do when your lesson doesn't go as planned and how to reflect on how to teach that concept better next time. I also learned what to do in the moment when you make a mistake while teaching to recover your lesson. I learned how to effectively manage a classroom.”

Now in its third year, the partnership follows a consistent schedule. The Pedagogy class meets twice a week, one day on the UAB campus learning about practice and theory and the second day at the elementary school experiencing the theory in practice. While both are important, it is the second day that is particularly impactful to all parties. The partnership is only effective because it can be so beneficial to both the university and elementary school. While the university students are given opportunities to observe, interview, and lead learning sessions with both students and teachers, the elementary school also benefits from the visit. The simple truth is that the teachers want their practice observed and questioned. The transparency communicates a desire to be open to either affirming or improving their practice. While the teachers, both present and future, are discovering best practices, it is ultimately the students benefiting most from these conversations. After all, there is a reason that so many families travel so far for the care of a learning hospital when they need it most. The same can be applied to the benefits for students.

Dr. Cora Brasfield Causey, Ph.D., instructor in the School of Education, has stewarded this partnership from its beginning. “What began as teachers hosting students in their classrooms for observation and short lessons, has evolved into a multi-layered approach to learning. By beginning early in their teacher education program, teacher candidates learning and working in tandem with UAB course instructors, master teachers, and elementary students have a unique opportunity to increase competency and confidence within a supportive and challenging environment. Ultimately, our goal is to be a change agent for education. Our hope is that this model will be replicated on a larger scale.”

In a short number of years an increasing number of teachers are graduating to carry not only the practices learned but the desire to continue growing to well-deserving students throughout the State of Alabama and beyond. Watching the students walk up the hill this morning might call to mind a clichéd scene of education from yesterday, but this partnership is actually shaping education for tomorrow to the immense benefit of everyone lucky enough to be involved.