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DragonsTeach Middle Years Opens Doors for Philly and Drexel Students Alike

Aja Sor speaks at a press conference announcing a $1.2 million grant for the DragonsTeach Middle Years program.

March 21, 2017

Aja Sor thought she would be nervous this winter when she taught a group of fourth graders at the Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia about balancing weights. She had never led a class before and until a few months earlier had never really considered being a teacher. But as a member of the first cohort of Drexel students in the DragonsTeach Middle Years program, which allows students in any major to graduate with a middle school teaching certification, she was at the beginning of a journey that will give her all the tools she needs. And she’ll still earn the bachelor’s in psychology she had been planning on before learning about Middle Years.

The initiative launched this winter and on March 20 received a $1.2 million grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership that will allow the University to graduate 40 students each year, beginning in 2020, who can help fill Philadelphia’s pressing need for middle school teachers. Sor was in the classroom as part of the first of three introductory courses that students take before committing to the program, which requires roughly 50 credits to complete. In the end, she said, the nerves weren’t necessary.

“Talking to 28 fourth graders who want to hear you talk, it relaxes you,” said Sor. “It came easy to me.”

At a press conference announcing the grant to fund the program, Drexel President John A. Fry said science and math education, which the program emphasizes, are vital to Philadelphia’s future, making Middle Years a particularly important endeavor.

“We have a rare opportunity to help meet the School District of Philadelphia’s need for middle school math and science teachers,” said Fry. “In addition, we’ll be able to launch Drexel graduates on rewarding careers, and we’ll also be able to develop an intensive teacher training program that hopefully, if we’re good at what we do, will serve as a national model for all.”

In addition to the School District of Philadelphia, Drexel is also partnering with several charter school networks that need help developing new teachers.

Walker Moseley, the program’s manager in the School of Education, said Middle Years has already gained an audience with Drexel students who see the advantages of obtaining a teaching certificate but don’t want to give up the areas of study they have focused on to this point. Whether they study dance, art history, engineering or anything else, the program works its courses into students’ free electives so they don’t need to make any major changes to their academic plans. The 20 students currently in the program come from humanities majors, he said.

The school district’s teacher shortage — which is worst in the “middle years” of fourth to eighth grade — sparked the idea for the program. It includes a focus on urban education and cultural proficiency and six months spent teaching local students.

“The social and emotional intelligence it takes to really connect with someone and see the humanity in other people who are different from you is something we’re in desperate need of right now,” said Moseley, who taught middle school in Miami for two years and joined the School of Education’s staff last June.

While Middle Years aims to create a pipeline to fill teacher vacancies at partner schools in the city, it will have benefits beyond the classroom for Drexel students who enroll.

“If students progress through the four years of the program, I think they’re going to be better communicators and leaders, their social and emotional intelligence will improve, and their ability to work on teams and to have a firm grasp of project management will improve,” said Moseley, noting that students can complete the program in three years.

Like Sor, Jacky Tsang hadn’t thought much about teaching before Moseley filled him in on the new program. But the freshman communication major saw it as an opportunity to guarantee a job after graduation at a time when such guarantees are few and far between. He taught two science lessons at the Martha Washington School in West Philadelphia — on multitasking and chemical reactions — and has already benefited from the experience. He impressed an interviewer with his ability to teach STEM lessons when he applied for an internship at North Broad Renaissance, a nonprofit focused on community revitalization.

“I really like that I can get experience working with kids,” said Tsang. “Going inside an elementary school setting, I was shocked at how engaged the students were. That made my entire experience much more memorable.”

Moseley said that the program aims to help the middle school teaching shortage, which is likely caused by the age group’s difficult place on the developmental spectrum between wide-eyed, affectionate elementary students and logical high-school students who are nearly ready to face the world. For Sor and others, though, those challenges make the Middle Years program and all it offers an especially welcome opportunity.

“It’s a very vulnerable age. They’re not quite teenagers,” said Sor. “It’s their defining moment.”

Sor’s next step, in the second DragonsTeach introductory course, will be to teach high school this spring. Not long ago she might have blanched at the idea, but she’s quickly finding her footing in the classroom.

“It’s a little daunting,” she said, “but if I can handle 28 fourth graders, I’ll be OK.”