Jennifer West is the first person in her family to go to college, an accomplishment that comes with a lot of expectations, namely to achieve financial success via an elite career path in science, medicine, or business. So teaching — with its reputation as a low-paying career choice — wasn’t initially on the table for West. But then she encountered UTeach, which had an even more profound effect on her life than just helping her become a teacher.
“I don’t know if I would have even graduated from college, but I am so grateful for these UTeach professors and the support staff,” says West, who completed the UTeach Arlington STEM teacher preparation program at The University of Texas at Arlington as she earned her degree in Biology in 2014. “I felt like they cared about whether I succeeded. That really did make all the difference, and that’s what I want for my students.”
UTeach Arlington is nearly six years old and has already produced 200 graduates qualified to teach secondary STEM subjects in middle and high school. More than 80 percent of those graduates are teaching, in keeping with UTeach programs nationwide. That’s nearly 200 UTeach graduates in the Dallas area and beyond who work every day to bring inquiry-based STEM instruction to the next generation of thinkers and leaders.
“The program is really preparing students in content areas that are highly underrepresented in our community,” says Ahna Gomez, principal of Irving High School in Irving ISD, where a dozen UTeach Arlington grads teach math and science. “Their resumes were really well done for someone who’s coming out of college without a lot of work experience. They really highlighted what they’d done in their field teaching and their student observations. Right away, I know I want someone coming out of a program that offers them the opportunity to be in the classroom.”
UTeach, which began at The University of Texas at Austin in 1997, is an innovative STEM teacher preparation program that allows students to earn teacher certification as they complete their STEM degrees. The UTeach program model has been so successful that 45 other universities nationwide have implemented their own UTeach programs. Two of those programs are in the Dallas area — UTeach Arlington and UTeach Dallas at The University of Texas at Dallas.
We all know that good teachers change students’ lives, and that is the mission of all UTeach programs — to fill gaps in STEM education and inspire students to embrace STEM subjects and careers.
But what do we know about how committing to a career in teaching can change teachers’ lives?
UTeach graduates are extremely desirable to school districts seeking to hire teachers for STEM subjects. “Graduates of our program have a job upon graduation,” says UTeach Arlington co-director Ramon Lopez. “In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, if you’re secondary certified in math and science, there will be a dozen people trying to hire you.” That’s because those graduates enter classrooms far better prepared to engage their students in inquiry-based science and mathematics subjects than new teachers from other types of programs, and students respond enthusiastically. Not only are the benefits to students baked in, but another advantage of recruiting teachers from UTeach programs is that entire departments can rely upon a shared understanding of pedagogy and practice.
Miles-Ethan Cherry, who teaches chemistry at Irving High School says, “Our entire science department is UTeach grads,” which means that the science faculty at Irving High are all well versed in inquiry learning and speak the same pedagogic language. “We have a supportive principal who has a background in science teaching and everything is expected to be on a certain level,” Cherry explains. When a school administrator embraces the UTeach ethos and fills their school with UTeach graduates, the students benefit, as do the teachers themselves.
“I think a big part of what keeps people in UTeach and what creates a collective work is the fact that students create bonds within themselves,” says Lisbeth Valdez, a 2015 UTeach Arlington grad who now teaches at Irving High School. “I work with three people who graduated this year and they are best friends. Having a best friend at work is really great. We get to hang out together like a UTeach club.”
The UTeach Arlington club (really a professional network) starts in a student lounge with laptops and computers, where students can gather and talk about lesson plans. “Over the years, as I have walked by that lounge, they’re doing lesson plans and have the Greek alphabet on the board,” says Dr. Leeann Burke, UTeach Arlington master teacher. “They interact and collaborate. They want to make a difference in the classroom. They are not just here to graduate in four years and start their careers. They don’t have any problems with lesson plans, designing things. Over nine years, what we put out to the classroom and district is something I’m proud of.”
From within that student lounge, UTeach students establish patterns of communication and a culture that extends beyond their lives as students and into their professional lives as teachers, and there are concrete data to reflect the power of that community.
“From 2017–2018, there was a district in the DFW area that had stagnated on exam passing rates. The district had a 54% average passing rate in biology in 2017–2018,” says Burke, who is conducting research on how UTeach graduates affect students’ performance on state standardized tests. “But this one high school where we have 37% UTeach graduates went from 42% to 51% [in just one year]. So it is making a huge difference in End of Course and accountability scores.”
UTeach Arlington has not only generated effective teachers, but also teacher leaders, all of whom are part of a national network of alumni supported by the UTeach Institute. “I’m currently getting my masters in educational leadership so I can eventually become principal,” says Valdez. “I can help 100 students in the classroom or have an effect on 1,000 to 2,000 students by helping more teachers learn the things I’ve learned in the UTeach program and have the support in their progression.”
Similarly, since graduating from UTA, Jennifer West has worked as a Pre-AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science teacher at Irving High School and a curriculum writer at Irving ISD, and she now teaches pre-AP chemistry at MacArthur High School in Irving. In 2018, West received the UTeach STEM Educators Association’s Outstanding Alumni Award.
“I really enjoyed teaching, but [had some reservations about pursuing it as a career],” West says. “But Dr. C. from UTeach came to a biochem class to recruit for that first UTeach course and she seemed so happy in education. I was like, ‘that could be me. I could be so happy in my career.’”