Before they earn their undergraduate degrees, elementary education majors in the University of Arizona College of Education must complete 13 weeks of student teaching in an elementary school classroom.
Many of those classrooms are located in and around Tucson, but for a few students, the assignment is a bit farther from home.
Now in its second year, the UA's International Student Teaching Program, a partnership between the College of Education and UA Global, places elementary education majors at schools in China, Norway and Mexico. Thirteen students will be returning from those countries this month, just in time for Commencement on May 10.
The goal of the International Student Teaching program is to have students experience different school systems and cultures, said Maggie Shafer, director of field experiences in the College of Education.
"I think it's really important for our program to capture the adventurous spirit of millennials," Shafer said. "International travel is really beneficial in our globalizing world. It puts the students out of their comfort zone, so it builds their confidence, and it develops cultural sensitivity by broadening their horizons and building awareness of different cultural norms."
The program launched in 2018 with opportunities in China and Norway. This year it expanded to Mexico, giving education majors pursuing a bilingual endorsement a chance to teach Spanish-speaking students.
Elementary education majors in the Department of Teaching, Language and Sociocultural Studies are invited to apply for the International Student Teaching Program the fall semester before they student teach in the spring. Those selected complete a series of seminars at the UA before they go, to further refine their teaching strategies, learn about the culture of their destination country, and discuss the ins and outs of international travel.
Most of the elementary students in the program's schools speak little English, so the UA students base some of their lessons on common experiences, like birthday parties or trips to the dentist, Shafer said. The student-teachers also bring a bit of their own culture to the classroom, sharing information about the U.S. and Arizona.
The UA students teach alongside the schools' full-time instructors, who serve as their mentors during their time there.
Stephanie Gámez-Contreras, who will graduate this month with a degree in bilingual elementary education and a minor in Spanish, spent the semester teaching sixth grade in Guanajuato in central Mexico. She said she appreciated the opportunity to immerse herself in a different culture and learn more about bilingual education.
"The most rewarding part was working with my incredible mentor teacher and learning from their school system," she said.
Gámez-Contreras taught at a Waldorf School, which follows an educational philosophy that aims to develop students' intellectual, artistic and practical skills through a holistic approach.
Exposure to different school systems and cultures helps prepare students for their careers as educators, Shafer said.
"There are different cultures in different school settings, and these students are not likely to stay in one school for their entire career, so they need to be able to adapt to different situations," she said.
UA senior Kirsten Conover, who will earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in math, spent this semester student teaching English at Roskendule School in Norway.
She said working with students who don't speak much English helped her gain confidence in her teaching abilities.
"If I can teach English or math to an entire classroom of English-language learners successfully, I feel that there is nothing that can stop me from teaching these subjects successfully in the United States," she said. "In addition, I am learning so many different strategies to teach, because the school system in Norway is so different."
After graduation, Conover will teach seventh grade math at Magee Middle School in Tucson, while working toward a master's in educational policy at the UA.
Madison Loya, who completed her student teaching in China last year, said the experience not only enhanced her teaching abilities, but introduced her to a culture she has come to love. When she wasn't in the classroom, she enjoyed taking Mandarin lessons and visiting different cities around the country.
Loya, who now teaches fourth grade at Borton Primary Magnet School in Tucson, said the experience opened new doors to her professionally.
She will return to China this summer with 11 other educators from across the U.S. as part of a four-week professional development seminar, funded in part by a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The teachers will gain insights into Chinese education and meet with Chinese educators to discuss a range of issues related to social justice, globalization and other topics.
"It gives you a global perspective it allows you a chance to step out of the states and our kind of testing and our kind of learning and different ways of teaching," Loya said of the International Student Teaching Program. "I like out-of-the- box experiences, and this one was amazing. I had the best time."