When Robert Helfenbein first entered a middle school classroom as a student teacher 16 years ago, his mentoring teacher must have seen a spark, because he asked the University of North Carolina education senior to take over the class immediately.
Skipping the introductory observation period, young Helfenbein plunged into teaching six classes a day for 20 weeks. He followed the state's social studies standards, leaned on his mentor, and wrote his own lesson plans and tests, all the while getting to know more than a hundred Raleigh-Durham kids, many from nearby housing projects.
Helfenbein made it through the semester and he loved it.
"I thought I was going to lose it," says the now seasoned teacher. "My supervisor at the university was very worried, used the phrase 'nervous breakdown.' It was overwhelming. I wouldn't trade it for the world now. At the end of the semester, I was a teacher."
Helfenbein says "teacher" as if he were saying "fighter pilot" or "rock star," professions more typically connected with youthful visions of glory. Today, he is a professor of education at IUPUI, advancing toward tenure (he hopes) this year.
On campus, Helfenbein looks like a rock star dabbling in a day job, with his long brown hair falling heavily on the padded shoulders of a well pressed suit coat. Though Helfenbein has a weakness for guitar - his is a 1973 Telecaster Deluxe - teaching isn't a fallback career. He talks about his profession with an amazed pride.
In a way, Helfenbein's devotion to public education is due to his own private schooling. His parents pulled him out of public school in fifth grade, the year desegregation began in Raleigh-Durham, and put him in a fundamentalist Christian school that had just opened.
"There was a lot of politics being espoused in the classroom and the pulpit, a lot of virulent anti-homosexual commentary that I found very troubling," Helfenbein remembers. "I was raised as a literalist in terms of the Bible. When someone said we should round up the homosexuals and put them on an island and drop a bomb, I asked, 'Where in the Bible does it say that?'"
Even as he won academic honors and read ferociously, Helfenbein made minor mischief in order to get expelled. Two teachers gave him a reason to stay. One taught history (the subject he was always reading about) and the other physics.
"The physics teacher consistently asked me 'Why?'" says Helfenbein. "'Why would you act in this way?' He was asking me to think hard. In many ways, [he is] why I became a teacher."
As a teacher, Helfenbein adopted this technique, continually asking his middle and high school social studies students, "Why?"
When he was tapped to oversee his first student teacher, Helfenbein was reluctant to hand over "his" kids to a novice. Gradually, however, he came to love this new kind of teaching, having meaningful conversations about the goals of education generally and also very specific questions, like "What's going on with Johnny?" and "How are you going to talk to Sally's mom?"
After several years teaching middle and high school, and several more years of graduate study, Helfenbein came to Indianapolis in 2004 as Professor Helfenbein. Patrick Chambers thinks Helfenbein made the right move. One of Helfenbein's former education students, Chambers now teaches social studies at Perry Meridian High School.
Chambers says getting high schoolers interested in the population density of Hong Kong is like pushing a car to get it started. Following Helfenbein's methods helps him to get that car going again and again.
"I was always hooked," says Chambers of Helfenbein's teaching style. "He was very good about being conversational with content. He talked about controversial issues, but they were all on point."
Like his professor, Chambers likes to stir debates on current events.
Playing devil's advocate
"It blew their minds that I asked their opinion," says Chambers, recalling when he asked students about capital punishment. "Rob always said, 'When you're having a discussion and you're able to sit back and let the kids play devil's advocate, it feels good.'"
"I honestly don't think I would be prepared for this job without the focus at IUPUI on urban education," says IUPUI grad Shannon White, who studied with Helfenbein and now sits on the board of the Indiana Council for Social Studies with him. Like Helfenbein, she is an unapologetic cheerleader for their subject area. "Social studies is how you learn to participate in your society, how you learn about your world!" But she emphasizes that IUPUI's hands-on experience made her a teacher.
"They put us in urban schools every semester," White explains. "That experience is invaluable." IUPUI college of education applicants typically enter the two-year program in their junior year and begin observing and working in schools right away. This is when most teachers learn that their future students' lives don't look anything like their own. For White, who now teaches in West Lafayette, that means understanding that some of her students have grown up with drugs in their homes.
White's experience ties in with common news reports about the so-called "plagues" on urban schools: poverty, crime, violence, and drugs. Is this the "culture" teachers must overcome to help kids learn? Is this what educators mean by "culturally relevant" teaching?
"I think of culture as an asset, not a deficit," Helfenbein begins quietly. He admits that yes, crime and violence have been tied to the kinds of desperate poverty many Indianapolis children face, but the same is true of poverty in rural areas. But he suggests there may be other kinds of violence, like jumping to conclusions about a person based on where he lives.
"Violence is also institutionalized, if we're setting [students] up to fail, if they don't have a shot at succeeding in high school or a career," says Helfenbein, his voice rising with a frustration. "Making assumptions based on color of skin is a form of violence. I don't buy this 'culture of poverty' that 'we' need to fix 'them.' I see difference as a strength, as an opportunity."
And this, he concludes, is what IUPUI professors try to impress upon future teachers again and again: Value individual differences and be wary of sentences that begin 'These kids... ' or 'These kids can't...' "They are usually racist."
Teachers are beaten down
Teaching and fighting racism seems like more than a day's work. But like any academic, Helfenbein must keep current with his field's research and contribute to it. This is a large part of why he chose IUPUI, home to the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education.
Started 30 years ago to study desegregation in Indianapolis, CUME continues today with a focus on culturally diverse and impoverished communities and bridging the gap between education research and practice. "The feedback is continual," explains Helfenbein, who is CUME's Associate Director for Community Engagement. "We don't call our folks 'subjects.' We call them 'partners.'"
Rather than sit in classrooms, observe teachers, and go away to write journal articles, CUME researchers first report what they've seen back to their partners, which might be a school, school district, or community organization. Did they stay true to their goals? Did something unexpected happen along the way?
Through his work, Helfenbein has found encouraging and disturbing educational trends in his new home.
Helfenbein is pleased with a continuing CUME partnership with the Peace Learning Center, to develop a school curriculum from PLC peer mediation and conflict resolution programs. His guitar-playing friendship with PLC co-founder Charlie Wiles also led him to the International Interfaith Initiative (III).
CUME was invited to help develop an interfaith youth dialogue at III. Wiles helped Helfenbein form connections in Indianapolis Muslim, Jewish, Christian and public schools. For his part, the professor brought expertise about diverse learning styles that helped teens in the program begin their own conversations.
"It was eighth graders talking about the role of faith in their lives," Helfenbein sums it up. "Jewish students showing Muslim students around the temple. Pretty amazing."
For Helfenbein's first venture with Indianapolis Public Schools, he interviewed teachers during a promising middle school improvement initiative.
"The principal was trying to change the culture," remembers Helfenbein. "Getting rid of teachers, looking for teachers willing to be innovative, [building] a staff that would work together, not close their doors."
Helfenbein was trying to identify teachers' needs for possible professional development, but the school closed during what he considers the middle of the change process. (Institutional change is said to take three or more years.) The building reopened as an elementary school.
Since then, Helfenbein has mixed countless hours in IPS and surrounding districts with intermittent trips to Macedonia, India and South Africa, where he has taught social studies teachers how to make their lessons child-centered. Back at home, he despairs over a trend that puts content ahead of the child. The most egregious example, he says, is scripted lessons.
"Teachers are being required to read scripts in the classroom, particularly with kids of color and poverty," complains Helfenbein. "How can I listen to the kids? I'd have to go off script to do that."
The result of "teacher proof" curriculums and mounting pressure to keep test scores rising, says Helfenbein, is that teachers are beaten down, especially where pressure is the greatest, in IPS.
"They don't trust me," says the professor of his efforts to promote on-site professional development at an IPS high school. "People come in all the time. There's some new initiative and somebody shakes things up. 'I'll just wait this out and this will go away.' I end up with a smaller group."
Still, Helfenbein pins a lot of hope on small groups like these. Teachers may participate to keep their teacher's license or earn credit toward a master's degree that will bring a jump in pay. He hopes they stay for the support and knowledge that he found in similar, informal groups when he was teaching high school.
In life as in education, Helfenbein is always looking to widen the dialogue. But there's one conversation, a new reform, that he feels has deliberately excluded educators.
Dr. Bennett's new rules
Last July, Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett proposed changes to teacher licensing that will profoundly impact every college of education in the state. Dr. Bennett cited a report from a nonprofit group called the National Council on Teacher Quality as evidence that Indiana teachers are poorly prepared for their profession. The NCTQ gave our teachers a D.
Dr. Bennett says the new rules will give teachers a better balance between content knowledge (math, science, etc.) and pedagogy (teaching methods). At the same time, he believes the changes will make it easier for degreed professionals to switch careers. They can add a minor in education to a content area degree to qualify.
"I think it's going to be devastating," says Helfenbein of the proposed Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability. He finds REPA fraught with contradiction and misinformation.
According to Helfenbein, IUPUI secondary education majors take more courses in their content area than is required of a major in the same field. "It's education on top of that content," he says. "It's a heavy load."
Helfenbein is alarmed by REPA's unprecedented limit on required pedagogy courses. Such classes address childhood development, curriculum, lesson planning, and more. Will colleges have to leave out culturally relevant pedagogy and "foundations," a course on the history, culture, and politics of education? Won't credit hour caps limit students' field experiences? Helfenbein wonders.
Helfenbein is not alone in his concerns. Dr. Ena Shelley, Dean of Butler University's College of Education was among dozens of educators who spoke against REPA at the September meeting of the Indiana Professional Standards Board.
Shelley was on the board when they wrote the current teacher licensing rules, Rules 2002. This time, she notes, Indiana Department of Education staffers wrote the licensing rules (with input from a sampling of university leaders, superintendents and legislators) and asked the board to pass it at the September meeting, minutes after they were given the latest revisions. After the public comment period (last October) and with the governor's approval, REPA would go into effect next July.
"That's not a process," says Shelley. "That's a push through." When she helped write Rules 2002, the board went through a lengthy, often tiring, process of committee work, studies by constituent groups, board discussions, and then more committee work.
Among other concerns about REPA, she sees a shift in power that could actually stifle reform.
After two years in the field, new teachers with "provisional" licenses must apply for their "professional" licenses with an advisor at a college of education. REPA will move license renewal to schools and districts, which Shelley sees as a conflict of interest.
"At Butler, we want teachers to be change agents, to challenge the status quo," says Shelley. Butler grads often report to her that principals want them to forget what they learned in college and do it "my way." It will be even more difficult to contradict principals, she says, when they hold teachers' licenses and careers in their hands.
All teachers will still update their licenses every five years, showing proof of professional development, but graduate education courses won't be required. Only activities directly related to student achievement will count toward renewal.
To open doors to non-traditional administrators, REPA says principals no longer need graduate degrees and superintendents won't need their graduate study to be in education, as they now do.
Clearly, colleges of education have a huge financial interest in this debate.
"It's true," says Helfenbein, "but we can't be silent. If elected officials got into how nurses and doctors got trained, I hope nurses and doctors would stand up. We believe in what we do."
But what about that D rating the NCTQ gave Indiana teachers?
According to NCTQ's website, the organization gave more than half of the country's teachers Ds or Fs. Only one earned a B, the highest score. Most of their recommendations are actually beyond the scope of licensing.
The NCTQ recommends that teacher evaluations be linked to students' standardized test scores and that teachers get paid more for prior work experience and working in high-needs schools and teaching in "shortage" subjects. The organization also criticizes current teacher pension plans and would limit "emergency" teacher licenses to a one year term. REPA accomplishes only the last item.
REPA proponents assert that changes to licensing will allow more talented professionals to bring their skills to teaching, much in the way alternative certification programs like Teach for America do.
Helfenbein, the researcher, looks to recent studies on alternate certification programs that place college graduates in high needs schools after an intense but brief institute covering teaching skills. They show that these teachers get better the longer they teach. However, they tend to leave the profession sooner and in higher rates than traditionally trained teachers do. By contrast, studies show that traditionally trained teachers have better records with students of color and poverty.
An IDOE representative says that there isn't enough consistent data on teacher instruction over time.
"All the stories of successful reform are about professionalizing teachers," Helfenbein insists, "not de-professionalizing them." He suggests that school leaders identify the quality teachers they already have. Sometimes, it's only a small set in each building, he says, certain they exist in every school.
"Find those teachers, help them continue. Share [their example] with the rest of the building, not in the spirit of 'This is what you have to do,' but 'This is exciting. Don't you want to get in this conversation?'"
SIDEBAR: Meet Rob Helfenbein
Who: Rob Helfenbein: Assistant Professor of Teacher Education, Indiana University - IUPUI School of Education; Associate Director for Community Engagement, Center for Urban and Multicultural Education (CUME)
Birthplace/ Hometown: Kansas City, MO/ Raleigh, NC.
Education: Bachelor's of Art degree in Secondary Education - History from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Master's degree in Social Science Education (Geography and History) from Appalachian State University; PhD in Education - Culture, Curriculum, and Change from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Teaching history: 7th & 8th grade social studies, Apex Middle School; social studies, Broughton High School; social science, North Carolina Governor's School (summers); IUPUI, undergraduate courses in teacher education and graduate courses in curriculum theory and educational research methods.
Accomplishments: Over 30 articles and book chapters on issues of curriculum, social studies education, identity and learning, and social theory in educational contexts. Co-editor of Unsettling Beliefs: Teaching Theory to Teachers/i> (Information Age Publishing). Recently, international civic education and curriculum work in Macedonia and Malawi.