Steven Athanases started his career as a high school English teacher in the Chicago area, filling students’ minds with the tales of John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and Langston Hughes for over 10 years.
“I loved teaching. I loved it every single day,” said Athanases. But, after all those years in the classroom, he realized he “wanted to understand more deeply why when things work in the classroom they do work.” He decided to pursue a PhD. “A research doctorate equipped me to do that.”
Athanases wondered at first if he would still “find the same passion for teaching at the university.” As a teacher educator during PhD studies at Stanford, he did. “I found a real joy in preparing the teachers of the future.”
Athanases came to UC Davis several years ago, in part, to conduct research on the School’s teacher education program. In addition to helping shape and teach in the combined Master’s/Credential program, he has conducted several studies, including focus groups with graduates of the program.
The idea behind combining an MA with a credential is to provide new teachers with the tools and processes necessary for them to conduct research on their own practices, even while they are learning to be a teacher. The culmination of their research is a symposium at the end of the MA year of study where these first year teachers present their findings to colleagues and faculty.
“It is quite an exhilarating experience,” said Athanases. “I didn’t have these skills when I started teaching. They could have really helped me to reflect on the results of my teaching and to make adjustments based on research, rather than a hunch.”
Athanases, who is also faculty coordinator for the Language, Literacy and Culture emphasis in the PhD program, says it is equally important to prepare PhD candidates to become effective teacher educators. Though teaching and supervising student teachers is increasingly one of the first assignments for a new education professor, few PhD programs adequately prepare their students for this duty.
According to Athanases, many PhD candidates have no K-12 teaching experience. “So we need to equip them with a portfolio of experience and expertise that they can take with them.”
One response to this need is the Teacher Education Fellows program, which places up to five PhD candidates with a student teacher supervisor and gives the fellows the chance to observe student teachers and their interactions with their supervisors. As part of this program, Athanases teaches a spring seminar covering research on teacher education and development.
Most important, according to Athanases, is the School’s insistence on faculty who eschew the traditional split between researchers and teacher educators.
“We hire and support clinical faculty who are career teachers of teachers, and most are equipped with research skills, even doctorates,” said Athanases. “At the same time, we hire research faculty who care and know about teacher education. In fact, many have been K-12 teachers themselves. This whole approach moves against the traditional divide and elevates teacher education in the academy.”
Athanases’s other research interests include an emphasis on teaching diverse youth in urban, public schools, and “broadening English language arts curricula to better engage kids on the academic margins.”