Where Critical Thinking Meets Adolescent Angst

Duke's Master of Arts in Teaching program offers an immersive experience
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September 25, 2014

Despite a broken air-conditioner in her classroom and spending ten hours (and counting) on her feet, Laurel Burk ’13, M.A.T. ’14 is feeling pretty good about the first day of school at Durham’s Northern High School. In the weeks leading up to this day, Burk has painted her classroom; put up her Duke Class of 2013 banner and posters for the bands Green Day, Muse, and Paramore; fine-tuned lesson plans for the three classes she’s teaching; met with her English department colleagues; and purchased additional school supplies.

Even though this hot August day marks her first as a full-time teacher, Burk is no novice. As a graduate of Duke’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which has a longstanding partnership with Durham Public Schools, she’s already spent two semesters working closely with mentor teachers at Durham’s Hillside and Northern high schools.

The M.A.T.’s strong emphasis on direct classroom experience augments coursework ranging from theories of adolescent development and educational psychology to effective teaching strategies such as time management and promoting critical thinking. It also provides a front-row seat to the emotional, physical, and psychosocial changes that teenagers experience and how that plays out in the school setting.

Burk, a Durham native and graduate of Durham Academy, admits that before she embarked on a teaching career, she had a somewhat idealistic view of teaching. “You see issues in the public schools you would never see at a private school, where students are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to excel academically.” During her intenship at Northern, she encountered some apathetic students who were severely unprepared for even the most basic English curriculum. Thanks to the guidance she’d received during her time at Hillside, she was able to shift gears and use a diffeent approach. “My Hillside mentor teacher helped me understand that you can’t be frustrated or blame students for where they are when they arrive in your classroom. You need to find out what motivates them and use those things as incentives to help them move forward.”

As an M.A.T. student, Burk was selected to be a Durham Teaching Fellow. By agreeing to teach in Durham Public Schools for two years after graduating, Burk had her tuition covered in full, and she received an additional monthly stipend to offset her cost of living. While Burk says the financial package provided through the Durham Teaching Fellows made Duke’s M.A.T. program particularly appealing, her primary motivation was to teach in her hometown school system. “I wanted to be in Durham,” she says.

Burk joins a public education system facing myriad challenges. In 2013, the North Carolina legislature passed a budget that did not include raises to teachers’ base salary, implemented a fiveyear plan to phase out teacher tenure, eliminated future salary increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees, and cut $120 million from the budget for teacher assistants. North Carolina ranks near the bottom nationally in teacher pay. Against this backdrop, school systems in Virginia and Texas placed newspaper ads and held job fairs to lure experienced North Carolina teachers to higher-paying jobs.

“None of us is really in this for the money,” says Jacob Kerber M.A.T. ’13, now starting his second year as a socialstudies teacher at Northern. “The rewards are when you have a student who has really been struggling with a concept finally grasp it—that ‘Aha!’ moment. All the teachers I work with are doing it because they genuinely care about kids and want to help them succeed.” Still, when considering M.A.T. programs, Kerber says the ability to become a Durham Teaching Fellow and graduate debt-free was “a no-brainer.”

M.A.T. program director Alan Teasley says that prospective Durham Teaching Fellows are screened carefully to make sure their primary motivation is a strong commitment to teaching in Durham Public Schools rather than just the financial aid it provides. “Forty-five other states pay higher teacher salaries than North Carolina, and demand is so high for our graduates that they often field multiple offers,” he says. “The Durham Teaching Fellows program provides welltrained, highly motivated high-school teachers to local schools where they’ve already had classroom experience, with the hope that they might decide to stay beyond their two-year obligation.”

In the 2014-15 academic year, twenty-five former Durham Teaching Fellows are still working in nine area middle and high schools, teaching both standard curriculum classes as well as AP, honors, and elective courses. “One of the great things about working with a master teacher as a student is that I was able to make mistakes and learn from them,” says Sean Mournighan M.A.T. ’11, now in his fourth year at Northern. “We would talk about what worked and didn’t work, and with her guidance, I was able to come up with my own solutions for what I could do differently. That reflective component was really important for my development as a teacher.”

Four days before receiving his diploma from Duke, Mournighan was offered a full-time teaching position at Northern. (“I essentially had an eighteen-week audition for the job,” he says, referring to his internship.) Since then, he’s honed the delicate art of meting out discipline that’s firm yet respectful and learned how long a particular task might take his students so as to maximize class time effectively. Two years ago he helped standardize the curriculum—adding accountability and assessment components—for the course “High School Seminar,” geared to freshmen, which covers topics ranging from creating a budget and money management to test-taking strategies, conflict resolution, and tools for reducing anxiety.

In addition to his continued role as faculty adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance, Mournighan revamped his “Trends in Contemporary literature” course. Designed for juniors and seniors, it kicks off with a unit on advertising and feminism and segues into a section on monsters that explores what pop-culture bad guys (aliens, vampires, zombies) tell us about societal fears and desires.

One of the biggest transformations in Mournighan’s life has been personal rather than professional. The week before school started, he and his wife, Kimberly Underwood Mournighan M.Div. ’11, welcomed their first child, a baby girl. He’s thrilled to be a dad, even though it means his long days have become even longer. Inevitably, fatherhood has cast his career choice in a new light. “I’m a lot more worried about my salary than ever before,” he says.

Still, Mournighan and his fellow M.A.T. teachers say that the long hours and low pay are balanced out by the tangible and intangible rewards of working alongside colleagues who are equally passionate about education to create a vibrant learning environment for Durham students. And they’re heartened by the overwhelmingly positive support they receive from the members of the local community as politicians in raleigh weigh decisions that will shape the lives of teachers and students for years to come.

When Mournighan tells new acquaintances that he’s a public high-school teacher, “they say things things like ‘Thank you so much’ or ‘I could never do what you do’ or offer to buy me a beer,” he says. “It feels as though maybe the culture is shifting toward a greater appreciation for teachers.”