Intern teacher Brandon Clay had “a beautiful square-root Pythagorean theorem” to present to his seventh-grade Algebra I students. He wrote it on the board and turned expectantly to the sea of young faces – which remained totally blank. They didn’t have a clue.

Clay wasn’t sure what to do next. He gazed back at the uncomprehending youngsters, and suddenly the older teacher in the room, Pauline Embree, jumped to her feet. “Don’t worry,” she announced. “We’ll learn it tomorrow.” She swiftly took the class into its next activity, giving Clay time to regroup.

This spring, Clay has been Embree’s intern – her apprentice – at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School in Irvine. Both are teachers who were trained, 10 years apart, by UCI’s Department of Education. The two had chosen each other during the previous fall, when Clay was one of a group of UCI graduate students visiting and observing in Orange County classrooms. “I knew who I wanted to work with this spring,” Embree said. “We were just a better match.”

Clay had majored in math and had a wealth of recent information on the subject. Embree had 10 years of working with middle school students; she knew how to deal with kids.

“He needed to loosen up a little bit,” Embree said. “He was just too stiff. That’s what I’m good at. A lot of these kids have the content, but they don’t know how to explain it.”

Clay, at first, was rattled by the racket some of the classes made; he equated noise with inattention. Embree talked with him about varying his teaching style so as to reach all the kids. About half were visual learners and needed to see things written down, but a quarter were auditory learners and needed to hear the information. Another quarter – termed kinetic learners – needed to somehow “act it out” to learn concepts. And all of them, young as they were, needed to get onto their feet once in awhile. The young teacher is handling it better now, Embree said. “He can now tolerate noise and still feel like he has control of the classroom.”

Clay will begin teaching on his own in the fall, and Embree says it makes her sad to think about being by herself again.

As sensible a training system as this seems – placing a young teacher under the care of an experienced older teacher – it is not the norm. In most parts of America, brand-new teachers are on their own – walked into a classroom and, to some degree, abandoned. “Supervisors” from a university visit the class occasionally to critique the young teacher’s performance, but may or may not talk with the principal or with more veteran teachers working alongside the newcomer. Partly this has been a result of perpetually tight public school budgets – giving a class to an intern teacher is a good way to save money – but mostly it was because teacher training had always been done that way.

At UCI, the people teaching the teachers felt there had to be a better way. University students could be taught about how to handle classes of young children, but “the make or break was when the student-teacher went into that classroom,” said Mary Roosevelt, a UCI Department of Education supervisor for 25 years. “We could do nothing to help them through that nightmare.”

In 1992, Roosevelt and colleague Linda Clinard, a reading specialist, began designing a new way. Beginning with a single elementary school, Pio Pico in Santa Ana, Roosevelt and Clinard began talking with Orange County classroom teachers and school principals about working together more closely to produce better teachers. What they had in mind was designating “master teachers” who would work with both the interns and the university to produce better-trained teachers.

“We saw the teacher in the classroom was the expert, and they saw everything,” Roosevelt said. The classroom teachers themselves would be asked to help evaluate the performance of the interns, and would talk often with intern’s supervisors at UCI.

In effect, the university educators would be coming out of their ivory tower, recognizing the K-12 educators as their peers, and asking for their help. Professional educators everywhere tend to be hierarchical, so this was a big breakthrough.

Clinard says the initial reaction of the public educators was “skeptical.” They’d been through so-called collaborations before, and were wary. “One administrator, for example, asked us very pointedly, “Make it very clear to us just how this is going to be mutually advantageous.”

When K-12 people began talking with university people, Clinard said, it quickly became apparent that some longstanding practices weren’t working at all. The two calendar years, for instance, were out of sync. Teaching interns didn’t arrive in their K-12 classrooms until late September, so they never experienced a teacher’s critical, chaotic first few days of school. Interns, too, tended to seek high school assignments to fulfill their “secondary” requirement, so junior high schools were getting shortchanged and interns weren’t getting trained to work with young adolescents.

Explanations went the other way as well, Clinard said. The K-12 people didn’t understand how state laws governed teacher training. “They didn’t understand some of the stipulations we were under; they thought all our courses should be handled a certain way.”

Meetings between the two contingents went on for a year, as they hammered out details and began building trust. One of the K-12 administrators attending the meetings was Leah Laule, then principal of University High School in Irvine and now an administrator in the Irvine Unified School District.

“I thought I would like to participate,” Laule said. “It really approached teaching from a very professional perspective.”

Laule said she quickly realized that if the UCI Department of Education were to designate official “master teachers,” it would help her, as a principal, set the bar higher for her teachers. “It helped me create a standard that had some teeth in it,” Laule said. “It enabled me to say, ‘Look, these are the behaviors and practices and repertoire that the university believes are important.’ It created a professional model that I then could capitalize on, in terms of setting some expectations for our staff.”

UCI’s new form of teacher training began in 1992 and has built and strengthened ever since. It has made the school one of a handful of national leaders in this area of school reform. Forty-eight public schools in 11 school districts now participate in what has been named the “Professional Development School.” Master teachers, now renamed “university associates,” number about 200, and another 500 are on a waiting list.

The intern teaching calendar year now works around the K-12 calendar, with interns arriving early to spend time with classroom teachers during the busy days of preparing for and beginning school. Not until November do they return to the main campus to work on their “methods” courses, classes in which they learn the how-to of teaching pedagogy.

Having spent time with kids, Clinard believes, interns become more eager to learn. When they have completed their methods courses, they go out again to practice, and their methods teachers become their mentors, staying in touch with both them and their classroom teachers by e-mail, phone and visits. The young teachers who plan to work in secondary schools now spend half their time in a high school and the other half in a junior high school.

University associates receive “cognitive coaching” training so that they in turn can coach their interns. They maintain constant communication with their interns’ methods teachers, in a collaborative partnership that has information flowing both to and from the university. Phone and e-mail communication is constant, and much of it is handled by Clinard and Roosevelt. Each district and each school has a designated contact person, so that news can be spread or gathered quickly. In a recent demonstration of the strength of this network, Clinard gathered a sizable contingent of public school teachers eager to help with a colleague’s research project. It took her two weeks.

Laule likes the new system because it provides a way for real-world teaching information to feed back into the teacher training process. Before, she said, “We knew so much more about teaching and learning – and the university wasn’t paying any attention. There was so much to learn that wasn’t being taught to new teachers.”

Embree, the junior high school math teacher and a university associate, says she has been helped too. Because she feels recognized as an expert in her own field – that of classroom teacher – Embree said she doesn’t hesitate to call when she needs information that is part of the university’s expertise. “If I need to know what the research says about the abstract thinking of adolescents, I can call and ask that,” she said. “How many classes would I go through before I figure out – on my own – what works?”

Clinard is beginning to research the effects of the K-12/university collaboration. Mentors, it appears, learn quite a lot from the experience of mentoring.

Embree agrees. “I’ve learned things from all the student teachers I’ve had,” she said. “I get to be a better teacher because I’m raising a teacher.”