Graduate teaching program at Sweet Briar boasts strong year, happy alumnae

For one group of plucky Sweet Briar graduates, commencement wasn’t the last academic milestone they will celebrate at the College. This time next year, they will be the proud recipients of a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the College’s renowned yearlong program.

Victoria Daniels is one of seven recent graduates in Sweet Briar’s M.A.T. program.
Victoria Daniels is one of several recent graduates in Sweet Briar’s M.A.T. program.

With classes starting on May 23, there was little time to revel in the glory for the Class of 2016 grads.

The summer program is a series of three two-credit classes meant to “get the ball rolling” before the fall semester, says education program director Jim Alouf, who “un-retired” last year to fill in some gaps left by Sweet Briar’s near-closure.

But then, the metaphorical ball has been moving for the 2016 grads since their first education class as undergraduates: Every single course in the program requires at least 12 hours of field experience. Students learn quickly whether teaching suits them, and up to 50 percent drop out one year into the program, Alouf says. The other half continues to rack up valuable classroom hours.

“You are at a local school during your first education class, so you are getting real-life experience from the beginning,” says Victoria Daniels, a Rustburg native who graduated in May with an English major and psychology minor. She is working towards licensure in secondary education.

“You are taught how to handle situations in the classroom that don’t always pertain to the lesson plan,” she explains. “I feel very confident in my abilities — although I still have much to learn — and I know I can one day manage a classroom on my own.”

The program, she adds, has made her “excited about becoming a teacher,” but “without being dishonest about the realities of teaching.”

Hands-on learning isn’t the only feature that sets Sweet Briar apart from other education programs.

Prof. Jim Alouf came to Sweet Briar in 1982 and returned from retirement last summer.
Jim Alouf came to Sweet Briar in 1982 and returned from retirement last summer.

There’s the perk of graduating in just one year, which saves time and money. It starts with six credit hours in the summer, then 12 credits each in the fall and spring. The latter is spent student-teaching at a local school. It’s an intense year, says Alouf, but students get a lot of support. Sweet Briar professors are deeply invested in each student’s success, working tirelessly in and outside the classroom to make sure everyone gets the help they need.

“The professors are all unique to the Sweet Briar experience in the best way possible — always looking out for you and helping you grow towards being the best teacher you can be,” says Kari Christopher ’16 of Colonial Heights, who is aiming for a K-12 licensure in Spanish.

Alouf puts it this way: “There’s a lot of emphasis on becoming here.”

The M.A.T. and M.Ed. program has been around since 2004, graduating its first class in 2005. Alouf first came to Sweet Briar in 1982.

In a way, the approach he takes to educating his own students goes hand in hand with the program’s strong emphasis on differentiation — a philosophy of teaching that recognizes and adapts to each student’s individual learning style.

While the pedagogy of differentiation is now widely taught, it’s often limited to a few classes. At Sweet Briar, differentiation is the foundation of the program, Alouf says.

“We teach and model differentiation in undergraduate and graduate courses so that our students experience what it is like to learn in a classroom where differentiation is the norm,” he explains.

“Formative and summative assessment strategies help our students learn how to gather data in their own classrooms, making it possible for them to address the needs of all their students. It is this kind of preparation that helps our prospective teachers address the challenges of teaching diverse learners, including the needs of special populations.”

“What’s magical about movies?” asks Arielle Sperrazza one April afternoon in her fourth-grade special ed classroom at Central Elementary. “How great the ideas are,” says one student. “If something could actually come true,” replies another.

Recent M.A.T. grad Arielle Sperrazza ’15 is a product of that training, and she’s ready to apply it in her own classroom. The New York City transplant just accepted a job as special education teacher at Elon Elementary School, where she’ll start in the fall. A whole semester student-teaching at Central Elementary in Amherst braced her for the challenges — and rewards — of being a special ed teacher in an area where her expertise is in high demand.

One takeaway from this semester? Things don’t always go as planned. Sperrazza recalls spending five days painstakingly crafting a lesson on cause and effect, confident it was going to work beautifully.

“Everyone bombed it,” she says, laughing. “I often think, ‘They’re gonna understand this,’ and then they don’t, or ‘They’re gonna love this,’ and then they think it’s boring. This semester has been full of surprises!”

There will be more of them as she begins her professional career, but that’s okay. Sweet Briar professors have always challenged her to solve problems her way, she says.

“They make you work hard to find your own answers,” she explains. “All classes here are inquiry-based: There often is no right or wrong, and you can’t find the answer in a textbook.”

And just because classes are over doesn’t mean she’s completely on her own now.

“If I ever get stuck, my professors are an email away,” she says.

Sperazza is following in her mother’s footsteps. Even before enrolling at Sweet Briar, she spent many hours in elementary classrooms observing how one teaches children with special needs. She even ran her own afterschool sessions while still in high school, and had her eyes set on Sweet Briar’s education program since her freshman year.

Sperrazza at graduation in May
Sperrazza at graduation in May

“Being a special ed teacher is in her blood,” Alouf says. “She’s a hard worker, and very calm and patient.”

All three are great qualities to have for any teacher.

“You have to be patient,” Alouf says. “You have to like people. Children need a lot of nurturing; they need to be met where they are.”

Teaching, he explains, is both an art and a science. It helps to be a natural teacher, but to be really good takes practice and hard work. Sweet Briar, he says, better prepares students to succeed in the classroom by requiring more clinical experience than other programs, and by focusing so comprehensively on differentiation.

Measured by the program’s outcomes, the numbers speak for themselves. More than 90 percent of graduates in Sweet Briar’s M.A.T. and M.Ed. program land teaching jobs as soon as they receive their degrees.

In 2016, the rate was 100 percent — Sperazza was the only graduate. Alouf expects to see his numbers jump in 2017. It fluctuates, but the program has graduated an average of eight students each year since 2005 — with a record number of 14 in 2006.

Julia Ambersley ’01 was among the first four students who graduated from Sweet Briar’s master’s program in 2005. Following teaching jobs at an Episcopal school and a Title I county school, she now teaches fifth-grade language arts and social studies at The O’Neal School in Southern Pines, N.C., an independent college preparatory school.

Ambersley says she feels “so lucky” to have participated in the M.A.T. program.

“I had called Jim Alouf as a reference for another graduate program,” she remembers. “He recommended that I wait, because he knew of a program that would be exactly the right fit for me — I just needed to take some prerequisites. He was exactly right: After taking only one undergraduate class with Alouf, he knew just what I needed in a graduate program.”

Julia Ambersley ’01 with her husband, Robbie, and their son, Gus, age 9
Julia Ambersley ’01 with her husband, Robbie, and their son, Gus, age 9. Julia met Robbie her sophomore year at Sweet Briar.

And Ambersley has a long list of what that was — and why she recommends the program to other aspiring teachers.

“Sweet Briar appeals to individual students,” she explains. “I was able to have all the support I needed, interested and committed teachers, and an incredible cohort. I learned not only from my professors, but from my fellow students, some of whom were already veteran teachers.”

To this day, she remembers the “incredible” teacher she assisted in a local classroom during her final semester in the graduate program. And there are many other aspects that have stuck with her 11 years later.

“I still use many of the strategies and techniques that I learned in my master’s classes. My students love the level of engagement, the games, and the choice they have in my classroom,” she says. “Sweet Briar’s program taught me the importance of student engagement. I am eternally thankful to Jim Alouf for advising me to come back and be a part of the first master’s class!”