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Rock Island-Milan's new educational internship is giving students a head start on learning, through teaching

Not even a pandemic could stop the program's first year from successfully placing future teachers into classrooms - a move the district says will benefit many.

MILAN, Ill. — A new education internship program in the Rock Island-Milan School District is putting high school students back in the classroom, to try their hand at teaching. 

The program puts juniors and seniors who are interested in pursuing education as a career into classrooms across the district. They can choose the age level they'd prefer to work with, and then stick with that classroom for a full year, all while earning high school credits. During the first half of the year, the students mostly observe and work with the younger students on a more limited basis, before starting to create lesson plans and give their own lectures. 

It's something that founder, and current education internship coordinator, Mike Mertel, has been pushing for, for years. 

"I participated in a similar program at my own high school, and I've been wanting to provide the same one for Rocky students," he explained. The 9th grade world studies teacher says beginning the internship in the middle of the pandemic was difficult, but worth it. 

"The first semester there were definitely some challenges with Covid, with the interns trying to participate as much as they could, but they made the best of it." 

This year, the district has about 20 students interning in classrooms across Rock Island and Milan. Each one has a cooperating teacher that guides them through day-to-day life as an educator and provides mentorship. 

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Mertel explains that one of the main goals of the program is to involve students who might never have considered teaching, so they get a taste of the field before heading off to college. 

"In the teaching force, diversity is a huge issue. So trying to reach student populations that maybe don't see themselves teaching initially, but having this opportunity might open that door or just kind of get them thinking, 'Oh, this is something I could do or would want to do,' is kind of the end goal," he said. 

On the other side of the desk, Mertel says students being taught by the interns are rewarded by the experience as well. 

"As we continue forward, my hope is that some of the younger students see an intern in their classroom, they get the idea a little bit earlier on, that seed planted, and see it as something that's viable for them too." 

And one of the newest benefits of the program is hoping to encourage those seeds even more. Now, any student that completes either one or two years of the education internship program will be automatically offered a job interview for the district, once they graduate college. 

For high school junior Michelle Anglese, it's an option she can't wait to explore. 

She's been interning in a first grade classroom at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Milan since the school year began in August. Now, she plans to intern with the program again next year, then obtain her degree in education. 

"I really enjoy working with the students and even planning lessons, which is something I've gotten to do this semester," said Anglese. "I love working with kids and reading to them and helping them learn." 

For all the challenges the pandemic has created when it comes to both learning and teaching, Anglese has taken both roles in stride. During the fall, she interacted with her first graders online, through Google Classroom. And now since the spring semester, she's been able to be with the kids both remotely and in-person, as the district offered blended learning. 

Through it all, she says she wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

"It's a lot to balance, but I love coming here and being part of their class, so even if I have more homework to do later in the day because of it, I just suck it up and do it, because it's worth it," she smiled. "I think the connections with the students in really something special. Even just with lessons and watching them understand something and then just enjoying the stories I read to them." 

Some of her favorite moments over the past few months have come when her students enjoy her lessons, get a point she's trying to make, or share parts of their personal lives with her. 

"We did a thankful project earlier and one of the students said they were thankful for me, which is something that was really special," said Anglese. "I think little moments like that make teaching really inspiring."

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It's little moments like that, that she's hoping will inspire some of her students now to follow in her own footsteps - just like how she did, with her current cooperating teacher. 

"Miss. Toubin was my first grade teacher, so getting to connect with her again through this teaching internship has been really, really fun," she said. 

That Miss. Toubin is Linda Toubin - Anglese's former first grade teacher, and current teacher of the classroom she's interning in. It's even in the same room that Anglese sat in herself, over a decade ago, and is a full-circle moment that Toubin calls a blessing. 

"It's wonderful to see them nurture and grow and think maybe I had a small part in establishing that all the way back in the first grade," Toubin smiled. 

An educator for the past 36 years, she wishes a similar opportunity had been available to her when she was first starting out, and says it helps build confidence in students before they head off to college without any teaching experience. 

"It gives them a chance to test the waters and see if this is something they want to do and maybe to check out different grade levels they want to work with," she explained. 

For Anglese, college may still be a year away, but she says the opportunity to intern in a classroom has been invaluable. 

"Having the experience of student teaching so early on is really gonna benefit me in the future because I'll have experience that the other college students may not have. It's really helped me pick my specific career," she said. "I'm very thankful I got to be a part of this program because I know that teaching is the perfect career for me." 

It's a career she's spent most of her life watching. And now, others are watching her. 

It's as a plaque inside of Miss. Toubin's classroom says: the influence of a good teacher can never be erased. 

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