Teacher Prep 101


Tara Sorensen Kraft ’08 inspires her second grade students to succeed in the
classroom, thanks to her time with the Central Teacher Academy.

Imagine being able to study in a one-of-a kind program—one that would prepare you for your career and give you the advantage. While Central provides all sorts of unique opportunities from student research with faculty to hundreds of clubs and organizations, the Central Teacher Academy (CTA) stands out for education majors.

CTA, started in 1999, is a selective program with a three-year collaborative model that prepares future teachers by utilizing the Pella and Pella Christian School Districts. Many at Central and the Pella Community School District were looking to start the first (and only) teaching program that would get students into the classroom years before student teaching. Lowell Ernst, director of K-12 instruction for the Pella Community School District, was one of the key players.

“We were looking to prepare incoming teachers for the work force,” Ernst explains. “We were finding that students weren’t quite prepared in areas to handle their own classroom straight out of college, so the concept was to train them throughout their four years to get experience.

“Now we are seeing students graduate from a program that understands current teaching practices. This program is a hidden jewel at Central. We always recommend Central for students considering teaching because of CTA—we have even expanded on the idea and started offering the foundations of education class to our high school seniors. Central gets its students in the classroom right away, and not just CTA students, and it gives them the opportunity to discover if they want to become a teacher.” The program has turned out hundreds of successful teachers by pairing students with mentor teachers based in the Pella school district. Central students are getting into the classroom earlier than all other education majors across the state—and the success stories prove Central students are ahead of the game.

Benefiting From Mentors


Nathan Van Zante ’15 works with middle-schoolers a few hours per week with CTA.

Jill Parsons Payne ’04 knows a thing or two about the Central Teacher Academy—she participated in the first group of CTA students as an elementary education major with a reading endorsement and Spanish minor. Now she’s a fifth grade math and science teacher at Jefferson Intermediate School.

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but it turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my teaching preparation,” Payne says of the CTA start up. “CTA was just an incredible experience for me. I gained a close group of teacher friends that I am still friends with today and had great mentor teachers who worked to shape the foundation of my teaching career.”

Phil George, retired professor of education and one of the founding members of CTA, was an inspiration to Payne—he encouraged her after she switched CTA placements during her junior year and was there to provide resources after she had her own classroom.

“The professors and staff of Central’s education department took a personal interest in me as a person and as a teacher,” she says. “They were always there to listen when I had questions or needed help, and to challenge and push me beyond my comfort zone to help me become a better teacher. Phil George was my advisor and he always pushed me to do more for my teaching career.”

She hopes to pass on some of the wisdom to her current mentee, Nathan Van Zante ’15. He is soaking up everything he needs to learn to become a middle school math and science teacher. And he is already on his way by attending staff development, planning lessons and going to parent-teacher conferences. Van Zante is learning from inside the system, which most students across Iowa don’t get until their senior year.

“I have extra time in the classroom to get hands-on experience,” Van Zante says. “I also get the opportunity to communicate with current educators on a regular basis. Being able to talk to a current teacher, like Jill, about material I am learning in a classroom is extremely beneficial.”

In the few years that Van Zante and Payne have worked together, their professional relationship has grown—and Payne attributes their success to trust and communication.

“Both the mentor and mentee are giving up things to be a part of this program, so there has to be a vested and equal interest,” she says. “Having a strong relationship provides for trust that both mentor and mentee are going to follow through on their part. I hope to learn as much from Nathan as he learns from me. To do that, we have to trust each other and be open to constructive feedback and being challenged.”

Believing in Every Child

Tara Sorensen Kraft '08 works with a student in her 2nd grade room.

Tara Sorensen Kraft ’08 works with a student in her second grade classroom.

Since starting her journey with CTA in 2005 as a sophomore, Tara Sorensen Kraft ’08 has continued to learn and excel with the program as a mentor to current Central students.Kraft majored in elementary education with endorsements in reading and early childhood education before landing a job as a second grade teacher at Madison Elementary School.

Like all students accepted into CTA, Kraft applied to be in the CTA program and was paired with a mentor teacher for three years before a final semester of student teaching.

“My first three years, I was in my mentor teacher’s second grade classroom learning what it meant to be a teacher through hands-on experiences,” Kraft explains. “By my junior year, I was already planning and teaching a whole class math and reading lessons—something other students didn’t get the opportunity to do until they student taught. When I began student teaching during my senior year, I was able to jump right in and already felt confident when I was in front of the class.”

She passes on her knowledge of CTA and teaching with joy—her level III student, Crystal Spoor ’14, was her first CTA student and Kraft has seen her grow tremendously.

“Crystal taught with me the first eight weeks of this school year,” she says. “It was such a neat experience for me to watch her confidence in herself and her teaching grow. Since she had been in my room her sophomore and junior year, she jumped into teaching the second week of school and took off from there. It was such a rewarding experience.”

Spoor couldn’t agree more. “I got very lucky by getting paired with Tara as my mentor teacher. I have always admired the way that she runs her classroom and the passion she expresses for teaching and the compassion she shows towards her students. I cannot fully express how essential my mentor was in developing my own ideals of teaching.”

It was through CTA Kraft was taught to engage with students, connect with other teachers and develop her own ideas for her classroom. Today, she is using that knowledge to inspire a future generation.

“Every child is unique and may learn in a different way and it is my responsibility to teach using a variety of strategies to meet every child’s needs like I was taught at Central,” says Kraft. “I believe that every child should experience success in my classroom.”

Building Relationships

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Annie Wignall Foskett ’10 helps as her second grade students craft gingerbread houses.

Annie Wignall Foskett ’10 considers herself lucky. Just four years after graduating from Central with an elementary education degree with endorsements in reading and early childhood education, Foskett teaches just down the hall from her CTA mentor, Donita Smith.

“I spent three years in Donita’s first grade classroom, and now I have the honor of teaching with her,” Foskett says. “Donita was the most fantastic mentor, and I learned so much. I truly believe that it was because of all of my experience in her classroom that I was able to go into my first year of teaching feeling ready and prepared.”

The second grade teacher at Madison Elementary now gets to share a connection with her own mentee, Kaylee Clark ’15. Just as Smith taught her, Foskett gives Clark guidance and support in her second year of CTA—she even bounces ideas off the budding teacher.

“I found a new program I was thrilled about starting to use, so I sent Kaylee an email about it and she wrote back right away about how excited she was to start!” says Foskett. “I was beyond thrilled to have someone share in my joy for how great this tool was going to be to use in our classroom.”

Clark, a level II student, spends about two hours in the classroom each week. And although the time is short, she has built a relationship with Foskett which helps her understand her future role as an educator—and Clark relies on Foskett as a knowledgeable source for classes.

“Annie has been such a great influence and help in my life,” Clark says. “She has taught me so many great things that I will be able to use in my future classroom. If I need help or an idea for a lesson or project, she is the first person I contact. The most important thing about teaching is knowing your students and how they learn, and Annie has given me so many strategies to use to understand the individual learner.”

Since its inception, CTA has fostered relationships between mentor and mentee, and alumni and students are proving that the system works.

“I know that Annie and I will continue our relationship outside of the CTA program, and she will be someone I can contact for help and advice when I am a teacher someday,” says Clark. “I know that once I finish student teaching, I will be completely prepared to teach in my own classroom.”

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  • Greg Garth


    9:56 am on February 25, 2014

    As an educator that recently retired after 35 years in education, it is refreshing to see great programs grow. Have you ever thought about using folks like me coming back to your education classes to offer insights? Keep up the great work!

  • Dawn MacGregor


    6:54 pm on February 18, 2014

    Wow! This sounds like a great program. As a 1998 elementary education major, I just missed out on this opportunity. I wish I lived closed so I could mentor future teachers.