Becoming a Teacher in 180 Days

A pathway to public school teaching

Becoming a Teacher in 180 Days

Christopher McCarthy and Justin Bates are among the hundreds of teachers who have launched their careers in urban education through the intensive and rewarding 180 Days in Springfield program.

A photo montage portrait of Justin Bates and CJ McCarthy

Through the 180 Days in Springfield pathway at the UMass Amherst College of Education, students become teachers over the course of one academic year. The program is deeply rigorous—students complete the coursework for a master’s of education while interning full time in a middle or high school—and it requires passion and energy. Yet in spite of the intensity, teacher candidates who participate in the program relish the experience for its tightly-knit community of students, unparalleled training, and high rate of job placement when they graduate.

“The 180 program was how a master’s program should be, not only teaching you, but giving you connections, giving you real world advice, teaching you actually how to be a professional in that role,” says Christopher (CJ) McCarthy, who completed the program in 2015. “It felt very real.”

McCarthy teaches eighth grade general science at STEM Middle Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts and serves as a mentor to 180 Days students like Justin Bates, who has interned in his classroom for the 2019-2020 academic year. For both McCarthy and Bates, 180 Days has been the ideal way to launch their teaching careers and their rapport is emblematic of the professional relationships that 180 Days fosters. 

My family has a history of federal and public service, which was a large driving force for becoming a public school teacher. I feel like the best use of my time and skills in the sciences is to serve the public interest and advocate for equitable education throughout the state.

Christopher (CJ) McCarthy

McCarthy entered the 180 Days program after completing a BS and an MS in geology at UMass Amherst. When it became clear that most jobs available to him would be in mining and oil exploration, he realized that it was not the right field for him. Instead, he turned to education as a way to make use of his extensive science knowledge as well build a career grounded in public service. “My family has a history of federal and public service, which was a large driving force for becoming a public school teacher,” he explains. “I feel like the best use of my time and skills in the sciences is to serve the public interest and advocate for equitable education throughout the state.”

CJ McCarthy and Justin Bates in a science classroom at STEM Middle Academy

After working with a camp program in Holyoke and confirming that he loved teaching, McCarthy entered the 180 Days program. He was placed at STEM Middle Academy for his practicum, and was hired there as a teacher as soon as he finished the program. 

Like McCarthy, Justin Bates majored in geology at UMass Amherst, but knew before graduating that he would be a teacher. He had been inspired to pursue a career in education when he worked as a tutor through Bob Maloy and Sharon Edwards’ TEAMS course and applied to start the 180 Days program immediately after graduation.

Both McCarthy and Bates acknowledge that the intensity of the 180 Days program—teaching all day and taking classes afterward—is mentally and physically challenging. However, in their view, this is also what makes the program so valuable. 

Starting as a teacher right away, rather than after a few semesters of coursework was, in McCarthy’s words, “really like a trial by fire,” but the approach quickly won him over. “I’m a very experiential learner, so if you put me in somewhere, that’s the best way for me to figure out who I am as a professional and who I am as an educator.”
 

A student looking at a book while their teacher looks on

Each day, the 180 Days students’ experiences as teachers informs their coursework, while their coursework informs their teaching. Being able to meet and learn with the other 180 Days participants after a long day in the classroom is key to the program’s effectiveness. “You get to teach and reflect in the same day,” McCarthy observes. “What I did in the school day—I would then go to class, talk about it, pull it apart with professors, make observations, get feedback immediately, and then go right back into the school day and try that.”

Further, the students are able to take the theory and strategies they learn in their afternoon classes and readings and immediately see how they work in a classroom. “We can have a conversation in one of the classes the night before and then literally the next day you can go into the class and try it out,” Bates explains. They can also quickly learn it’s limits. “When you’re reading about it in a book, it seems like one thing, it’s really fantastic and you’re like, ‘wow, this is going to work.’ And then the reality of the situation is way more nuanced and dynamic and it’s not easy to just apply that textbook to actual practice,” says McCarthy.

It’s that sense of community that gets you through, because this is a crazy intensive program. It’s that small community that you build, where you’re able to bounce ideas off each other… if you reach out to them, it’s almost an instant five or six good ideas that you can try the next day.

Justin Bates

The close-knit relationships among the 180 Days students is also what makes it such an effective program. As they go through this intensive experience, students can rely on and learn from each other, and they have a community that fully understands the challenges they face as teachers. “It’s that sense of community that gets you through, because this is a crazy intensive program,” Bates asserts. “It’s that small community that you build, where you’re able to bounce ideas off each other… if you reach out to them, it’s almost an instant five or six good ideas that you can try the next day.”

Teacher Candidate Justin Bates describes rock erosion

Bates is the third 180 Days student that McCarthy has mentored. For both, the relationship has been great for their professional development. Continuing to work with 180 Days students helps McCarthy stay current with pedagogy, as they bring what they’re learning at UMass back to their STEM classroom. He learns new approaches while also revisiting and reconsidering what he learned as a student. “It’s also kept me fresh in the classroom,” he says, “Coming up with new things to do because I can’t just do the same things I do every year.” 

McCarthy loves the opportunity to mentor teachers, especially after having been in the same position. He is cognizant of his role in shaping their view of themselves as educators and the responsibility it gives him to be at his best. “I realize that what I’m modeling is going to be paid attention to; it’s going to be watched. The example that I set can’t be halfway,” he says. “That’s been really surprising—realizing I have to be on my toes more than I would otherwise.”

McCarthy and Bates have developed a smooth working relationship over the course of their year together. Bates is deeply appreciative of the opportunity to learn from McCarthy, who he calls one of the smartest people he’s ever met. “One of the things that I want to carry on to my classroom is—he’s always so prepared. When a student asks a question, he has a visual or a video or a quick five minute experiment or a rock sample or a fossil. He’s always so prepared to visualize the kids’ thinking.”

Perhaps because he’s been in the identical position as a former 180 Days student, McCarthy has treated Bates as a co-teacher from the beginning, readily giving up ownership of the classroom to him and letting him take over lessons and try out ideas. They’ve developed a back and forth that makes each of them a better teacher. “He is willing to listen to what I’m saying, he’s willing to roll with any ideas I have. From the beginning he definitely made me feel like the classroom teacher.”

Images of students in a science classroom at STEM Middle Academy

While McCarthy plans to continue teaching at STEM Middle Academy, being a mentor in the 180 Days program has inspired him to pursue a doctorate in the future. He is considering research in public education policy or adolescent development, studying when children are ready for specific science concepts, skills, and knowledge acquisition.

When he completes the 180 Days program, Bates hopes to stay with urban education and is looking for positions in the Boston area. Regardless of the job he lands, he knows he will be well prepared. “I feel so ready to be in any school that hires me because I feel like I have five years of experience under my belt,” he observes. “It’s a really great way to start off my career.” Not only does 180 Days do an excellent job of preparing teachers for their own classrooms, but by the end of the year, they have enough experience to truly know if this is the right career path for them.

If you think you want to be a teacher, the 180 Days program is the way to do it because you will know by the end of it if you want to be an educator. It is not something that will leave you wondering, ‘is this what I want to do with myself?’ It gives you a certainty that a lot of things don’t give you.

Christopher (CJ) McCarthy