In 2019, Nate Ferreira graduated from Westfield State University with both a Bachelor of Science in Early Education Childhood and a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies. He originally planned to teach at the elementary level, but after taking Foundations of Reading, as taught by Sandra Berkowitz, Professor of Education, Ferreira found where his true passion lay: teaching kids how to read.
“I was just fascinated because I thought I wanted to teach fourth grade comprehension,” Ferreira said about the class. “But once we started learning about phonics and teaching kids how to read, I was like, ‘Oh! I think I want to do that.’ And so, I switched from elementary education to early childhood education.”
Within two weeks after graduating, Ferreira was interviewed and hired in the Longmeadow, MA area. However, in 2017, Berkowitz had told Ferreira that she’d eventually like to see him return to Westfield State for the Reading Specialist Program. Between acclimating to his first year of teaching and dealing with the pandemic, Ferreira noticed that his students were having trouble learning how to read.
“I didn’t know what I was doing wrong,” he said. “As I did virtual teaching, I still had that issue where I'm sharing my screen and each letter, but they're not connecting. I didn’t know why these kids weren’t reading. I looked into programs.”
This led Ferreira to enroll in the Reading Specialist Program, as Berkowitz had encouraged years before. The program is designed to offer an expedited licensure process, where students can earn a “two-for-one” professional license in addition to an initial reading specialist license. Candidates also complete two practicum periods and are supported by an academic advisor. Free Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) workshops are offered as well, for those who want or need help preparing for the exams.
“Our goal is for our candidates to graduate with the knowledge, skill, and confidence to help peer teachers and support staff to solve the problems they identify themselves in their teaching practice,” their mission statement reads. “We want our reading specialists to ask peer teachers, “When you think about your students’ achievement and your ability to meet your students’ needs, what is getting in your way? How can we team together to improve your students’ success?”
“I just jumped into the program, and immediately, we're starting to take things that I was learning and put them to use,” Ferreira said. “It’s neat to learn in class and then apply that with your own kids. It’s now to the point where the reading specialists in our school, we're on such a good basis. Kids that are coming up into first grade that are flagged or concerned, she finds a way to put them in my class because she knows that I have all of these tips and tools from my classes. It’s humbling, and it's really nice to get to see.”
Ferreira plans to take his MTEL in January. After that comes practicum in the spring and fall. So far, Ferreira has highly endorsed the Reading Specialist Program, saying that his classes and professors have been “amazing”.
“Teachers have to get their master’s degree, and school always gave me a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I had like a hard time with being an undergraduate. I thought, “This is going to be so difficult… I'm not like smart like that.’ But then, within my first class, it was like a case study, and I'm learning about these reading strategies and applying it to my students. I'm taking what I'm learning and directly applying it to my job.”
For Ferreira, the professors at Westfield State have made all the difference. Between the professors from his undergraduate journey to the professors he studies with now, Ferreira says that he’s found not only role models in them, but also friends.
“Every single professor that I've had stood out to me. It’s nice because some of these professors give you their cell phone numbers and say, if you have any questions, you can text, so they’re also friends or colleagues, in a sense. The professors in general make sure I'm not taking so many classes that I'm neglecting my actual job, so they helped me find balance. They're really good at helping you prioritize what's important.”
In the reading program, Ferreira is learning how to help students read more fluently using various techniques. “Some kids can read, but they have a hard time processing what they're reading,” he said. “I’ve been learning how to use concept maps, a strategy we use with readers where we create a web of words. We write about the topic and then add words which relate to that topic on the outside of the web. This helps students activate their background knowledge, which will help them while they are reading the text to better understand it. I found all of that interesting."
Overall, Ferreira encourages students to explore all of the courses, programs, and certificate opportunities that Westfield State has to offer. When asked what advice he would give to prospective students to the reading program, Ferreira says, “Just do it.”
“Westfield is great in general, no matter which program you take,” he added. “There’s been a lot of debate on the science of reading. All these different theories… I feel like Westfield's done a really good job of helping me weed through all of that and say, ‘this is evidence based’. Taking a class that sits you down and says, ‘this is how you enter a database and look up peer-reviewed stuff’ is one of the best things ever. I would highly recommend it.”