California State University, Long Beach
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Taking Teaching For A Test Drive

Published: August 1, 2012

So you think you want to be a teacher? Well, there’s a good way to determine if it’s a career for you—through CSULB’s Service Experiences for ReVitalizing Education Program, better known as SERVE.

The program now in its 13th year has placed thousands of CSULB students in local schools, giving them the opportunity to experience first-hand what it’s like to be in a classroom with K-12 students from diverse, urban settings. To date, the program has had more than 18,000 placements resulting in more than 700,000 volunteer service hours.

“Part of the mission of the program is for them to have a very early experience to go into the schools to see what teaching is about, to see what it looks like today, to see if this is what they are cut out to do and if it’s their passion,” said SERVE director Hilda Sramek. “Some get scared away and others think of another career in education, like maybe in counseling or as a speech therapist. So then, instead of placing them in a classroom, we find a placement for them with a counselor so they can see what that’s like. This helps them find out what is in their heart and their soul to become happy.”

Sramek noted that approximately 95 percent of the students who come through the SERVE program eventually do become classroom teachers.

SERVE has partnerships with 28 local school districts, with main partners being the ABC, Downey, Norwalk-La Mirada, Westminster, Torrance, Savanna and, of course, the Long Beach Unified School districts. And while there are some placement limitations, Sramek says the program tries to accommodate students as best it can.
“Students do get their choice of what school to go to because we want them to be happy and successful,” said Sramek. “We found, especially in the first round, the student needs to be comfortable so as not to cause stress. One of the three rounds has to be in Long Beach and the other two can be in any of the partner districts that we have. The placements can be very specific, but still based on the needs of the school. Through SERVE, our students gain entry into places that they would not be able to on their own.”

Sramek noted that not just students in the College of Education are eligible, but all students on campus can participate.

“Any student can come to SERVE if they would like to see what it’s like to be in a school,” she said, “but they have to serve (volunteer) a minimum 40 hours in a semester with a minimum of eight weeks. We place any student from the campus for whatever reason. We have students that come from human development that would like to do their service learning in the classroom; we use it as a form of outreach.”

Each student participating is required to complete the program over the course of three semesters and they cannot be at the same school for more than a single semester. One of the keys is that students don’t go into a classroom just to observe, they get involved.

“They can observe the first time to get their bearings,” said Sramek, “and then the schools and the teachers arrange it so our students work directly with their students, either individually or in small groups or however the teacher wants to use our students.

“There is nothing like getting into a classroom,” added Sramek, who was the 1999 outstanding graduate for the College of Education. “What I find very exciting is the excitement in the principals and the people who are in schools who are there to make it the best place possible for their students and consequently our students.”
Sramek has been involved since the program’s inception, noting that she began it all with “just a file cabinet and a phone.” She also has a personal reason for her deep commitment, having changed careers in an effort to better assist her daughter deal with disabilities through special education.

Hilda Sramek group
Those with key roles in SERVE include (l-r) Hannah Cherry, Hilda Sramek, Darlene Ly, David Pham and Ayseiper Bilen.

“I came back as a second career because of my daughter,” said Sramek, who was a research microbiologist with International Clinical Laboratories and then at the Veterans Administration Hospital near the university following the birth of her children.

“Once my daughter was born, my career took a different path. She was born with significant disabilities and the school district could not figure out how to teach her so I came back to get a degree in education and the degree that best fit what I needed for her was Student Development in Higher Education. I figured if I learned about students in college I’ll learn about their whole life before and because it was student development I had to learn how to teach people, not how to teach subjects.”
Sramek is so involved that she has even gone through a SERVE rotation herself to see what it’s like.

“I would tell the students in the classroom I was so excited that one day I hoped see them on our campus,” she said. “You just have to give that message that everyone has a chance, and they do. We ask our students to wear CSULB shirts and whenever the window opens to talk about college in the future to say Cal State Long Beach is the place for them.”

According to Sramek, every student who completes the SERVE program and graduates will have the skills and disposition to work in the classroom, a direct result of working with individuals at risk.

“They are working with students at risk who are already at the edge for whatever reason,” she said. “If we abandon a child whom we promised will have someone there to mentor and tutor them, we break our promise and then we are doing harm to those students at risk. Our students need to understand that. You can’t break your promise, whether it’s to the teacher in the classroom or the students in the classroom.”

And despite what seems to be continuously in the news about school cuts, more specifically teacher layoffs, Sramek has a positive take on that.

“Our message to students is that this is the best time to come into our program,” she said, “because this tide will turn and we will need more teachers once we resolve the problem we’re in; then they’ll be ready and will be in a better position to get a job.”

A native of Argentina, Sramek is a graduate from Millikan High School and has three degrees from CSULB —a bachelor’s degree in medical microbiology in 1975, a master’s degree in microbiology/immunology in 1977 and the master’s degree program in counseling with an emphasis on student development in higher education in 1999.