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 Montpelier Magazine

 

In her fourth field practicum, JMU senior Karen Boxley leads a science lesson in Jeff Beatty's class at Thomas Harrison Middle School. This extra classroom experience puts JMU's teacher education graduates in high demand from school systems around the country.

How 'bout them apples?

Public education does make the grade, while JMU's teacher ed grads count among the nation's best

The education of our children has become a national topic of conversation for many Americans. Indeed, schools, education, testing and teacher education were among the presidential candidates' most hotly debated issues last fall. Both campaigns played to the fact that mothers of young children and many other Americans named education as their most important issue. But if we take our cues from the political rhetoric or media reports on education, Americans could easily conclude that our schools are in terrible shape, that most children can't read, that teachers are poorly trained and that the condition of public education in this country is dismal. But this is NOT true.

This bleak picture of America's schools, fortunately, is one that is more often found in the media and political campaigns than is actually true in American schools. In the face of all this troubling talk, we are in fact educating more tudents to higher levels of achievement than we ever have in our history. A recent national public poll conducted by the educational honor society, Phi Delta Kappa, indicates that the general public is very satisfied with schools and the education children are receiving.

Allison Rhue, a JMU junior education student from Delaware, agrees. "I went to very good schools, and the schools I am working with here in the Shenandoah Valley are terrific. It seems like the media sees only the negative."

In addition, even though the school population is larger than ever, school violence is much lower than commonly perceived, and, nationally, most test scores are up and moving even higher.

Standing in contrast to negative images of teachers are JMU's teacher education graduates, who are in high demand around the commonwealth and the country. Part of the reason they are held in such high esteem is JMU's field-based approach to teacher preparation. Our students spend more supervised time in the classroom, working with real teachers, real school children and real JMU professors, even before they undertake their traditional student-teaching assignments.

Just as they have been since JMU's founding in 1908 as a normal school designed to prepare teachers, education and the preparation of teachers are high priorities at JMU. For nearly a century, JMU has been producing strong devoted teachers, who constitute roughly 20 percent of alumni. JMU remains firmly committed to teacher education, with teachers making up approximately 10 percent of today's graduating classes. James Madison would certainly be proud of this tradition, since he was one of our country's strongest proponents of education as the key to making democracy work.

But while JMU's commitment to preparing teachers remains the same, the field of teacher preparation has changed dramatically. No longer do teacher education students major in an educational field. Instead, as Virginia legislated in the late 1980s, students major in the field they intend to teach. Teaching in contemporary schools, however, is a daunting and challenging task that requires skills and knowledge far beyond the discipline; so our students also complete a lengthy set of specialized courses and experiences in the professional field of education.

Over the last decade, these two intense concentrations of effort have meant that our students are essentially completing a double major and often spending an extra year at JMU to meet the stringent requirements of becoming a qualified teacher. These realities show that JMU's teacher education students are devoted students who are passionate about wanting to teach and helping children to learn. They are committed to becoming superior teachers. So teacher education students spend half of their JMU study completing general education courses and mastering a discipline.

Students wishing to become high school teachers major in their field of study -- like Spanish, mathematics, chemistry, history -- and are then certified to teach that subject. Students wishing to teach elementary school, middle school or special education major in the field of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies, a major that provides both the depth and breadth needed to teach the elementary and middle school subjects. For middle school students, the IDLS major also provides them with two discipline concentrations, humanities and social science or mathematics and science. Art, music, and health and physical education students major in those respective fields.

Students spend the other half of their JMU study taking a series of courses that help them understand how the brain functions, how children develop and learn, how language and mathematical thinking develop, and how intelligence forms. These are especially important given the growing body of knowledge about brain function and growth. Teachers and brain researchers have learned more about the human brain in the last 15 years than in the last 100, and the implications for what teachers do in classrooms are significant.

In a related series of courses, JMU students learn about diagnosing reading and language stages, about reading in content areas, and about mathematical thinking and problem solving. They learn the importance of matching learning and cognitive styles with planning, and the importance of knowing as much as possible about all of the diverse kinds of children who attend today's schools. They learn about delivering rich and engaging lessons and learning activities. They learn about how to assess learning and the understanding of difficult concepts.

That's where the field-based portions of JMU's programs play such a strong part for JMU teacher education students. For most of these skills are best learned from teams of experts who are working in real classrooms with real students. JMU Teacher Education professors try to make meaningful connections between what JMU students learn here on campus and what they see and do in the schools. For example, we know that students achieve a higher degree of academic success when teachers plan meaningful, integrated and relevant sets of lessons.

"Learning how to develop a coherent unit of lessons is much more difficult than simply stringing a group of math lessons together," says Gerald Green, a middle education professor. "That's just the beginning. You need to know how to see the content as more than just a list of facts, plan lessons that will help students see the real meaning in the facts and continually evaluate how well the kids are learning. You can't do that sitting by Newman Lake. You have to do that in a real classroom with real kids."

That's why JMU students complete at least two practica in local schools under the supervision of both JMU professors and classroom teachers, well before they begin their student teaching experiences. To facilitate these real-world interactions, the JMU School of Education has a number of formal and informal partnerships with local school divisions. In one of the more formal arrangements, the partnership with the Augusta County schools means that a large number of JMU students will spend time working with teachers and children at Clymore Elementary School, Stewart Middle School and Fort Defiance High School.

Tina Kiracofe ('88/'97M), assistant principal at Stewart Middle School, supports the idea fully. "We all benefit from the partnership. JMU students bring new perspectives, new ideas, new teaching strategies and lots of enthusiasm with them. Our teachers provide supervision and guidance, especially with things like classroom management and working with parents." She continues, "It is also good to have the professors here so much. They not only help with the practicum students, they also work with us on research projects."

The Special Education Program also has strong relationships with the public schools, often holding classes in elementary schools, where JMU students and professors work directly with children and teachers. In addition, faculty members from Special Education operate a regional Technical Assistance Center that provides support, training and assistance to teachers and children throughout the Shenandoah Valley. The JMU presence in education is undeniably compelling and is clearly mutually beneficial to JMU and the surrounding communities.

This field-based approach to teacher education is one of the cornerstones of JMU teacher preparation and is also one of the reasons JMU teacher education graduates are in such demand around the commonwealth and the country. In fact, JMU is recognized as a national leader in the development of university-school partnerships, and professors and teachers from partnership schools are often asked to give presentations at national conferences.

JMU graduates feel well-prepared to teach. Two 1999 graduates, Jackie Beliveau and Mary Casey, who are now teaching in a Northern Virginia middle school, agree. "We were much better prepared than some of the other first-year teachers," Casey says. "Our principal even asked us to give some help to some of our colleagues. It seems that we knew more about working with special education kids than some of the experienced teachers."

"That was pretty scary for us," Beliveau adds, "but the teachers were really grateful. They hadn't had any of that in their programs."

"It ended up being so much fun that we made a presentation at a state conference last year," Casey says.

For nearly all JMU students, becoming a teacher is not just a job toward which to look forward -- they are passionate about becoming effective teachers who change and improve the lives of children. Shannon Sayers ('01), a senior and Early Childhood Education preservice teacher from Fairfax, feels strongly about becoming a teacher. She is undaunted by the comments some of her peers make to her about teaching. "They don't get it. They assume that this is an easy profession because we are with kids all day. Just because they went through the third grade, they think anyone can do this and they don't see it as important. I know that not just anyone can do this."

It's true: Teaching is a difficult, complex and demanding responsibility that is often misunderstood. With the addition of computer technology and other emerging subjects, the expanded curriculum of contemporary schools is also much more complex than ever before, a fact that concerns many teachers. Harrisonburg teacher Kathryn Bremner ('99M) says, "It is sometimes very difficult to teach all that we are required to teach. Knowing your content area well has become much more important, because teachers have to be able to relate it to the real world and show children how and why the knowledge is important."

And as one might imagine, just as there have been enormous changes on campus, teacher education has changed dramatically as well. Most states have raised standards for both students and new teachers, and Virginia is no exception. Teacher education students must pass reading, writing and mathematics tests prior to student teaching, and when they graduate, they must pass more rigorous tests in their respective disciplines. The Commonwealth of Virginia has also strengthened the regulations that govern teacher licensure. Teachers know their stuff.

Due to these new regulations and the increasing complexity of teaching in contemporary schools, nearly all teacher education students entering JMU after the fall 2000 semester will complete a five-year, Master of Arts in Teaching program. That is, students complete their general education requirements, a major in a discipline and then a set of "preprofessional" education courses that lead to a master's degree. The M.A.T. is perhaps the most common model for teacher education across the country; but before moving in this direction, a group of faculty members in the School of Education spent two years looking at the research and effectiveness of various types of programs. "We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was the best direction for JMU," explains Alvin Pettus, assistant director of the School of Education. "We think we've made the right choice. I spent a lot of time with entering freshmen and their parents last summer and I was pleasantly surprised that most parents understand the reason for this. Learning to teach is a great deal more than what most people realize."

Education also reaches across JMU's entire campus. JMU's teacher education programs in art, music, health and physical education are also strong and vital; there are more than 300 students working toward becoming art, music and P.E. teachers. The Adult Education and Human Resources program that helps JMU graduates become business trainers and supervisors is also a popular program and has strong links to local and regional businesses.

The School of Psychology educates school counselors and school psychologists, and principals and school supervisors complete School of Education programs in Educational Leadership and Supervision. The College of Integrated Science and Technology and the School of Education work together to train specialists in educational and instructional technology. When all of these programs are considered, nearly one in 10 JMU students is somehow linked to teacher education.

It also appears that the nation will be soon facing a severe teacher shortage, and JMU's role as an educator of teachers therefore takes on even more importance. The shortage is already severe in the areas of special education, English as a Second Language, mathematics and science. To meet these challenges, renewed emphasis has been placed on recruiting new students who wish to become teachers, and JMU is looking at ways to draw more students into the ranks of mathematics, science and special education.

In another example of our partnership effort, faculty members from the College of Integrated Science and Technology, College of Mathematics and Science, College of Arts and Letters, School of Education, Rockingham County Public Schools, and General Education Program will begin offering certain freshman courses in math and science to both JMU students and local high school students who may be interested in teaching. The goal, of course, is to interest young people in teaching those subjects.

As it has since its founding, JMU continues to be committed to education. Its history and culture is deeply embedded in helping children learn and grow. James Madison, our fourth President, was a student of learning and a stalwart supporter of education. If he were to visit his namesake in these early years of the millennium, we believe he would be proud.

By Charles Watson, Director of the JMU School of Education