How JMU equips teachers to be their best amidst myriad challenges


by Janet Smith


For more than a century, James Madison University has been preparing students to enter the noble profession of teaching. And, recognizing the ever-changing challenges of the classroom, JMU offers the Content Teaching Academy to help veteran educators learn new strategies.

Now in its 16th year, the June 22-26 academy prepares to welcome more than 400 educators to campus for a week of intensive, hands-on learning they can take back to their respective classrooms.

This year's participants will join the ranks of some 6,800 educators who have benefited from past academies. When calculating using average class size, an estimated 2.8 million students in primarily Virginia schools have had CTA alumni as their teachers.

Dr. David Slykhuis, who has directed the Content Teaching Academy for six years, and his 13 academy chairs are ready to work with their colleagues to improve teaching with fresh ideas. Content areas include English, mathematics, biology, earth science, physical science, physical education, engineering and reading.

With practicing teachers, "there has to be an applied part," Slykhuis said. The teachers have to know they can put a strategy to work in their classroom. Because of the pressures teachers face "they typically don't have time to sit and absorb just content or just research without the next step also being there," he said.

"Teachers have really had to learn how to teach the same content multiple ways but do that at the same time with different groups in their classrooms." — David Slykhuis

Educators enrolled in each academy will meet as a group in four 90-minute sessions daily. Some come to earn certificates for 30 hours of professional development, special education teachers attend to gain credit to meet Virginia's criteria for highly qualified teaching status, and some participate for graduate-level credit.

All academies are focused on helping teachers meet the challenges of today's classroom.

"The student population is changing with students coming from such diverse backgrounds and speaking different languages," Slykhuis said. Harrisonburg's school system is an excellent example of that change with some 45 native languages spoken among its students, he added.

There are also students with a variety of learning levels in each classroom. "Teachers have really had to learn how to teach the same content multiple ways but do that at the same time with different groups in their classrooms," Slykhuis said. "Teachers are expected to meet the needs of every child in every classroom all the time. You have to have strategies for meeting the needs of your lower-level learners, your English-language learners, your middle-of-the-road learners plus your gifted learners, and you may have all of those kids in the same classroom at the same time."

The CTA was originally developed in 2000 to help Virginia special educators master the content in the Standards of Learning requirements. Since that time, the CTA has diversified and is now drawing teachers in all content areas and grade levels from West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and the District of Columbia.

Slykhuis is proud of the academy's influence among teachers. "It's not just for professional development, but the academy helps build a sense of community. Teachers spend 30 to 40 hours with the same group of people during the week. They work together in 90-minute sessions and then have opportunities to discuss at lunch and breaks. They develop a network of people they can call upon for help throughout the year."

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June 19, 2015

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Published: Friday, June 19, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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