School districts from near and far hold College of Education graduates in high regard
Teachers who graduate from Penn State and school-district administrators who hire them fervently agree that they are very well prepared for their future of shaping the tomorrows of today’s students.Curriculum and instruction graduates from the University’s College of Education are not only finding jobs, they are being recruited by school districts in large cities as well as remote outposts.
Regardless of whether students emerge from the traditional semester-long student-teaching responsibilities or are products of the Professional Development School (PDS) agreement with the State College Area School District that spans an entire academic year, College of Education graduates are in high demand.
Data show that fewer students statewide and nationally are enrolling in education majors due in part to a glut of teachers nearly a decade ago. Actual shortages of teachers today in some subject areas give current school-district administrators ample reason to look to Penn State in order to fill existing classroom vacancies.
Kristi Hurd, the personnel supervisor for the Ashburn (Virginia) School District, hired 30 Penn State graduates in 2015. “We have a history of hiring high numbers of Penn State graduates,’’ she said. She added that the district has sent “at least” five people to each Penn State education career fair for the past 13 years.
“Our principals find the caliber of graduates from (Penn State) programs meet the needs of our students and their communities. I do believe this has to do with the classes and experiences afforded to (Penn State) graduates.’’
Hurd said her district searches for students who have “real experience’’ in classrooms. “We also are looking for students who we believe will serve the needs of our diverse student bodies,’’ she said.
“Cultural competence is important to us. We don’t expect all students to have been exposed to diversity but we do want them to understand how to differentiate for all students.’’
Leslie D. Foster, assessment and accreditation coordinator at Penn State, said two student data searches conducted in 2015 revealed a "best estimate" that only 11 to 13 percent of College of Education graduates remain in Pennsylvania to teach.
Lindsay Elliott is an administrator within Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia as well as a Penn State graduate who participated in the College of Education’s Professional Development School with the State College Area School District. She doesn’t hide the fact that she seeks to hire students coming from the PDS program.
“I’m really looking at those who have graduated from the PDS program,’’ she said. “It’s intense, but well worth it in the end. When teachers enter the teaching force from a PDS program, they are typically much more prepared for the ‘real deal’ and hit the ground running. They are motivated individuals (or else they probably wouldn’t have completed the program) and typically jump in to get any job done.
“They also seem to understand what they don’t understand and seem to feel more comfortable asking questions and/or for support,’’ Elliott said.
Stephanie Gursky, a 2014 College of Education graduate from Palmerton, Pennsylvania, teaches in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Napakiak, Alaska, a remote area about 400 miles west of Anchorage. There was another Penn State graduate in the district, she said, and seven others from Pennsylvania colleges.
“My principal has said this more than once: ‘All great teachers I’ve seen are from Pennsylvania. We should only hire teaches from Pennsylvania; they know what they are doing,’’’ Gursky said in a story published in January.
Regardless from which Curriculum and Instruction program its teachers emerge -- traditional or PDS – graduates say their preparation was top-shelf.
Courtney Nellis, a State College Area High School graduate who stayed home to attend Penn State, is a second-grade teacher at Weems Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia. She had nothing but praise for her student teaching and mentoring programs.
“The support and passion of my mentors, especially Kate Sillman, helped to prepare me most for the role I am now serving as a second-grade teacher,’’ Nellis said. “While working closely with my mentors and a small group of student teachers like myself, it was the expertise and personal experiences shared that now influences my teaching today.’’
Nellis also completed five weeks of international student teaching in Ireland to complement her 12 weeks in a local school district. “It was in my overseas experience that I grew more independent, confident in my teaching ability, and achieved an overall greater sense of self,’’ she said.
“Penn State’s College of Ed does such a great job preparing all prospective teachers for employment. They are up to date with all of the current teaching practices and teacher training. They provide many opportunities for involvement, resume building and unique experiences like part-time teaching abroad,’’ Nellis said.
Not all teachers coming out of the program are what can be called traditional. In fact, Janet Cahilly, a teacher at St. Marys Catholic Elementary School in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, was the self-proclaimed non-traditional student. She graduated from Northern Potter High School in 1996 and opted to become a homemaker and begin to raise three children before seeking financial aid in order to begin a college education.
With guidance from the Emporium (Pa.) Career Link, the Community Education Council (CEC) of St. Marys and the Outreach program at Penn State DuBois, Cahilly earned a degree, found a job in her northern Pennsylvania area and entered the classroom as an instructor.
“Every day in the classroom is a new day,’’ Cahilly said. “You just never know what is going to come up and divert the lesson plans prepared. During the practicum semester leading up to student teaching, I remember there being a heavy workload. Had I not experienced that I would be completely overwhelmed right now.’’
Cahilly praised the technology, the teaching approaches and theories that became available to her as well as the opportunities afforded by faculty, library staff and fellow classmates. “All of that was a part of the Penn State instruction,’’ she said. “Being immersed in the curriculum and knowing that you could ask anyone around you for help at any time – I remember everyone always being willing to lend a helping hand regardless of their workload.’’
Tim Kern from Glenmoore in suburban Philadelphia also took a different approach than most for his first teaching job. He opted to go to Japan at the beginning of his final year of college and taught for two Japanese companies while there. “One school was only for primary and secondary students while the second company was for children and adults,’’ Kern said.
“It was a very different experience from traditional teaching. In a traditional classroom a teacher lays out the objectives and directions of each lesson, but with students who have very limited English ability, this concept becomes much more of a hindrance to learning than an asset.’’
Kern said he had to adjust his classroom management strategies along with conveying instructions in a very succinct manner.
“Time management was still a major facet of the position just the same as it is in a traditional classroom,’’ Kern said. “The whole experience gave me a much better understanding of what an English Language Learner faces in school and how long it will take for a student to grasp simply the spoken form of our language, not to mention the written form.’’
Kern attributed some of his success in a foreign classroom to a CI 405 – Strategies in Classroom Management course. “The class talked about how it was not just a matter of being stern or assertive, but of demonstrating that you knew the subject you were teaching inside and out, wanted the input of the students as to how the class should be run and that, above all, you cared about each and every one of them,’’ Kern said.
“It was a great experience and has shaped my teaching ever since.’’
Tracy Weston, a visiting assisting professor of educational studies at Middlebury College in Vermont and a 2001 graduate of Penn State and the PDS program, has a longstanding philosophy about teaching: “Great teachers aren’t born,’’ she said, “they are taught.’’
Weston said that what she was taught when she was student teaching in 2001 was how students learned, how to develop teaching practices and how to form relationships with students and colleagues. She earned a master’s and then a doctoral degree in mathematics education from the University of North Carolina and has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Cambridge, University of Alabama and Middlebury.
In all of those jobs she said she based her vision of what teacher education can be on her experiences in the PDS program. She gave credit to Jim Nolan (former head of the elementary side of the PDS program and now retired) and Carla Zembal-Saul (former curriculum and instruction department head and current Kahn endowed professor in STEM education), as well as Belinda Gimbert (former professor) and Marty Simon (former professor) for shaping and pushing her thinking about teacher education.
“The PDS continues to be central to my philosophies as a teacher educator,’’ Weston said. “I was not only a good elementary teacher because of the PDS, but I’m also a good teacher educator because of my experiences in the PDS. I was fortunate enough to work with a group of faculty who were both intellectually rigorous and who embodied care and were utterly devoted to the growth and development of the interns.
“I try to be that kind of professor for my students.’’