Fairfield Now - Spring 2008
By Alejandra Navarro
As an education minor who observed teachers, took classes on teaching methods, and worked as a substitute, Sally Casper '07 began her student teaching assignment feeling fully prepared. Yet one of her classes at Staples High School in Westport, Conn. made her realize that her semester of student teaching would be more demanding that she ever expected.
"The class made it very clear that they didn't want a student teacher," says Casper, giggling at what began as an intimidating situation. For most of the semester, the group tested her ability to lead the class. "That was one of the hardest things I faced."
"In student teaching, you get thrown into being a full-time teacher," says Casper, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology and a minor in education and will be teaching general science and biology at Glen Rock High School in New Jersey beginning in September. "It was intense."
Casper's experience had a positive ending. By the end of her semester, the student who most fiercely challenged Casper ended up being one of her favorites. Before she left the class, the student approached Casper to say, "I'm sorry I was such a pain in the butt. You really are a great teacher."
That is what the teacher certification program at Fairfield University strives to produce: teachers who can cope with the challenges of the classroom and instill a passion for learning in their students. "We make sure our student teachers are prepared for the classroom," said Dr. Sandra Billings, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP) and director of the teacher certification program at Fairfield. Adding how much she enjoys working with students, Billings said, "We have developed a fabulous rapport with area schools. The student teachers want to get out there into the classroom and do wonderful things - and that's what they do."
At Fairfield, there is a collaborative effort between the College of Arts & Sciences and GSEAP, in which students major in a subject area (English, history/social studies, natural sciences, mathematics, or world languages) and minor in education. Upon graduating from the program and passing the Praxis II exam, students are certified to teach their area of specialization in grades 7 to 12.
"The education minor is an excellent route to professional preparation in teaching for Fairfield undergraduates," says Dr. Susan Franzosa, dean of GSEAP. "Our students' work with children and teachers is not only integral to their own educational experience, but it also makes a significant contribution to community service."
For Diana Webb '07, one of the benefits of student teaching was getting to know her students at Bryant School in Bridgeport on a personal level.
This interest in serving the community is part of what has spurred the growth in the program. "After September 11, people began thinking about ways to give back to the community in their professional decisions," Dr. Billings says. When she joined the program in 2001, approximately 50 students were enrolled. Today, education is the University's largest minor, with about 120 students. Dr. Billings expects this number to rise with the addition of a music education minor. The increased demand for certified teachers is another contributing factor to this interest in education studies.
In addition, Dr. Billings has collaborated with different departments, particularly math and sciences, to make sure students can complete the education requirements in four years. Dr. Billings has reached out to students to make sure anyone who is even considering the minor is aware of the requirements and takes advantage of courses that also fulfill core requirements. "It gets a little tricky to get everything in; it's almost like being a double major," Casper admits.
"Unlike any other minor on campus, the education minor is state regulated," Dr. Billings explains. Just to apply to the secondary certification program requires students to fulfill eight requirements, have a minimum GPA of 2.67, submit two recommendations, and schedule an interview with the program director and faculty. In the fall of their senior year, students take a teaching methods course that gives them a taste of teaching. "The students spend their last semester working five days a week, doing everything that a classroom teacher does," Dr. Billings says. The students in the program are dedicated. "Very few students drop out."
"Despite the skills you learn as students in a University setting, nothing can substitute for the experience a teacher gains in front of the class," says Casper. While student teaching, students also attend a seminar with a group where they can offer each other practical and moral support. "People would tell stories about their classroom situations, and someone would say, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who's experiencing that!" she says.
"Education minors make a big decision when they are very young, but they have a love for teaching," says Sister Julianna Poole, SSND, chair of TESOL, Foreign Language and Bilingual/Multicultural Education Department. "They have a very heavy schedule and they have to finish all of their course work by December of the last year." An educator for 60 years, she has been involved with the education program since she arrived on campus in 1988. "Fairfield has a further obligation to the wider community of which it is a part to share with its neighbors its resources," she says, quoting from the University's mission statement. "Well, our students are our resources to share. I think that's wonderful."
Chrystie Cruz '07, who earned a degree in history and a minor in education, stressed the importance of attending a University whose curriculum is grounded in Jesuit ideals. "Our teachers really emphasized the importance of taking on teaching, not only as a job, but also as a way to help those students who may not have the support they need to succeed," says Cruz, who spent a semester student teaching at Central High School in Bridgeport. It was the first time she was exposed to students who were living in challenging situations and who often did not make school a priority. She learned ways to encourage her students to get involved with school and set goals, like attending college. "At first, I didn't think I could do it," she admits. "But once you get into teaching, it becomes very exciting. By the end, I didn't want to leave. I loved the kids."
Cruz, who is entering the master's program in secondary education in GSEAP, plans to teach and eventually participate in education reform to make sure all students have access to a good education.
"Each year, students graduate with the certification necessary to teach at the high school level, helping society fill a critical need for qualified and well-trained teachers," says Academic Vice President Dr. Orin Grossman. "The secondary education certification program for undergraduates, offered in collaboration with the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions, is one of the best examples at Fairfield of the positive results when there is collaboration between schools."
"Every single professor I've had at Fairfield has been outstanding," says Peter Olszewski '08, a mathematics major with an education minor. "They are always willing to help after class. They are very organized in what they want to teach." Clearly, they have provided a good model for him as he embarks on his last year of student teaching. A University College student, Olszewski attends school part time while working as a tutor at Greenwich Education Prep and developing exams for a private company. His former physics teacher at Greenwich High School and a Fairfield University graduate, Ellen Lewis '87, inspired him to pursue a career in teaching. "Ever since I took her course, I wanted to teach to pass along knowledge to other people."
Students in the education program have the same passion. "There were days when I wouldn't leave school until 8 p.m.," says Casper, who often spent her evenings grading papers and building lesson plans. "It's definitely an exhausting job, but at the end of the day, you feel like you've accomplished something and that makes you feel so good. I don't think I've had one bad day."