A few decades ago, education majors like Kaitlyn Romine of Geneva would have their first classroom teaching experience the semester before they graduated.
Although Romine’s time as a student teacher at H.C. Storm Elementary School in Batavia began in January, the Illinois State University senior said she spent many hours in classrooms and with students before reaching that point.
“I feel like we are pretty well-prepared when it comes to being in a classroom,” Romine said, noting she and a fellow student spent four weeks in a classroom last semester. “We were teaching a lot of lessons toward the end.”
Deborah Stevens, chair of initial licensure and professor of education at Aurora University, said giving education majors early field experience is important because it gives them time to decide whether teaching is really for them.
“Teaching has become very, very technical and very challenging,” she said.
And, as a St. Charles School District 303 administrator noted, educators today don’t know what kind of future they’re preparing students for.
“We are educating children who will be in a world we can’t even imagine,” said Becky McCabe, area assistant superintendent for elementary education.
Can’t do it alone
McCabe, who previously worked as a teacher and principal, described teaching as a complicated art and science requiring feedback, support, dialogue and data.
“You can’t do that alone,” she said.
But that wasn’t always the thinking, she said. When she studied education in college, she said, she was taught that teachers went in their classrooms and closed the door.
An evaluator might come in, she said, but generally there were no expectations or guidance.
“You were autonomous,” McCabe said. “You really had to figure it out on your own.”
McCabe said the you-do-what-you-know-is-right approach has since been replaced with collaboration among teachers and teachers sharing their instructional practices with each other.
“And that’s how it should be,” she said, explaining teachers videotape each other, observe each other and discuss the lessons afterward.
“We really support and critique the instruction.”
Ushering in standards
When she was a new teacher in the 1980s, McCabe said the curriculum could have been based on a textbook or what the teacher wanted to teach. Now, she said, curriculum is based on standards.
In 1985, Illinois adopted 34 state goals for learning, which were “broadly stated, relatively timeless expressions” of what students were expected to know and be able to do, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
An ISBE document about the Illinois Learning Standards, which were adopted in 1997, states that broad goals – while useful – are not sufficient to define student learning.
“Clear and specific standards communicate to students, teachers and parents exactly what is expected for students to learn,” the document states. “Specific standards make clear the types of tests and measures that accurately gauge student progress.”
And then the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 came about, which aimed for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Under NCLB, schools had to test all kids, including English language learners and those with special needs.
Previously, McCabe said, educators generally taught to one set of students while others either failed or were bored.
“We didn’t have data,” she said. “That’s what No Child Left Behind gave us.”
Assessment data collection has certainly changed in the last decade, Stevens said.
“Now, public schools are all about collecting data,” she said, noting Aurora University offers a class on the topic.
Aspiring teachers not only need to know how to assess students, Stevens said, but they must also know what the students did and didn’t learn and how to reteach the material to those who need it.
Expectations for today’s students are laid out in the Common Core, which Illinois adopted in 2010 for English language arts and math.
Amy Geyer – a first-grade teacher with, and graduate of, District 303 – described the Common Core as the “bare bones” of what children must learn and at what grade they should know it.
“I feel they are the bricks of the foundation,” she said.
Teaching to distinctiveness
Part of teaching is knowing students personally and academically and planning for those challenges, Stevens said.
“Each child is distinctive, and [teachers are] expected to teach to that distinctiveness,” she said.
As a country, Stevens said, society is more diverse, and that demographic shift is being reflected in the classroom.
“That different demographic brings great joy and great challenges,” she said.
The amount of Illinois students with limited English proficiency has increased from 6.7 percent in 2002 to 10 percent in 2014, according to the Illinois Report Card.
Locally, that population in 2014 ranged from about 1 percent in Geneva School District 304 and Kaneland School District 302 to about 4 percent in St. Charles.
Aurora University encourages its education students to earn English as a second language or bilingual endorsements to make them more marketable, Stevens said.
“It’s a huge investment but well worth it,” she said.
In addition to language diversity among students, schools today recognize students might have a disability requiring special education services.
According to the Illinois Report Card, about 14 percent of students statewide receive special education services through an individualized education plan. Locally, the disability population accounts for 11 percent of Kaneland students and 13 percent of students in Batavia School District 101, District 304 and District 303.
Talk about mental health and autism might be commonplace now, but Geyer said that’s not how it was when she started teaching.
“Thirty-one years ago, you never heard the word autism,” she said, noting it’s now difficult to go a week without it coming up.
The 1981 St. Charles High School yearbook described students with learning disabilities as those who have normal intelligence but do not respond to conventional teaching methods.
At that time, the school made available a resource room that offered “complete individualization” and one-to-one instruction, according to the yearbook. It stated that the students were taught to adapt, adjust and compensate for their learning issues.
“The real cutting edge in education is finding out what is different in these kids’ minds from everyone else’s and redirecting it so the world makes sense,” learning disability instructor Bill Johnson was quoted as saying.
Critical and flexible thinkers
When Geyer attended school in District 303 – she started her educational career at Lincoln Elementary School – a lot of what she learned was through rote memory, she said.
Her students, however, can’t get away with saying five plus five equals 10, she said. She said they need to show how they know that.
If they say, “I just know it in my head,” Geyer said, another student will likely respond, “But she can’t see in your head.”
Having students explain their thinking shows Geyer that they understand the concept she’s teaching, she said.
Brad Newkirk, the chief academic officer for Batavia, said it is also part of being a critical and flexible thinker. Many problems have multiple right answers, he said, and kids can learn what works best for them.
“We’re relying less on memory and more on the thinking that goes into the learning process,” Newkirk said.
Getting the job
When Romine, who is set to graduate from college this spring, starts applying for teaching positions, she will likely have a different experience than her counterparts who joined the field a few decades ago.
Geyer wrote in an email that the process is much more formal now than it was when she applied for a position at Lincoln Elementary School in the 1980s.
Her interview with the principal lasted about 10 minutes, she wrote.
“We never even sat down!” she wrote.
She later met with the head of human resources, who asked if she was interested in accepting the first-grade position, Geyer wrote, noting she, of course, accepted.
Principals today call candidates about a job offer after a more extensive interview process, she wrote.
“Now, the principal interviews, then a team of teachers,” she wrote. “The interviews can last up to an hour or more.”
Although Romine will be qualified to teach language arts, social studies and science at the middle school level, she said her plans are to teach elementary school students.
“I really, really like the younger grades,” she said.
On the Web
Visit KCChronicle.com to watch video of Kaitlyn Romine, a student teacher for Batavia School District 101, talk about her experiences in the classroom.