Over the weekend my husband and I drove roughly 1,250 miles round trip from Cleveland, Ohio to Grinnell, Iowa to visit Grinnell College, where we graduated in the late 1960s. At a time when school teachers are under attack, Grinnell has preserved an innovative 9th semester teacher certification program and recently with the help of an alumni benefactor has launched a new program to engage and support students who seek careers in education. Over the weekend, Grinnell invited back alumni who teach or whose careers connect with K-12 schooling to meet with current students who have been accepted to the new Grinnell Careers in Education Professions Program.
A year ago Grinnell launched the new program to draw promising students to careers in education, broaden students’ understanding of current issues in education, and support teaching as a profession. Underwritten by college trustee, Pender Bender Sebring and her husband Charles Lewis, himself a graduate of Amherst College, a Careers in Education Professions Program has launched at three undergraduate liberal arts institutions—Grinnell, Amherst, and the University of Chicago—with the goal of connecting current students and subsequently alumni across all three institutions into a network of engagement and support.
The Grinnell Careers in Education Professions Program is rigorously academic. To enter this program, students must have a 3.0 academic average, submit a formal application including essays, and participate in an admissions interview. Members of the program gather each Monday evening to explore issues affecting the profession. Just this year as part of the Careers in Education Professions Program, Grinnell has hosted speakers Deborah Meier and Jonathan Kozol. Students in the program have taken guided trips to visit schools—most recently in Chicago. Not surprisingly with all this encouragement, enrollment in Grinnell’s formal teacher certification program is growing.
While a hundred years ago, liberal arts colleges may have prepared teachers, most are not “normal” schools these days. Today Grinnell College is a respected liberal arts institution where all students pursue academic study and research in a major subject area; the college discontinued offering a major in education in the mid-1950s. However, students can earn formal certification as middle or high school teachers by enrolling in a program of coursework that culminates with student teaching. “We are a small program, and we have faced steep hills, but we have persevered,” reported Jean Ketter, chair of the department of education, in a keynote address on Saturday morning.
In the past decade teacher licensing has become politically controversial in the United States. The promoters of five-six week alternative certification programs outside college or university settings and even some prominent critics within the academy suggest that teachers be trained in finite, prescribed techniques designed for classroom management. Courses in the history and philosophy and sociology of education are deemed by some as “ivory tower”—impractical—irrelevant to a teacher’s daily practice. However, Professor Ketter defended the rich preparation Grinnell has chosen instead to provide for students pursuing a teaching credential on top of an academic major: “Future teachers should engage in… a curriculum that includes a critical analysis of the history and philosophy of schooling in the U.S. We want to measure our success by preparing teachers who resist rather than accept the status quo… If our goal is to prepare graduates who pursue the common good, what better way than to work in public schools? In all of our classes, we examine the schools as a site that has the potential to challenge existing inequities and to present opportunities for marginalized groups to change their communities’ lives. Schools also however, have the power to reproduce and solidify the inequities in our society. Too often they do the latter.” In addition to Grinnell’s courses in teaching methodology, here are just some of the academic courses Ketter is describing: Educational Principles in a Pluralistic Society, The Politics of Educational Assessment, Critical Pedagogy and School Reform, and Critical Issues in English Language Teaching & Learning in the U.S. and Abroad.
Ketter also expects students to work with real school teachers on methodology before they student teach: “We agree… that prospective teachers need to spend significant time in classrooms, talking and working with teachers; ideally, they should have many opportunities to teach before they begin student teaching. We want them to enter student teaching with strategies they can use to create positive classroom environments… In the last few years, methods students have had the opportunity to work closely with mentor teachers to design lessons and assess students.” Last Saturday, the education department honored three of its professors including Roberta Atwell, now professor emeritus, who in 1989 designed a ground breaking 9th semester program for prospective teachers. For 25 years, students at Grinnell have been able to enroll in education courses at the same time they pursue an academic liberal arts major and enjoy wide exposure to the liberal arts and sciences outside their major. In the 9th semester they can now complete the demanding student teaching experience with supervision by college faculty but with significantly reduced tuition.
Jean Ketter emphasizes, however, that the courses and programs of Grinnell’s department of education—and its new Grinnell Careers in Education Professions Program—are intended not only to serve students interested in careers in education but also to be integral to the intellectual life of Grinnell’s wider student body. “Our department also has designed a curriculum that educates students to be crucial consumers of education. Most of the students in our introductory classes are not planning to teach, but because we explore the philosophical and historical contexts that shape today’s reform efforts, we aim to prepare all students to serve as thoughtful and critical parents, school board members, and policy makers in the future. Teachers need activist allies to support their work and serve as advocates for public education and teachers—to counter the current negative narratives about teachers and schools.”