Community is your classroom

Courtesy photo

Brendan Harris is on of several Castleton University student teachers
teaching in the region.

A lot of focus has been put on Castleton University’s new initiatives in the Rutland area lately, but what about the programs that have been working in the area for decades or even centuries?

In this three part series, you will learn how the departments of education, social work and nursing have been positively impacting the community for years by require students to complete field work under faculty supervision in order to receive licensure in their fields.

The education department, one of the largest departments on campus with seven full-time faculty, has been sending students into the field ever since the 1800’s.

Students work in the field throughout their time at Castleton, partially because the Vermont Agency of Education Licensing and Advisory Board requires it, but mostly because the faculty see the importance.  

“We are very committed to giving students a lot of field experience because it is our departmental opinion that field experience is what makes them outstanding teachers,” said long-time education professor Linda Pepler. “They know the issues in the field, they know the teachers in the field and they have experience with behavior management, with curriculum.”

Students are placed at schools within a 35-mile radius, according to Pepler. When Leonard Johnson was the placement officer decades ago, he would place students all around the state and travel over 50 miles to visit them at their placements.

Today, students in the education department are required to do some sort of field work in almost every class, whether that be a group experience where the entire class visits a location or an individual placement with faculty supervision.

“It’s a gradual release of independence and as students gain a greater understanding,” said department chair Monica McEnerny, explaining that first-year students work a few hours in classrooms and by the time students are seniors, they are working full time student teaching with a faculty supervisor visiting each week.

Mariah O’Hara is a senior history major with a secondary licensure currently student teaching full-time.

“Working in the field has been both rewarding and challenging. I have worked in two different high schools, and I am now currently working in a seventh-grade class,” O’Hara said.

“The kids are amazing,” she said. “I have seen my students grow so much in these few short weeks that I have gotten to know them, and I find that that is one of the most rewarding parts of being a student teacher.”

O’Hara notes that student teaching has taught her to be flexible and to realize that a teacher’s work isn’t done when the students leave the classroom.

“I have completely underestimated my teachers in the past. It now completely amazes me how much work our teachers do, and then to see people complain about their teacher taking a while to hand back a quiz or a test,” she said.

Jackie DeFreest, a multidisciplinary studies major with a licensure in elementary education, is also student teaching this semester.

“This year I spent the first semester in a second-grade classroom twice a week for the full school day,” DeFreest said. “I really loved the experience because it reinforced my passion for learning and working to help kids discover themselves.”

“This semester I am in a fourth-grade classroom full time.  I was incredibly nervous at first to be responsible for a class, but have found that I really love it. Teaching is something you really can only learn to do through first-hand experience,” she said.

McEnerny has begun collaborating with Johnson and Lyndon State colleges during her student teaching seminar so that her students have a chance to communicate with other future educators in the state.

She emphasizes the importance of students using their student teaching to get to know the communities and schools they will work with one day.

“Schools really are microcosms of the broader community, so this is why it’s so important for our students to research what the needs are so we can understand better the students coming into their classrooms,” she said.

DeFreest has experienced this directly.

“My current placement is in a low-income area, which affects kids in and out of the school.  Understanding where the children are coming from helps me to give my students a better education,” she said. “I have seen first-hand how the drug crisis in Rutland County is impacting the children. I feel like people don’t understand how much children absorb from their surroundings.”  

O’Hara has seen similar situations.

“Some of my kids have some really tough personal stories, and it amazes me that they can get themselves up and go to school with a smile on their face. I have found myself constantly looking at situations this semester with a totally different outlook,” she said.

Castleton’s special education classes do a lot of work in the community including giving students the opportunity to observe and write case studies early on in their education.

Professor Leigh-Ann Brown also organizes special education students who work at Wonderfeet, a children’s museum in Rutland that also offers classes for preschool students and children with special needs.

“We have been working with students with learning disabilities to work on addressing and accomplishing some of their goals that were individually set for them,” said Alex Derosia, a sophomore majoring in multidisciplinary studies with an endorsement in special education. “I have learned strategies to work with autistic students and learned ways to make transitions smoother and how to calm them down before they have a severe meltdown.”

Additionally, students also work on two civic engagement projects. The human library is a day when students interview community members and “check them out” like library books at the event. The other is a photo exhibit where students take photos of and interview community members, which will take place on April 26 in the Campus Center.

McEnerny noted that many local teachers are Castleton alumni and the chance students have to get out into the field and make connections with potential employers is invaluable.

“I think the great thing we have is the partnerships with the teachers. Many teachers in the area are graduates of our program and we have very close connections with teachers all around the state,” she said.

Students going into the community to work gives them up-to-date, personal experience they can’t get in a text book.

“They are making these contacts and being visible within the schools, but also actually being in the field,” McEnerny said. “Education changes quickly and there’s a lot going on as far as the needs of the students and the technology being used to reach students.”

Although it’s challenging at times, DeFreest easily summed up why it’s all worth the hard work in the end.

“When I was younger, all I wanted was to change the world. As a teacher I know I’ll be able to reach that goal.”

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