Monday, January 7, 2013

Liberal Arts and Teacher Education

Anyone who knows me even a little bit is aware that I am a great admirer and supporter of Wheaton College, my alma mater. One of the many reasons is the preparation I received there for my current work as a professional educator. Many of the successes I have had to date in that occupation can, I believe, be traced back to the specifically liberal arts context of my teacher education program. I am convinced that such a liberal arts context – whether at Wheaton or some other college or university – is the ideal context for training teachers. There are two chief reasons for my opinion.

First, the liberal arts context ensures that education majors will be required to take courses in a wide variety of disciplines, including the humanities and natural and social sciences. Even at the middle school and high school level, where teachers teach only one subject area, that teacher’s class and subject will be just one among a half dozen or more varied subjects that make up each student’s total curriculum in a given term. Thus, the teacher who understands at least the fundamental principles of the major subject areas is better able to consider the material his or her students are studying in parallel with his or her own subject. That enhanced ability allows for a greater repertoire of instructional strategies, particularly that of helping students master new material by relating it to previously learned material – even material from a different subject. As a music teacher, I have drawn on content from math, history, English, and physical education curricula to help me present musical concepts. Also, needless to say, the vast majority of my students will not grow up to be music teachers – or even professional musicians – like me. Appreciating the other disciplines will allow me to be a more effective “career counselor,” particularly to older students.

Second, the liberal arts context in all likelihood means that the teachers in training will have more interactions – both inside and outside the classroom – with peers who are majoring in other disciplines. While my first point addressed teachers’ effectiveness with the students, this point addresses teachers’ effectiveness with each other. My liberal arts background has, I believe, honed my collaboration skills, as well as my ability to receive advice and correction from different sources and in different ways (my occasional pride notwithstanding). My interactions with peers from other departments in college were excellent preparation for interactions with faculty from other departments in the schools where I serve and have served. There is nothing more beneficial to the effectiveness of a faculty than the ability of its members to work well together, to have a respectful exchange of ideas where different teachers thoughtfully consider the input of their colleagues. In the liberal arts experience, each course is essentially a four-month exercise in just that.

With those reasons in mind, let me encourage any reader who is considering an education major – or knows someone who is – to consider the benefits of preparing to be a teacher via a liberal arts setting. Teaching is all about relationships, particularly the relationship of trust between teacher and student that allows for transfer of knowledge and skills. I firmly believe that liberal arts by its very nature prepares future teachers for success in those relationships.

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