Eastern Mennonite University

Spring 07

Schools Snap Up EMU-Trained Teachers

They're Always Asking: "How can I do better?"

Emily Hahn
Emily Hahn '03 with her kindergarten class.

This Crossroads issue on preparing teachers at EMU began in a booth early last fall at the Thomas House Restaurant in Dayton, a few miles south of Harrisonburg.

Crossroads editor Bonnie Price Lofton sat with her back to a pair of women in a neighboring booth.

One began to speak of why she likes EMU student teachers so much. “EMU students have earned being my first choice,” she said.

Lofton perked up and scribbled notes on a napkin.

When the woman and her companion got up to leave, Lofton confessed she had been eavesdropping and explained her connection to EMU.

Debbie Armentrout
Debbie Armentrout explains her preference for EMU students.

The woman was Debbie Armentrout, veteran third-grade teacher at a school in Lacey Spring, Va., and Virginia Tech grad.

She had been talking with her daughter, a junior at James Madison University, the local state university.

Armentrout invited Lofton to visit her classroom in the coming semester, when Armentrout would have an EMU student teacher.

Five months later, Lofton and EMU photographer Matt Styer visited Armentrout’s class to watch EMU student-teacher Joshua “Josh” Byler in action.

What we saw in Armentrout’s school led us to ask more questions and journey further into EMU’s unique role in higher education:

What do the administrators of Harrisonburg-area schools think of EMU’s education program?

What is distinctive about EMU’s approach to education?

Like Fish in Water

Student Teacher Josh Byler

My Journey to Teaching

Joshua “Josh” D. Byler came to EMU from Belleville in central Pennsylvania. Most EMU education graduates are not Mennonite, but Byler happens to be. He belongs to Locust Grove Mennonite Church in Belleville, Pa.

He is among a growing minority of male students from EMU who choose to work with elementary-age children. At 6”5” Byler towers over even the adults in most classrooms, not to mention the children. But the kids seem to adore him, perhaps because he spends much of his day crouching or leaning to look them in the eye and interact with them at their level.

Can you date your desire to be a teacher to a particular time or influence?

I was not one of these people who knew what they wanted to major in throughout high school. Several people in my extended family are teachers. They encouraged me to think about becoming a teacher. They felt that I had some qualities that applied. I decided to take “Exploring Teaching” during my first semester at EMU. This class was really the reason I decided to continue as an elementary education major. I could tell immediately that EMU had a great teaching program. This was due in part to (faculty members) Sandy Brownscombe and Cathy Smeltzer Erb, who displayed an incredible excitement towards education.

What did you learn at EMU that you find particularly useful in the classroom?

The professors at EMU stress not only what you teach, but also how to teach effectively. I have learned that children respond to positive reinforcement and the inclusion of their own experiences. When material is related to the students, they become excited and engaged in the learning process.

How does Christianity inform the way you teach (or why you teach)?

I think that Christianity, coupled with EMU’s program, has helped me to be a nurturing and caring professional in the classroom. My goal in the classroom has been to make the environment as child friendly as possible. I attribute this to the environment that I have experienced, both at home and in my educational experience. I firmly believe that children will learn only after their needs have been met and they feel comfortable expressing themselves positively in the classroom.

Would you recommend EMU to high school students interested in becoming teachers? If so, why?

Absolutely. When I got into the schools in this area, I discovered that EMU has a great reputation for their education program. This program provides many opportunities for classroom experience (practicums) long before student teaching. EMU stresses real experience out in the field and this has been incredibly helpful to me now, as a student teacher. This is in addition, of course, to the grounding that EMU gives you in educational theory, assessment, and analysis.

Debbie Armentrout thought her visitors from Crossroads were coming to her class on Tuesday. The visitors thought they were scheduled to come on Wednesday.

So when writer Lofton and Styer appeared unexpectedly in her classroom doorway, was Armentrout flustered or irritated?

“One of us didn’t get the days straight?” Armentrout said with a broad smile. “That’s fine. Come right in!”

Student teacher, 21-year-old “Josh” Byler, stood at the front wearing a neatly pressed dress shirt and tie. “Who can tell me what today is?” he asked the class.

Almost all the children chorus “Wednesday.”

“And what was last night’s homework?”

A few children chimed back, “Study for the quiz.”

“Remember the activities we did in class yesterday…”

Byler and a classroom assistant, Maria “Mai” Olsen ’92, began to hand out a quiz. Olsen’s 9-year-old daughter, Katelyn, is in this class, which is why Olsen is pleased to be able to work as a math tutor here.

Some children look worried. Armentrout assured them. “Just put down what you know and do your best. Some of these are hard. You’ll get another chance to do those.”

The three adults circulated like fish in the classroom, weaving among the students and each other smoothly, pausing to help a child and then moving to another one.

The quiz was short. While the children were occupied, Byler conferred with Armentrout about the next lesson and asked for feedback on something he did before the visitors arrived.

Within 20 minutes, Byler had moved the class into a math lesson, using three-dimensional shapes – “manipulatives” – to show how their edges help determine their ultimate form as cylinders, pyramids or whatever.

“Does anyone have a question?”

A boy raised his hand. “Yes, sir,” said Byler, as if talking respectfully to the superintendent of the school system.

Caleb didn’t understand how to find an edge on a cylinder. “Caleb has a good question.” Byler told the class, adding gently, “Do I have everyone’s attention? You need to hear this answer.”

They gave him their attention and everyone set to work. Byler went desk-to-desk, squatting to get at eye-level, answering questions and encouraging them.

Even with two drop-in visitors – one constantly taking photos – these third-graders focused on their work with an air of quiet confidence.

Later, when Byler took the group to the computer lab, Armentrout remained behind to explain why she appreciates Byler. “Three out of my last five student teachers have been from EMU, counting Josh,” she said.

She called the EMU students “reflective.”

“With every lesson they ask themselves, ‘How could I have done better?’” Armentrout said. “They come to me saying, ‘If I have a weak area, tell me. I want to improve.’”

When asked if Byler has a weak area, Armentrout smiled and then answered gently, as if offering a remedial lesson. “We all have weak areas. What is important is whether we are willing to work on our weak areas.”

Armentrout also praised EMU students for being prepared to deal with each student individually – working with that student’s learning style – and for quickly assessing whether a lesson is working and adjusting it if necessary.

For instance, Armentrout and Byler decided yesterday to “break down” the usual single lesson on edges and corners on three-dimensional objects into two lessons – one today on edges, another tomorrow on corners. “This particular class would have been overwhelmed if we had done it in one lesson,” said Armentrout.

Armentrout said EMU students arrive with the attitude that “all children can be successful – it is my responsibility to find ways for them to succeed.” EMU students also seem to expect and honor the diversity of the children in the classroom, rather than viewing it as a potential problem, she added.

While Armentrout was being interviewed, Byler kept his attention on the children, though he did offer to talk when he was off work (see the sidebar “My Journey to Teaching”). In passing, he said his first few weeks as a student teacher had been “awesome…there are new situations every day. There are things you learn here that you just can’t get from a text book.”

Across the hall from Byler was another EMU student teacher, Jodi Beller of Carthage, N.Y. Two of the newest teachers at Lacey Springs started as student teachers there: Emily Hahn ’03 who teaches kindergarten, and Steve Halterman ’06, who teaches grade 4.

In both cases, the supervising teacher at Lacey Springs recommended that the EMU graduate become a permanent staff member.

100% Placement

The enthusiasm of host schools for EMU’s student teachers may explain why, in 2006, EMU’s teacher-placement rate was 100%. In recent memory, the placement rate has never dropped below 95% – and the tiny percentage who don’t go immediately to work in a school generally have personal reasons for not wishing to work immediately, said Dr. Don Steiner, director of the education program at EMU.

Most EMU-educated teachers serve in public schools, but a significant chunk (16% at the bachelors degree level and about 10% at the masters level) serve in Mennonite schools. “We opened our masters program at Lancaster in 1997 as part of our commitment to preparing teachers for Mennonite service,” Steiner says.

A report issued in 2006 by the Education Schools Project in Washington D.C. (www.edschools.org) recommended that education schools “be transformed into professional schools focused on classroom practices.”

This was not news to EMU. In fact, EMU has been “field-based” for more than 30 years, from the time of Don Steiner’s predecessor, Jessie T. Byler, through Steiner’s 24 years at the helm. From the first year in the EMU program, students go in and out of the classroom, often with EMU professors by their sides in local classrooms. (See “School Leaders Give EMU High Marks”)

Sifting for True Teachers

Don Steiner
Don Steiner has directed EMU's education program for 24 years.

Steiner said from the first year, the EMU program guides students to “make a wonderful connection between theory and practice” while enabling them to answer the question “Shall I teach and, if so, what shall I teach?”

The second year, the question becomes: “How do students best learn?”

The third year: “How do we organize for teaching?”

Finally, the fourth year: “Why do we teach?”

As students work their way through these broad questions, about 50% decide that being a teacher is not for them, a statistic which pleases Steiner. It signifies that some students have discovered that teaching is not their vocation long before they reach the stage of managing a classroom. They will be more effective in another vocation.

“It is not enough to know the content well; someone must have the disposition to teach it,” Steiner said. “The relationship between teacher and student is of equal or more importance when all is said and done. Some call it ‘discipleship.’ We call it ‘caring.’

“Students will remember how you treated them long after they have forgotten the content of the course.”

Steiner said flexible, creative people thrive in the EMU program. “Teaching is not just a bag of tricks. You can’t just follow a recipe in the teacher’s manual. We give our students some teaching tools, but they have to figure out their own tools too – we help them to feel comfortable assessing and re-assessing what they are doing to make their outcomes better.”

EMU also seeks to produce teachers who are “agents of change” and who “advocate for children and youth,” according to its mission statement.

Highest Accreditation

EMU’s education program – at the undergraduate and graduate level – meets or surpasses the highest accreditation standards in the United States.

In 2005, the program was examined by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and was re-accredited without qualification for seven years, an accomplishment achieved by only 70% of all teaching programs in the nation. (Steiner is one of 31 members on the national board of this accrediting council. Needless to say, it would have been a surprise and an embarrassment if EMU had failed to meet to the standards that Steiner promotes on a national level.)

The program is also fully accredited by the Virginia Department of Education.

EMU graduates about an equal number of teachers from its four-year undergraduate program and from its two-year masters program – approximately 40 from each annually.

The masters program centers around evening and summer study and is often underwritten by the employer of the teacher who is seeking to upgrade his or her credentials.

For more information on EMU’s education program – which includes an MA program in Lancaster, Pa. – check the web sites emu.edu/education (undergrad) or emu.edu/maed (masters level).

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