Final friendly reminder: If you know colleagues in the College of Education who deserve special recognition for their work over the past year, the deadline is 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, to nominate them for a 2017 College of Education Awards.
This year’s honors come in eight categories, each with specific criteria:
Bright sun peeked through mist and bare trees just after 10 a.m. on a late February day as the first hints of record warmth boldly unleashed an early spring.
For two groups of students – one made up of 20 fifth-graders from Aurora’s Krug Elementary School, the other composed of 10 Physical Education majors from the NIU College of Education – the appointment with nature couldn’t have come at a better time.
Within a few hours, the skies gave way to flawless blue while the mercury soared past 70 degrees. Birds chirped. Chainsaws growled. Neither a snowflake nor a chilly wind – usually facts of life in a Midwestern February – could be found.
This trip to NIU’s Lorado Taft Field Campus, an outdoor education center located within Lowden State Park in Oregon, Ill., truly offered the perfect conditions for teaching and learning for young children and young adults alike.
NIU Physical Education major Brandon Palmer helps fifth-grader Yvonne Chanda learn how to start a fire.
“It’s just the best experience for our NIU students,” says Gail Koehling, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I hear from them, ‘This week really showed me why I want to be a teacher.’ They’ve had this more than 48 hours of working with these groups of children, and it really validates for them why they’ve chosen this career.”
As future P.E. teachers, Koehling says, the students are adding a priceless distinction to their resumes.
“One the major things they learn during this class is, ‘I’m teaching something that is brand new to me. This shows what a great teacher I can be. You can give me anything – any content – and I can teach it. It doesn’t have to be the thing I’ve done all my life,’ ” she says. “These students are ready and prepared to go out and teach any content you can give them.”
Kelly Miotti, a senior P.E. major from Lockport, made progress at Taft toward her goal to “change people’s lives.”
“I’m learning to be able to talk to students. I’m learning to be more calm,” Miotti says. “The skill that you learn at Taft is basically learning how to keep kids involved for three days straight – and that you have to adapt to every situation. You have to go with the changes.”
Nick Wiltsie helps fifth-grader Angelina Sifuentes with her compass.
“Coming out here, you’re testing more than content knowledge,” adds classmate Nick Wiltsie, a senior P.E. major from Elgin.
“You’re testing confidence levels, resilience levels, character-building skills. Their personal character is begin challenged throughout this experience, and so as a teacher myself, I’m able to take notes to help them become a better individual in the future.”
NIU’s students made an initial visit to Taft about 20 days earlier, during Super Bowl weekend, when they took on the roles of the fifth-graders.
Guided by Taft’s professional and enthusiastic staff, the future P.E. teachers explored the beautiful woods while they learned about orienteering, pioneering, birding, forest ecology, survival and Native Americans. They took night hikes through the darkness, played outside games and performed campfire skits about nature.
Most importantly, though, they saw the outdoor education modeled for them while they planned their own delivery of those same lessons.
Such skills were clearly on display when the children from Krug arrived at Taft, which Koehling calls “a hidden gem.”
After whooping up a rousing welcome for the fifth-graders, the Huskies quickly escorted the boys and girls and their backpacks to the cabins for bunk selection and unpacking.
Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes.
Formal introductions followed – the P.E. majors gave their names, revealed their favorite colors and ice cream flavors and demonstrated their favorite dance moves – as did theatrical presentations of the basic rules: Be on time. Dress for the weather. Respect property, others, nature and yourself. Walk. Stay with an adult.
Quick tours of the grounds led to the dining hall, where the campers and their temporary teachers shared lunch, their first of seven meals together.
By 1 p.m., the real outdoor education had begun.
Miotti, Wiltsie and fellow P.E. major Brandon Palmer marched their quintet of fifth-graders to a large field. They opened their lesson on Native Americans with a poll of the favorite family activities of the children – answers included charades, hide and seek, Uno and dancing – and questions about what the children learned from those things.
“Just like you play games with your family, the Native Americans also played games,” Palmer told the group. And, he added, they learned and sharpened hunting skills amid the fun time of bonding.
Dusk falls over the Rock River at Lorado Taft.
The children then were taught a different way to play tag, one where the tap had to come behind the knee. A player tagged could remain in the game by hopping around on the untagged leg; if that hopping leg also was touched the player still wasn’t “out,” but had to sit on the grass.
After a few rounds, the NIU students asked their campers what they had learned about hunting from playing the game. Be agile, quick and strategic. Stay low. Keep your hands out. Swivel. Face the other players. Don’t let your opponents strike from behind.
Questions about hunting continued with Fox Walking, a game where one child was blindfolded while her classmates tried to sneak up and steal a stick placed at her feet. The child without sight had to rely on other senses to point in the direction of the would-be stick-stealer.
What senses do the prey use? What are some ways that foxes creep up without being detected? How can being slow, steady and quiet apply to rummaging for food? How can we think like a fox?
Krug children also hurled spears and sticks at empty laundry soap jugs standing in for animals – What were some of the struggles you had while throwing? – and then worked to make fire by rubbing rope against wood. No matter their effort and sweat, unfortunately, the labor produced little more than some warmth in the stick.
Just think, Palmer told the children: Native Americans needed to make fire in this way every time they wanted to cook food or to stay warm – and imagine how lucky we are to simply flip switches.
Lessons in using a compass came next. Children received a crash course in moving the housing and reading the needle before walking around the field in directions dictated in degrees. Later, they worked in groups to tromp through dense woods in search of orange-and-white posts that would disclose the bearings to the next checkpoint.
Success wasn’t easy; many footsteps were retraced and then retried after the compasses weren’t set properly.
“A little change makes a big difference. It’s not only in orienteering. It’s in life, too,” Miotti told the children, then turning to her NIU classmates with a smile. “Yep. I went there.”
During the walk back to the cabins, she offered more wisdom to the girls. “Ladies, we need to talk about respecting ourselves and others,” she said. “Your attitude will reflect your time here.”
And, naturally, this: “It’s OK if we make mistakes. You learn from every mistake you make.”
“I just kept motivating them,” Miotti says.
Wiltsie watches as fifth-graders Cindy Garcia (center) and Bella Davila try to make fire with rope and stick.
“This is so real-life,” Koehling says. “This gets them to step up and be the teacher they are – the teacher they’re becoming. They learn about classroom management; about teaching multicultural students; about always being ready to work with other people within your school, whether they’re teaching on non-teaching staff.”
NIU’s course in outdoor education, designed and originally taught by Jenny Parker, an associate professor of P.E. teacher education and now NIU’s acting associate vice provost for Educator Licensure and Preparation, prepares students to teach independently and in teams.
They get the chance to teach curriculum typically not found in the gym, including history and science, along with experience in chaperoning field trips.
“Peaks and Pits” debriefing sessions each afternoon allow them to swap stories of what went right and what could improve with change. It’s important for these almost-teachers to make each other look “golden” in front of the fifth-graders, Koehling says, and it’s already working.
“Our kids are so sweet,” one NIU student shared with the group. “They told us, ‘You’re going to be great teachers.’ ”
For Koehling, who fell in love with this outdoor education course years ago when Parker invited her to Taft to watch for a day, these professional conversations among her students are a joy.
She’s also a passionate participant in the Taft experience.
During the early February weekend, she taught her students the nighttime “Alpha Wolf” game, a non-aquatic version of Marco Polo with howling and jump ropes. No need to keep eyes closed in the pitch-black darkness of a state park.
Koehling also demonstrated to her flock a daytime game that explores survival instincts and the food chain. Players represent herbivores, carnivores and omnivores working to prey on each other – eating down the food chain, or course – while trying to avoid the hunter in search of dinner.
“I’m the hunter,” she says. “We run around like crazy, and I show them how fun this can be.”
Not surprisingly, Koehling hopes to see the outdoor education course expand beyond KNPE to other NIU teacher licensure programs. She also hopes to bring KNPE 200 students to Taft for team-building exercises.
“I just had a former student say to me, ‘I got my principal to OK a trip to Taft for the spring.’ My students know what this experience was like for them, and what this experience was like for these children who get to learn outside of a classroom and away from a desk,” she says. “We’re getting these students outdoors, away from technology and actually moving around.”
Meanwhile, her students are enjoying independence in their teaching for perhaps the first time. They’re being pushed out of their comfort zone, and they’re growing in their confidence and abilities with every happy exclamation from the fifth-graders.
And, even though they’re with the children constantly for three days and two nights, “it’s not about that.”
Wooden stairs meander along a Lorado Taft hill.
“It’s about all the other pieces that you need to know about as a caring, loving teacher,” Koehling says. “On Friday, when they leave, the students will be crying, and sometimes, my students are crying. The nurturing piece is what I hope they will take with them.”
Wiltsie, who spent four years in the U.S. Army Reserves during his time at NIU, understands. He wants to teach younger generations to become lifelong learners who are physically active while making the most of the gifts and skills they possess.
“If students feel comfortable out here, they’ll definitely feel comfortable back in a gym,” he says. “And if you feel comfortable teaching out here, you can definitely translate that over to the gym setting and the school setting – and be more confident in yourself.”
“I just want to be there to make a difference, even if it’s just one student at a time,” Miotti adds. “(In) physical education, I know that I’ll be able to improve children’s lives by the hundreds.”
A few years ago, one of his long-ago high school Spanish pupils invited him to travel with her to Guatemala for a mission trip.
Wickman volunteered there under the auspices of Catalyst Resources International, an organization that coordinates teams from around the world to build houses, stoves, water filtration systems, plumbing and other amenities for rural families living in abject poverty among the mountains.
Coming home, he found himself transformed.
“Once you see and meet these children, you’ll never forget about it – and you’ll tell others,” Wickman says. “I was talking about it to a class, and I said, ‘I’m going back.’ And a student asked, ‘Can we go with you?’ That’s how it happens. It’s a ripple effect.”
Scott Wickman at work.
He is scheduled to accompany a group of around 10 students to Guatemala during the week of May 20, once again paying forward the gift of sorts he received from his former student.
It’s the second such trip, managed through Huskie Alternative Breaks, during which travelers receive life lessons along with academic learning.
“Our primary purpose is to explore social justice through service learning,” Wickman says. “Last year, we made a hen house the size of a garage, and we purchased 20 chickens for them. That family is now selling the eggs as a way to sustain themselves. We’ve provided a means for a higher quality of living.”
Local Guatemalan carpenters supervise the sawing of boards and pounding of nails, he says. Wickman and the students live in a well-protected residence hall facility, which employs Guatemalans to clean the rooms and make the beds.
Evening hours allow for trips to a nearby orphanage, where the counselors-in-training engage children in adventured-based activities. They also chat with mental health professionals about what counseling looks like in Guatemala as well as what mental health services are available.
They meet children who are bright but not in school; free education stops around fifth- or sixth-grade, Wickman says, forcing many young people to drop out. That often results in adolescent pregnancies while ultimately continuing the cycle of poverty.
Such interactions are eye-opening for NIU students, Wickman says, but so are the heartwarming encounters that reveal “the amount of sharing that takes place” between the villagers.
One hen house, coming up …
“There was one day when we had planned a picnic lunch, but on our way we decided to eat at a restaurant instead,” he says. “Our driver saw a local Mayan family walking along the road, so he pulled over and gave them our picnic lunches. He gave cookies to the kids.”
For one of Wickman’s students, that benevolent spirit proved contagious. After meeting a young teen girl who had quit school for financial reasons, the NIU Huskie telephoned her parents and convinced them to pay for the little girl’s secondary education.
His students also see the NIU program’s principles of advocacy, altruism, diversity and social justice reinforced while they gain deeper levels of empathy and new perspectives on counseling.
Most counseling in the United States is practiced behind closed doors during private one-on-one sessions where details are kept confidential, he says. However, given the familial customs in Guatemala, a counselor there might find extended families coming for the sessions.
“This trip helps my students understand how to work with different cultures,” he says. “When we have clients who are Latino, we need to reset ourselves in a way that meets our clients’ needs.”
T.J. Schoonover, a master’s degree student from Sterling, Ill., who participated in first trip in January of 2016, calls it “100 percent life-changing.”
T.J. Schoonover (top center) made some young friends in Guatemala.
He remains struck by the reaction by the family who received the hen house – “how happy and grateful they were; their tears of joy” – as well the appreciation he realized for his own way of life in contrast to the extreme poverty there.
“Going to Guatemala was a great opportunity to go and so some service work, to get out of our comfort zone and to challenge ourselves,” Schoonover says. “Seeing how it is outside of America, I know I need to get out and do things in the community, and not just in my community but in other communities.”
Volunteering also improved his multicultural competencies, he says. “It’s more than just reading a textbook,” he says. “It’s talking to people in the community. It’s doing things. It’s putting your skills to practical use.”
In the end, he says, the journey to Central America will make him a better counselor.
“It gave me a whole new worldview,” he says. “I’m reminded that whatever clients I will have, they have completely different stories and backgrounds than me.”
Now that word of the Guatemala trip has spread – registration for this spring is already closed – Wickman has found renewed empowerment in the response of his students.
“Students who go on these trips are interested in being altruistic. They’re willing to get dirty – it is hard labor under hot sun – and they’re willing to be uncomfortable. It’s partly why they went into the counseling program to being with,” he says. “I’m hoping that the ripple effect continues, and that these students who go down there will want to go back again with their own families.”
“Wen’s area of expertise is outdoor education – we have some common interests in those areas – and he’s here to explore other approaches to teaching and developing curricula in outdoor education,” Ressler says. “We don’t have an outdoor education class, per se, but we do have an adventure education class (KNPE 365) that he regularly attended.”
“NIU has a good research atmosphere,” Xia says, “and I am interested in research direction, a good research team and selfless and useful research support system. I learned a more-advanced administrative system, and cultures and methods of research and teaching at NIU.”
Ressler and Xia connected through the Internet.
“He had a colleague from Yunnan here as a visiting scholar during the last academic year. He did some web-searching, found our program and my profile and, at the time, noticed one of my interests was outdoor education,” Ressler says.
“I have some strong connections with colleagues at other university in the United States that do teach in more-traditional outdoor education programs,” he adds. “We’ve spoken with them, and used some of their materials as sources, to help us mold two new courses that Wen is proposing to his university.”
Voracious in his reading and journaling, Xia devoured “Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming” by Simon Priest and Michael A. Gass, “Outdoor Adventure Education” by Alan W. Egert and Jim Sibthrop, and “Motor Control and Learning” by Richard A. Magill.
He designed two outdoor education courses. He joined NIU experts, community leaders and visiting scholars for a panel discussion on outdoor education and adventure-based counseling. He observed NIU classes in Exercise and Sport Psychology, regularly attended NIU Athletics events and enjoyed numerous activities in DeKalb in Sycamore.
Ressler and Xia also co-authored a research paper on a water safety education program with data Xia had gathered previously, “but he wanted to write it in English.”
Language presented a barrier at first, Ressler says, but the two worked diligently in the beginning to overcome it.
In the interim, the American learned a great deal from his visitor.
“He is a really nice man, very kind and generous, and extremely committed to his family and his profession,” Ressler says.
“His wife is an elementary school teacher in China, and she stayed behind. He brought their 11-year-old daughter with him because he wanted to provide additional opportunities for her. She went to Jefferson Elementary School last year and Huntley Middle School this year.”
Professionally, Ressler says, “the experience as a whole was wonderful for me to see how Outdoor and Adventure programming is delivered in other countries and other contexts.”
“I’m fascinated by the structure and expectations of his courses – and how students are engaged and assessed. They seem to have many more grad students deployed to support delivery of the courses,” Ressler says. “I’m hopeful we can continue to collaborate, maybe through an exchange of grad students, continued writing projects and curriculum development.”
Now that Xia is home, he is already sharing what he learned here. “I am preaching my experience and knowledge to my university leaders, colleagues and students,” Xia says, “and I will actively create opportunities for them to visit and communicate to NIU.”
“Middle school was when I learned how to become a person. I learned how to work hard, and I learned how to fight for what I want,” says Grazutis, a senior from Palos Park. “I want to assist and inspire students to become the most competent and engaged students they can be.”
“I want to teach middle school because that was a struggle for me,” adds Amaya, a junior from Carpentersville.
“Middle school is such a transition, and not just education-wise. It’s more of a personal and awkward time for students. It was for me,” he adds, “and I feel like knowing that, I can relate to the students. I can do different methods and really just connect with students in a different way.”
Grazutis and Amaya were among 22 students from the College of Education who traveled to Texas in January to spend a transformative week observing and working in the Houston Independent School District.
NIU’s Educate U.S. program provides select students with donor-funded, all-expenses-paid experiences to view, practice and live in an out-of-state school district.
Beyond equipping NIU graduates with a great advantage in the job market, Educate U.S. reinforces several values and priorities of the student-centered College of Education. Those include diverse and innovative real-world learning opportunities through collaboration with schools, communities, agencies and businesses.
And Houston, which hires a significant number of new teachers every year, is an excellent partner.
More than 215,000 children are enrolled at Houston’s 284 campuses, home to innovative programs that include dual-language schools offering immersion in cultures and languages including Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and French.
Participating pre-service teachers live in the homes of HISD administrators, gaining a unique perspective of the business side of schools.
Jennifer Johnson, director of Teacher Preparation and Development in the NIU College of Education, calls the week “above and beyond” a typical clinical experience.
She’s accustomed to hearing Educate U.S. students say “once-in-a-lifetime” – and she agrees with their assessment.
“The reason we’ve reached out to partners from other parts of the country is to allow our candidates the opportunity to broaden their perspective in the areas of classroom environment, of professional development, of teaching methods, of instructional methods and management methods, and of culture and language,” Johnson says.
“They’ll be able to really enrich what they already know … and see other places and ways of doing things,” she adds. “They’re not just learning and hearing about other ways to do things, but (getting) to experience them.”
For Grazutis, that became true on Day One.
She was assigned to a seventh-grade class in Life Science – “I love science, just because science is all about asking why,” she says – but was surprised by an email she received from her cooperating teacher before the trip.
“I was looking at this, and I was like, ‘Am I really going to teach this on my first try at teaching?’ It was sexual reproduction – different types of birth, male vs. female reproduction, sexual vs. asexual,” Grazutis says. “I was just really proud that, after that first lesson, I was able to get through it in such a professional way with grace and poise.”
Amaya also appreciated the immersion into teaching math to sixth- and eighth-graders.
“By the end of the week, I was able to prepare myself for a full lesson. Prior to that, I had yet to teach a full lesson, and that was my first time. It was a great feeling,” he says. “Having all those students just look at you, and actually answer the questions you’re asking, and paying attention, all eyes on you – it’s a great experience. I know I passed on the knowledge that I have to them.”
* * *
Cal Moyer found confirmation in Houston.
A junior Special Education major from Elmhurst, Moyer hopes to teach Life Skills in high schools. His assignment in Houston offered preparation in just that and, he says, he’s stayed in touch in the hopes of returning for his student-teaching.
One of the students he taught there has autism – and is a member of the football team.
“He gets a jersey, and he goes to football practice every day. I got to go and coach football with him for a while,” Moyer says.
“It was amazing how all the football players completely embraced him as one of their own. We’re cheering for him when he was doing his drills, and just completely backing him up in everything he did,” he adds. “It’s just so amazing to see how they made him feel like he was one of the players rather than just someone tagging along like a little brother.”
Moyer understands why: Students with special needs bring joy to everyone around them.
“Their happiness just glows,” he says, “and they just project it so much that it’s impossible working with them not to feel their happiness and (to) go home feeling amazing. The amount of energy and excitement and happiness they bring every single day just makes you feel like there’s so much more out there than what you see every day.”
During his time in Houston, Moyer worked with students on employment skills such as shredding paper, sharpening pencils and mopping floors.
He also realized what else occupies a special education teacher’s day, including meetings on Individualized Education Programs and communication between teachers, students, administrators and parents.
Sarah Paver, a second-year graduate student pursuing licensure to teach physical education, spent her Houston adventure at Pin Oak Middle School.
Her days began at 6:30 a.m., when she and her home-stay teacher left the house to arrive at school by 7 a.m., and the long hours continued until 8 or 9 p.m. each evening after assisting extracurricular sports coaches and athletes.
“It wasn’t like a clinical class at NIU, where you go from 1 to 3 or however long the class period is. It was truly living the life of a teacher for one week,” says Paver, who grew up in Big Rock.
“I would be there during the lunch hour. I’d have time to prep assignments. After school, I would have to manage all the students in the locker room or in the hallways. It really opened my eyes to what teachers to, and how much work it is,” she adds.
“However, it was also very rewarding. By the end of the week, students were coming up to me and saying, ‘You taught my class yesterday.’ It was very rewarding to have the students remember you.”
Paver found in Houston a perfect place to implement her NIU preparation.
“The things I have been learning at NIU have been reinforced,” she says. “How to manage a classroom. Make sure you provide positive reinforcement. Keep students on task. Walk around to observe all students. Never turn your back. In Houston, I applied all of those skills.”
Like many, she remains in contact with her host family. “They still text me every week just to see how I’m doing,” she says. “That’s the kind of relationship you build down there.”
* * *
Zahidelys Tapia felt right at home in Houston, where she spent her week at Farias Early Childhood Center: Teaching preschool is in her DNA.
“My mom has been an early childhood educator for 20 years,” says Tapia, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Belvidere.
“After years of going with her, and when she finally allowed me to start story times, or just helping the kids out, you start growing a passion for it,” she adds. “And then seeing some of the differences you start making, and then seeing them happy … it’s amazing.”
In the Houston Independent School District, where the poverty rate is 76 percent, Tapia found children and teachers who buck the conventional wisdom.
“We hear that students who live in poverty are already 18 months behind if they’re 4 years old. If they’re a minority, they’re behind. You just have these kids that have so many statistics that are holding them back,” she says.
But “when you look at a school district like HISD, you see that they’re breaking the boundaries. ‘They haven’t even started yet and they’re already behind?’ That’s not how we should view them as teachers. We have to help them continue and grow. I love that. That’s something I want to do as a teacher.”
She left empowered.
“From the first day, my teacher said, ‘What can you do? What do you want to do?’ She right away allowed me to be a part of her classroom. She said, ‘Play with the kids. Talk with the kids. When they’re doing their center times, do everything,’ ” Tapia says.
“She showed me, and she sat me down and told me, what she was doing and why she was doing it,” she adds. “It was an amazing experience. I learned how to be a teacher.”
Billy Shea, who plans to teach middle school math, used his time in Houston to calm his nerves and polish his delivery.
After three days of watching his cooperating teacher in action, Shea took over.
“I was able to teach the lesson that my teacher taught. I was able to see what he did, kind of change it to how I wanted to teach it, and then do it in the classroom,” he says. “I’d never taught a lesson prior going to Houston, and being able to do that for two straight days – the full day – was amazing.”
First-time jitters caused him to talk too quickly, he says. “I wanted everybody to like me. I wanted everybody to learn everything they can.”
His second round showed great improvement, he adds, and by the third time, his cooperating teacher praised his work. Lessons learned? “Relax. Truly trust yourself as a teacher. If you don’t necessarily reach Point B, it’s OK as long as the kids are learning.”
“My biggest takeaway from Houston is that I know I can teach,” he says. “I know I can touch lives, and I know I can create educated people.”
Unlike some of his classmates in the Middle-Level Teaching and Learning major, Shea’s motivation to teach took root outside the classroom.
The junior from Schaumburg spends his summers as a camp counselor for children in fifth- through seventh-grades.
“They just make my day go by so fast. I love being with them. I thought it would be the perfect job for me,” he says. “I like that they’re still learning about who they are as an individual – but then they’re also at that point where they want to move on to abstract thinking and thinking for themselves.”
* * *
NIU Athletic Training students
Not everyone who visited Houston in January is necessarily bound for the classroom: Ariel Russell is an Athletic Training major.
But with “Educate” in the program name, and the Houston Independent School District as the destination, classrooms served as the learning ground.
Russell was assigned to a high school, where she observed an athletic trainer who spends two class periods each day rehabilitating student-athletes.
“During the rest of the day, I helped teach in her sports medicine classes, so it was a little bit different for me,” Russell says. “Instead of attending practices and games, I was actually in the classroom, helping teach coursework which I had previously learned here at NIU.”
She is grateful for the opportunity to see a different part of the country and observe how another state’s rules and regulations impact how her profession is practiced. She also enjoyed making connections with other athletic trainers while gaining exposure to working in a high school.
“Having a clinical experience in a high school setting is really important,” says Russell, who plans to work in a clinical or a school, and is considering pursuit of a master’s degree. “I was able to work one-on-one with a student athlete with ACL rehab.”
* * *
Asking Jennifer Johnson what she observed in Houston yields many memories.
Children who become attached to their NIU students and don’t want them to leave.
Tears on the last day, not just from children but from college students and cooperating teachers.
Proof that NIU’s programs are sound.
“We are perceived, not just in Illinois but in other states, as a place where you want to recruit teachers from, a place that has graduates who are able to step into a classroom and make an impact – a positive impact – immediately, who come prepared to teach and learn,” Johnson says.
NIU College of Education students “are so, so authentically devoted to their profession, and passionate about what they want to do, that I know they’re going to be outstanding when they graduate,” she says.
“So many times during the (Educate U.S.) interview process, they would walk out of the room, and I would think, ‘Oh, I have goosebumps. That is who I would love to have teach my children.’ That’s the kind of bar I set,” Johnson says.
“They consider the students first – the children they’re going to be in the classrooms with,” she adds. “They were all very open to learning about new people, new places. They really had the idea that they would be going to learn how others learn, and that to me was huge. These students are doing this for a great reason.”
That work has resulted in untangling the Ed.S. – an educational specialist degree that leads to the superintendent endorsement – and the Ed.D., a non-licensure degree.
During this process, the degree was redesigned and renamed as the Ed.D. in Leadership and Policy Studies, a name that underscores the dual strands available in educational leadership or policy studies.
“We felt it good to change the name to be more reflective of the content and the expertise of the faculty who will now teach in the program,” said Carolyn Pluim (Vander Schee), chair of the department. “Faculty in the Educational Foundations and Policy Studies program will now be more involved in teaching and mentoring students, a change which will only augment the diversity of learning experiences available to students.”
Students pursuing only the superintendent endorsement complete the 30-hour Ed.S. and can then finish with both a degree and endorsement. Students who wish to continue on to complete the doctorate can apply to the new Ed.D. program with the 30 earned credits from NIU’s Ed.S. program rolled into the Ed.D. program upon acceptance.
Meanwhile, new prospective students can apply for the stand-alone Ed.D. and, if they desire, focus on educational policy rather than school leadership. This provides prospective students a path to an Ed.D. without first needing to obtain a superintendent endorsement and Ed.S.
“Altering the focus to offer a strong policy dimension is consistent with contemporary learning needs of school leaders and administrators,” Pluim said. “Our program is committed to offering students a broad-based education beyond logistics into thinking creatively and critically about leadership in our current policy environment.”
Faculty involved in the revisions – Benjamin Creed, Christine Kiracofe, Dan Oest, Pluim, Patrick Roberts, Amy Stich, Kelly Summers and Teresa Wasonga – expect that their work will positively impact school districts and their students.
“Our new program is premised on the belief that purposeful change in education policy and practice is accomplished through meaningful engagement that is transformational in nature; promotes equity; and improves policy and practice on a local, state, national or international level,” said Roberts, an associate professor of Foundations and Educational Policy Studies.
“With this in mind,” he added, “we designed the program as a way to develop action-oriented scholarly practitioners who blend practical wisdom and professional skills with research and theory to impact problems of practice in formal and non-formal educational settings.”
Additional benefits of a separate Ed.S. and Ed.D. include:
focusing the Ed.S. on providing the necessary training, information, resources and experiences needed for students to successfully fulfill the role of superintendent.
focusing the Ed.D. on providing the necessary training, information, resources and experiences needed to be a scholarly practitioner through the newly developed core classes offered to all Ed.D. students.
program evaluation, reporting and accreditation. The separation makes it easier to identify students who are pursuing only the superintendent’s endorsement, data required by the State of Illinois.
For more information, contact LEPF Graduate Program Advisor David Snow at (815) 753-1465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NIU and the State University of Tetovo are partners in the center, which was launched to foster “better social platforms for younger generations” and “a better society” in a country torn by nationalistic sentiments that stir hatred and war.
It also provided a mirror of sorts for the NIU contingent.
“Being there really opened up for us a better understanding of the complexities of that region,” said Roberts, who served on the conference organizing committee. “Macedonia recently had an election, and they are still sorting through the issues, anxieties and concerns. They were just as anxious and unclear about the outcomes.”
Uncertainty is familiar ground for the University of Tetovo, which provides access to higher education to ethnic Albanians.
Tetovo is the only school in Macedonia where the language of instruction is Albanian rather than Macedonian, Roberts says. Its students, who are Muslim, also must deal with religious, ethnic and language tensions in their homeland.
“For a number of years, the university was not recognized by Macedonia. It was operating illegally. Over time, it grew – and became officially recognized,” he says. “That really speaks to the power of education. A lot of people in the world have had to struggle for access to higher education.”
Roberts delivered a keynote address on “Cultural Heritage Preservation as a Strategy of U.S.-Foreign Relations in the Balkan Region.”
Colleagues on the trip included Teresa Wasonga, presented on “Philanthropy in the U.S. and Education of Indigent in a Developing Country.”
Andrew Otieno, a professor in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, spoke on “The Role of NGOs in Sustainable Development: A Case Study of Engineers Without Borders Increasing Energy Capacity in a Rural School in Tanzania.”
Laura Heideman, an assistant professor in the NIU Department of Sociology, addressed “Tocqueville in Croatia: USAID and the Promotion of Associational Civil Society.”
Graduate School Dean Brad Bond delivered the conference’s opening remarks.
“It was important for us to meet as collaborators from the two universities to develop a common understanding of the purposes of the center, mutual responsibilities and mutual benefits,” says Wasonga, an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.
“Tetovo as a university has a very unique and difficult history, and its success – that we were only able to comprehend through experience visiting the various historical sites – is inspiring,” she adds. “This put into perspective the significance of this conference and the need for collaboration.”
Roberts left with a call to action.
“For me, the takeaway was that there’s a lot going on here, and that access to higher education is a pivotal point of addressing tensions – political, economic, linguistic, geographical,” he says. “It underlined the need for transcultural communication. In the United States, sometimes we can overlook the complexities of countries overseas.”
He is grateful for the collaboration – and the hospitality that made the NIU delegation comfortable.
“Dr. Vullnet Ameti, the rector, was a gracious host. He truly believes in and values his university’s partnership with NIU. He delivered some welcoming remarks, and he presented both me and Brad Bond with a lovely token of appreciation,” Roberts says. “Artina Kamberi, who is the director of the Center for Peace and Transcultural Communication, did an extraordinary job of organizing the conference.”
Organizers of the October conference at NIU will choose a theme later this spring, he says. They also are exploring the possibility of exhibiting University of Tetovo artifacts at the Blackwell History of Education Museum in Gabel Hall.
Musa Selimi, right, dean of faculty of Physical Education and Sport at Prishtina University in Kosovo, joins NIU College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and Chad McEvoy, chair of the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education.
“The rector has a sports background – he was a competitive wrestler and is still an avid athlete – so, when I got a call out of the blue a year or so ago asking if would have an interest, I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” said McEvoy, chair of the department in the NIU College of Education.
“KNPE does not have an extensive history or background in these types of international collaborations,” he added. “This allows us to become more visible globally and to participate in discussions about best practices, and teaching and scholarship in kinesiology fields, on a global platform.”
McEvoy used the center as a springboard last May when he delivered a keynote address during the International Balkan Conference in Sport Sciences hosted by NIU and Tetovo.
“I wanted to connect the dots with our partnership,” he said. “The Center for Peace was coming, and I spoke specifically on how sport can be a platform for peace and development. I was able to connect those things, and we had a good conversation.”
Selimi chats with KNPE faculty.
His words reached the ears of two participants from Kosovo’s Prishtina University – and, last semester, Musa Selimi, dean of faculty of Physical Education and Sport, and Shqipe Bajcinca, vice dean of faculty of Physical Education and Sport, paid a visit to DeKalb.
Because physical education is the core element of Prishtina’s program, McEvoy said, the two administrators wanted to know more about NIU’s comprehensive approach.
During their three days in October, Selimi and Bajcinca met with Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and the college senate, spent time with College of Education faculty, visited KNPE classes and toured the department’s academic and athletic facilities.
Selimi also signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Prishtina and NIU to keep the new partnership alive and growing, McEvoy said.
“It’s been quite informative for our faculty to see that kinesiology and sports can be a tool for social good. Kosovo and Macedonia have been through political and military challenges in recent decades, and sport, physical education and kinesiology can be a way to build bridges,” he said.
Some programs in the Balkan region – Prishtina’s, for example – resemble how U.S. units “might have looked a quarter-century ago,” he added.
“They tend to have a strong involvement with PE and coaching,” McEvoy said, “while some of the program areas in research that we have developed, in areas such as exercise physiology, biomechanics and athletic training, are not as advanced as they tend to be here in the United States.”
Without it, she says, she probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to learn so much during her doctoral program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
She probably would have doubted that climbing aboard the single-engine plane sent to fly her to an interview for her first faculty job in the United States was worth the trip.
Most importantly, she probably wouldn’t have embarked on building and opening the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS) for girls in Muhoroni, Kenya. A school is nothing but walls, right? What else could it possibly need?
Candidates for the award must have completed at least eight years of professional service since the most recent MU degree was earned, along with demonstrating tangible accomplishments with positive impact and results as well as the potential and promise for continued growth and success in their field.
Humble as ever, though, Wasonga says her alumni award truly belongs to everyone who helped her along the way and who continue to support the school. That includes her husband, Andrew Otieno, a professor in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
“The work I do, and the fulfillment I get out of it, is enough for me,” she says. “I’m just happy to prove that, even if you are poor, and a girl, you can emerge and do something. I proved it to myself, and I proved to everyone I met and told, ‘We can do better.’ And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
JON TURNER, WHO NOMINATED WASONGA for the award, met her when they both began the doctoral program at Mizzou.
“Teresa has a way about her that makes you want to help,” says Turner, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Missouri State University. “She is so organized and dedicated that you know you’re not wasting your time when you work with her. She’ll put the resources and help she’s offered to good use.”
He remembers well when his classmate began talking about her visions for Kenya.
“If most people told me they were going to take on a project that large, I would have been skeptical. But with Teresa, I thought she might just be able to pull this off – and, of course, she has,” Turner says.
“It is truly a credit to Teresa that she never forgot about the challenges girls face in Kenya, and it is a blessing for the girls that Teresa’s memory is paired with exceptional leadership skills.”
Ehren Jarrett, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools and alum of the NIU College of Education, calls Wasonga a “truly extraordinary” educator committed “to the highest standards of professionalism and quality. She embodies innovation, engagement, diversity, collaboration and equity.”
In chairing Jarrett’s dissertation committee, Wasonga prepared him to “co-create leadership,” a skill the superintendent relies on daily to “empower, engage and energize” his team of 4,500 employees.
Jarrett is equally inspired by Wasonga’s labors on the other side of the world.
“The power of Dr. Wasonga’s work goes beyond the impact on Kenyan children,” Jarrett says. “The thousands of supporters of JAMS have been connected to a much-larger world moving far beyond the confines of our comfortable lives.”
WASONGA’S FIRST STEPS TOWARD building the Jane Adeny Memorial School came while she, Otieno and some fellow Kenyans in the Chicago area began sending money to their homeland to pay student fees for children there.
But when she learned that most Kenyan boys were performing well in school while many girls were not, it sharply troubled her – and she told the school leaders so: “I said, ‘These are brilliant girls who could do well if only we showed an interest in them.’ ”
Pointing out that the girls’ human needs were basic, however, accomplished nothing. “They’d say to me, ‘What’s your problem?’ ”
So Wasonga began to tuck $1,000 from every paycheck aside, denying herself anything beyond her own basic needs. Similarly, if she skipped a meal during the day, those unspent dollars funneled into the kitty.
One year later, she had $20,000 – as well as 10 acres of Kenyan land her mother had found.
“I took off the summer of 2009,” she says. “By the time I came back, I had four classrooms built. I never looked back.”
After easily convincing Otieno of the need to obtain a home equity loan, she and her husband returned in 2010 to work more on the new school. During her 2011 sabbatical, Wasonga opened the doors – seven years ahead of the 10-year deadline she gave herself.
Looking back, she shakes her head and dubs it all “unbelievable” – and says she believes that “ignorance was probably the best skill I had.”
She remembers asking Kenyan parents to have faith in her, that sending their daughters away to JAMS was “better than this situation – they were not in school at all – and that we couldn’t do any more harm than society was already doing to them.”
When the first semester of classes began, Wasonga gathered those young pioneers for a pep talk.
“I told them, ‘Let’s just give it our best shot. This is your chance. This is an opportunity. We will buy books. We will study. We will work hard, and we will succeed,’ ” she says. “I looked at these girls, and they were so empowered. I thought, ‘They will do whatever it takes. Now I can’t disappoint them.’ ”
Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno
Plenty of bright and talented young girls now have graduated from JAMS and moved on to college; one of them – Revela Odhuna – is a nursing student at NIU.
And, as Wasonga prepares to return to Missouri to receive her award, she is grateful for the preparation she received there – and for a long-ago vote of confidence from Professor Phillip Messner.
“I felt like I had so much to give, but I wasn’t giving. He said, ‘You’ll do great things someday.’ To hear this from someone I had looked at and thought, ‘Wow, he can do anything;’ to think he’d seen something in me. I thought maybe I didn’t know myself well. Maybe I could do something.”
It’s something she now instills in NIU College of Education students because, she says, JAMS is the proof that a curriculum of best practices is a sound one.
“The Jane Adeny Memorial School has been my laboratory of practice. Everything I learned at Missouri, I tried there. I tried everything I could remember,” she says. “Empowering children. Giving children a voice. Providing an environment conducive for learning. Distributed leadership. I had absorbed all these things – and they actually work.”
Friendly reminder: If you know colleagues in the College of Education who deserve special recognition for their work over the past year, the deadline is 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 23, to nominate them for a 2017 College of Education Awards.
This year’s honors come in eight categories, each with specific criteria: