By Clarence C. Picard
When judging a college experience, dozens of factors can come into play, both educational and social. But ultimately, it is the university’s job to prepare its students for their profession and a life of service. St. Bonaventure’s School of Education does just that, providing students with the experience and training needed to stand out in a competitive job market.
The strength of St. Bonaventure’s School of Education is its clinical approach to training teachers. Elementary education, physical education or secondary education majors alike are observing and teaching from their freshman year onward.
In the words of Dr. Peggy Yehl Burke, dean of the School of Education, “You cannot learn to be a teacher in the standard college classroom upstairs in Plassmann anymore than you can learn to be a doctor by sitting in a college classroom studying medicine.”
St. Bonaventure students, like education majors at most schools, conclude their education as student teachers where they are placed in a classroom for a pair of seven-week periods to actually teach the class. But for SBU education majors, they start as tutors their freshman year to determine if teaching is truly for them. They also spend time in a classroom observing a teacher.
“There’s sort of this myth that they’re all going to be teaching an AP course with 20 students who want to get a 99 on every test,” said Burke. “But the reality is they’re going to teach some students who don’t get it the first time, the fifth time, the 10th time you teach the same concept. How can you deal with that?”
As juniors, students begin the transition to running their own classroom, attending Field Block two days per week at a local school. Within schools such as Olean, Allegany, Randolph, Oswayo Valley (Pa.) and Smethport (Pa.), there is a classroom outfitted by St. Bonaventure with a computer, copier and other supplies. The SBU students spend half their day in these “St. Bonaventure” classrooms, learning from their college professors.
For the second part of their day, they have the opportunity to implement their new knowledge in an actual classroom. The St. Bonaventure professors remain on site, helping with structure and classroom management.
THE FIELD BLOCK program is mutually beneficial for St. Bonaventure and the local school districts. The teachers-in-training receive invaluable classroom experience and in return, St. Bonaventure provides local teachers with continuing-education opportunities, resources and much more. In one exceptional instance, when a beloved local teacher passed away, St. Bonaventure education majors stepped in to cover every classroom and a SBU professor stepped in as principal to allow the school’s faculty to attend the funeral.
According to Burke, “Field Block allows education majors to start interacting with students while still receiving feedback from their SBU professors and the local teachers. They start to understand how curriculum fits with state standards. They log tremendous hours all fall and spring of their junior year.”
The wealth of classroom experience education students receive before they begin student teaching allows them to enter the classroom confident and prepared to teach. Whereas some notable education schools send their students on Field Block for half-a-day per week, St. Bonaventure students are receiving four times that experience.
“The feedback we are getting now is our student teachers look like first-year teachers and our graduates are able to walk in and be successful as first-year teachers,” said Burke.
While stepping in front of your own classroom for the first time can be nerve-wracking, St. Bonaventure’s education majors feel prepared for what they are getting into.
Sarah Wigsten, ’11, who spent her Field Blocks at Oswayo Valley, Pa., and East View Elementary in Olean, said Field Block was, “extremely helpful. Not only my teacher, but all the teachers helped me prepare. I felt comfortable as a student teacher because I had already spent hundreds of hours in a classroom.”
Megan Saxton, ’11, who also spent her Field Block at East View Elementary, as well as Smethport, Pa., concurred, saying, “I think everyone is a little nervous, just meeting new people and having new students, but because we have Field Block I and Field Block II it kind of eases you into student teaching. I think Bona’s really prepares you with Field Block first.”
Saxton added, “You hear so many stories from professors about things that can happen in a classroom. But until you’re actually in there, getting that experience, there are so many things you can’t prepare for out of a book; it’s just like life in general. Things can go wrong, you have to think on your toes; just being there is what really helps in student teaching.”
As mandated by New York state, all St. Bonaventure education majors student teach for 14 weeks, seven weeks in two different schools. As a result, students not only receive a high quantity of experience, but also a wide variety.
One way St. Bonaventure provides that variety is by varying the grade levels each education major works with. Elementary education majors student teach in the primary grades (kindergarten through third) as well as the upper grades (fourth through sixth). Secondary education majors do one section in seventh through ninth and another in 10th through 12th.
Physical education majors do one section in an elementary school and another in a high school.
As Burke puts it, “We want to prove to the state that our candidates can teach at both levels. Also, some people have a preference and you don’t know until you try it.”
ONCE EDUCATION MAJORS become student teachers, they aren’t just sitting in the corner of their classroom, teaching a few minutes a day. Wigsten, who spent seven weeks in the resource room at Olean Middle School and seven weeks at Bolivar-Richburg Elementary School, said, “I was teaching all the time, every day. The first week you only teach a couple lessons but by the end, the cooperative teacher stepped aside and I was doing everything.”
Another major goal of the St. Bonaventure School of Education is to introduce students to diverse economic, ethnic and social groups, which can be somewhat challenging in a homogenous area such as Western New York.
As Burke put it, “We have good exposure to poor, rural children but we don’t have much exposure to cultural or ethnic diversity.” She added, “There are pockets of diversity. We work with Salamanca, which is 34 percent Seneca. We go into Jamestown’s Love Elementary, which is 34 percent Latino, 33 percent African-American. It’s a really good elementary school with a very high diversity, but let’s face it, I can’t put all of my students there.”
To solve that problem, the School of Education partnered with SIFE — Students in Free Enterprise — to develop student teaching opportunities in the Bahamas.
Open to all students, SIFE is the largest student service organization on campus with more than 100 members including numerous education majors. After several service trips to the island, it became apparent that student teachers from St. Bonaventure could be assets to the community.
To say teaching in the Bahamas is different than teaching in Cattaraugus County, N.Y., would be a vast understatement.
Courtney Bullock, ’11, who spent seven weeks teaching students with disabilities at the Beacon School on Grand Bahama Island, said, “The practices that I’m accustomed to and that I’m learning in the classroom are not yet being implemented fully in the Bahamas. Their philosophy and some of their teaching practices are much different from what I know.”
The use of technology in the classroom was another area that stood out to Bullock.
“Our exposure to new technology sets us apart. We’re always learning about the latest technologies and being pushed to use them for educational value. With almost everything that I did in the classroom, I implemented some sort of technology and it really adds a lot to a lesson and the student engagement,” she said. But SBU students are also prepared to work in more spartan conditions, like the ones they experience in the Bahamas.
“We’re taught about the technology, but also what to do without it. So we’re well-rounded and prepared for whatever classroom we’re assigned to,” said Bullock.
Although classrooms in the Bahamas may not be as advanced technologically — and SIFE is constantly working to improve that — the local people take education very seriously.
“They’re very formal. We walk into a classroom and they stand up, always say ‘ma’am.’ Teachers are very important professional people and they’re held to a higher standard,” said Bullock.
Burke added, “You’re teaching people who are very poor, but take a lot of pride in the role of education. They just don’t have a lot of resources, a lot to work with.”
Like the relationship with local schools, the Bahamas program is mutually beneficial. SIFE and the student teachers are dedicated to improving the lives of the Bahamian people, while St. Bonaventure students receive experience they simply can’t find in the Southern Tier.
“The job market is very tight due to the economy, that’s no mystery to anyone. Schools feel the crunch just like everyone else. But there are jobs in the hard-to-teach areas like New York City, Philadelphia, your urban centers,” said Burke. With such a unique experience in the Bahamas, students can feel comfortable entering a setting unlike those found locally.
Ultimately, said Burke, St. Bonaventure is “trying to promote exposure for our students. When they go on a job interview, they all have electronic portfolios with video clips showing themselves teaching to standards, handling classroom management, differentiating instruction for children with special needs.
“When combining observation, Field Block and student teaching, we have much more than the state minimum. We’re well over 1,000 hours of real world experience. A lot of people don’t do that, and that sets our students apart,” said Burke.