Future Teachers Learning from Nation’s Best Educators

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., August 14, 2007 – When education majors at Southeast Missouri State University head back to class this fall, they will continue to learn firsthand from the best of the best.

“We search for the very best teachers the region has to offer when we place our students in the field,” said Dr. Julie Ray, associate professor of elementary, early and special education at Southeast.

Southeast students studying to become teachers have had the opportunity over the years to be placed with some of the area’s best teachers, including Cape Girardeau Public School teachers Barb Egbert, Becky Hicks and Russell Grammer, all of whom have received the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The award designates them among the nation’s best kindergarten through sixth grade math and science teachers.

The three serve have served as cooperating teachers for Southeast’s education majors, allowing Southeast students to complete their field experiences in local classrooms. Egbert and Hicks were honored in May by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush with the prestigious Presidential Award. Grammer, a 1998 graduate of Southeast and 2006 winner of the University’s Young Alumni Merit Award, received the Presidential Award in 2005.

Hicks is a second grade teacher at Blanchard Elementary School. Egbert, who holds bachelor’s degrees in both music education and elementary education and a master of arts degree with a reading specialist, all from Southeast, teaches kindergarten at Franklin Elementary. Grammer teaches fourth grade at Jefferson Elementary School.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are administered by the National Science Foundation and are given annually to select math and science teachers across the United States who make outstanding contributions to their students and schools.

“These teachers are not only outstanding at what they do with children, but they also believe in teaching and mentoring beginning teachers, and work hard to provide them with good field experiences,” Ray said.

Hicks says Southeast students have been getting field experience in her classroom for the past 15 years. “I thoroughly enjoy having them in the room with me,” she said. “I think it’s exciting to have them. They bring in new ideas. I enjoy opening their eyes and seeing their sense of pride as they develop a rapport with the kids. It gives them more of a sense of ownership in the classroom.

Over the years, Hicks says she has had early childhood education majors in her classroom who have participated in hands-on math and science lessons.

“I like to get the kids involved in their learning,” Hicks said.

She also has had elementary education majors completing their third “Block” of coursework in her classroom. While working with Hicks, they must design a complete unit in the areas of math, science and social studies that span a week’s time.

Many education majors come to her classroom with a sense of fear about teaching science, she said.

“Some don’t want anything to do with it,” she said. “I think they get tickled at me, though, because I really do get excited about science.”

Hicks regularly teaches a unit on rocks each year. The college students studying under her often expect these lessons to be less than exciting, she said.

“When it’s over, they often say the science classes were the most fun. Almost all of them have come away with this idea that science is a door to open. It’s a way to be hands-on. Science really is an eye-opener to lots of these college students,” she said. “They are learning that teaching science is fun in this exciting way.”

During her years of teaching, Hicks says she has had a few “difficult” second graders.

“I have always been impressed with how willing they (Southeast students) are to step in,” she said.

Hicks says having future teachers in her classroom keep hers motivated.

“It keeps me fresh. It keeps me excited. I’m always changing the way I’m doing things,” she said. “These college kids help me do that.”

While having education majors in her classrooms means relinquishing her prep periods, Hicks said the benefits outweigh the costs.

“Overall, it’s a win-win situation,” she said. “We both go away feeling we’ve really accomplished something.”

Allison Sachs of St. Louis County said Hicks “was just a go-getter. Everything was done in such detail and above and beyond what you might see in other classrooms. “Her classroom management was excellent,” said Sachs, who graduated from Southeast in December 2006 and will be teaching special education this fall at Berkeley Middle School. “You often see creative lesson plans, but you could definitely tell a higher bar had been raised.”

Dr. Tahsin Khalid, associate professor of elementary, early and special education at Southeast, says over the past several years, he has placed Block III students with both Grammer and Hicks.

“Both Mr. Grammar and Mrs. Hicks are great teachers who are willing to help our students,” he said. “They always welcome our Block students in their classrooms and provide them the opportunity to interact with little people in elementary classrooms. There is no substitute for this firsthand experience in a classroom.”

Grammer says the time college students preparing to be teachers spend in local elementary school classrooms is invaluable.

“There is nothing that compares to what they gain from that experience as they prepare for that career,” he said.

Christina Dodd, who teaches fifth grade science, math and communication arts at the Cape Girardeau Middle School, did her Block III work in Grammer’s room about six years ago. She said she learned not to be afraid to go in the direction your students lead you.

“He’s not afraid to take their suggestions,” Dodd said.

She says Grammer has tremendous enthusiasm and a “natural curiosity about the world. He’s just like a big kid when it comes to learning science. It doesn’t matter what he teaches, though, he exudes that enthusiasm.

Now that Dodd’s teaching fifth grade at the Middle School, she often finds Grammer’s former fourth graders in her classroom.

“All of them have a love for science, and that makes my job that much easier,” she said.

Grammer says he uses unconventional teaching methods that, perhaps, teachers in training do not often get to observe.

“I get really crazy with my students,” he says. “I’m very sensitive to students whose minds are starting to wander. There’s something about me that tries to keep my students engaged. When I have Block students in my class, they get a taste of something different.”

Grammer says gifted teachers are those who connect with their students and who are able to offer praise and empathy. He says he hopes he is able to pass this trait on to the college students assigned to his classroom. Having Southeast students in his fourth grade classroom also reinforces to elementary children the importance of pursuing a college degree, Grammer says. “I want my students to be college minded,” he said. “I want them to go to college some day.”   Khalid says classroom experience allows college students preparing to be teachers to learn different instructional and classroom management strategies. They learn about classroom rules and routines and how to accommodate students with different learning styles in one room. “These wonderful teachers act as role models for our students,” he said. “From them, our students learn how to develop lessons meeting the needs of various students. They learn appropriate strategies to handle problems that occur in classrooms. These teachers share their valuable resources, lesson plans, activity books and manipulatives with our Block students. They also provide useful ideas and strategies to our students that they would need when they start their teaching careers. “Our students learn from these teachers how effective teachers run their classrooms smoothly,” Khalid said. Ray says her early childhood Block students work with Egbert almost every semester. “She is wonderful as a cooperating teacher,” Ray said. “She takes her role seriously and spends a lot of time talking to my students about why she does what she does, giving them suggestions, mentoring them, really teaching them along with her kindergarten children. “Barb sees herself as part of the picture in preparing future educators,” Ray said. “She is one of the best, and I feel very fortunate to have her working with my students, as she gives them an exceptional early childhood experience and helps them grow in their teaching skills with young children.  She is just as patient with these beginning teachers as she is with her kindergarten children, which is a real gift.

“These teachers essentially serve almost like adjunct faculty for our education students,” Ray said.

Egbert, who has been working with Southeast education majors for the past 15 years, says quality college students “always enhance your classroom.

“Somebody mentored me. I feel like we are obligated to make sure we take care of them. Hopefully, they will do the same” when they have their own classrooms, said Egbert, who has been teaching for 25 years, the last 13 at Franklin Elementary.

“It’s a real world circumstance, and they need to see that,” she said. “I feel I can be a model for them.”

Tara Glastetter of Benton, Mo., completed her early childhood Block under Egbert in spring 2005. Glastetter graduated from Southeast in May 2006 and just completed her first year teaching third grade at Matthew Elementary School in Sikeston, Mo.

“She had fantastic ideas,” Glastetter said of Egbert. “She was very creative with what the kids worked with.”

Glastetter said Egbert is a proponent of letting children build their own knowledge.

“She gave them materials to explore” and then allowed them to learn from it, she said.

“Being able to see her model these techniques and how she set up her lesson plans” was very beneficial as “good education practices were put into action, Glastetter said.

“It’s fantastic for them (college students) to see really good educators practicing the trade,” she said. “It was very worthwhile. She’s a really great teacher.”

Egbert says she finds the college students “stimulating” as well.

“They bring in new ideas. It keeps me on my toes,” Egbert said. “They are my link to the other world.