Why should science matter to our presidential candidates? As you’ll see in the accompanying video,…
Erin MacDonald just wanted to find some joy.
Since graduating from college in Iowa, she had worked in marketing, first at a law practice and later for a private consulting firm. Eventually, the job no longer fulfilled her.
“I was doing internal and external communications, a lot of website development and things like that,” MacDonald says. “In the midst of that, I wasn’t happy – and I wanted to change my career to something where, if I left, someone would miss me; where I would be making an impact on the greater good of the community.”
Christine Glomb just wanted to find some direction.
Holding a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in pre-law, she enrolled in law school. During her first and only semester, though, she knew it was the wrong choice.
“When I went to law school, I disliked it,” Glomb says. “My mother – she used to be a teacher – she said, ‘You know, Christine, you love kids. You worked at a preschool for a few years. Why not do teaching?’ ”
Both MacDonald and Glomb are enrolled in different cohorts of the NIU College of Education’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, designed for college graduates ready to trade their current careers for the noble profession of teaching future generations.
“Career-changers bring expertise and experiences that enhance the instruction they’re able to provide,” says Anne Gregory, chair of the program’s home Department of Literacy and Elementary Education. “They tend to be older. They tend to have experienced some of life’s ups and downs. Those backgrounds they bring to the classroom are very rich, and that helps them to make connections between the real world – the world outside school – and the classroom.”
NIU’s MAT program satisfies the requirements for an Illinois Professional Educator License with an endorsement in elementary education. Students complete 44 credits over approximately seven semesters.
The coursework includes the historical foundations of education; assessment and data-driven decision-making; methods of instruction and curricular development; exceptionality and difference; and human growth and development.
Financial aid and scholarships are available.
An informational session for the next cohort, based in Rockford and beginning in January, is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, at NIU-Rockford, 8500 E. State St. All college graduates are welcome. Call (815) 753-7948 for more information or email email@example.com to RSVP.
Glomb and MacDonald encourage others to follow in their path.
“My friends who are currently undecided in college are leaning toward transferring to NIU because of all the good things that I’ve raved about,” Glomb says. “I’ve really enjoyed all the professors; they’re very caring about the students. They want you to succeed. They want you to have takeaways you can use in the classroom.”
“The teachers in the program are phenomenal, and some of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered,” MacDonald agrees.
“They weren’t easy teachers – they had high expectations and demands of their students – but they went above and beyond. All five of them were willing to change their curriculum to meet our needs,” she adds. “They have been such great examples of how to be a teacher.”
# # #
Portia Downey has spread several paper tablecloths with a print of blood splatters atop the tables throughout her second-floor classroom at NIU-Rockford.
Small toys – skulls, bats, spiders, pumpkins and squeaky, motion-activated rats – are scattered across the workstations. Each table is also covered with candy – M&Ms and Skittles – along with bottles of corn syrup, baggies of white mini-marshmallows and red hots, vials of red sprinkles and piles of Pixy Stix.
While the 16 students find their places, there is good – well, weird – news. “I made you some brownies,” the professor says, “that have bloody fingers and eyeballs on them.”
It’s the week before Halloween, and Downey, coordinator of Professional Development in the NIU College of Education and a former teacher at Machesney Elementary School, is demonstrating spooky science lessons to her future teachers.
The hard-coated candies are submerged in water to see the chemical reaction. The Pixy Stix are emptied into measuring cups of water to examine change in temperature. The rest of the supplies are used to concoct a sticky mixture similar in consistency and color to blood.
Although these adult students seem to enjoy the experiments as much as children would, the purpose is not fun.
“We’re trying to teach the students really to think on their own. It’s all about inquiry, and getting the students to explore and figure things out,” Downey tells the class.
“Prompt them with questions. ‘The M&Ms are dissolving? Why are they dissolving? What do you think the candy coating is made of? What it is that’s coming to the top? What else do you think would work like this? Did you have some predictions that didn’t come true?’ The more you do this with them, the better they will get at it.”
Later, Downey states a critical rule for teachers.
“The kids ask you questions, don’t they?” she says. “And the hardest thing as a teacher is to not give them the answers. Your job is not to tell them, as of yet, what is going on. Ask them questions: ‘What is going on? What do you think is going on?’ Make them discover it.”
# # #
When Erin MacDonald started her MAT cohort at NIU-Naperville, she was almost 30 and not yet a mother. She and her husband owned a condominium then; today, they live in a house with their 1-year-old daughter.
Through it all, she says, her husband has “always been supportive. He’s a big believer in, ‘If you don’t like it, change.’ He honors the fact that I wasn’t happy.”
She hopes to work as a substitute in Elmwood during the spring while she seeks a fulltime position for next fall.
“I really like first-grade. They’re so independent yet they still need so much guidance. They want the freedom, but they teeter on, ‘Am I doing it right?’ ” she says. “What drove me to elementary education is that you really have the opportunity to make students lifetime learners, which I think is so huge. We have such an increase in dropouts and people not wanting to go to school.”
Christine Glomb, who is currently a substitute teacher in Naperville and Geneva, is aiming toward teaching fourth- and fifth-graders after she completes the MAT program in May.
“I’m open to any grade, but fourth- or fifth-grade would be my preference,” she says. “The kids are young, but they’re becoming independent.”
Like MacDonald, Glomb has enjoyed the encouragement of family and friends.
“They think it’s a perfect fit more me, and they’re really glad I’ve found my niche,” she says. “This is exactly what I want to do.”
# # #
When students move through that instructional model, Downey tells the future teachers, “they own it. They really own that knowledge because they did it.”
She turns a question about the candy-based science experiments – “What if M&Ms and Skittles were put in the water together?” – into a teachable moment. “Tell your students, ‘Go ahead and try it.’ That shows that they are thinking about it.”
Later, Downey provides clay and plastic molds in the shapes of brains, hands and human hearts to her students. She gives them a few minutes to create clay versions of these body parts and to develop and present possible lessons derived from the activity.
Members of a brain group say they would ask students to label the different lobes, conduct research on the lobes and share their new knowledge the class. Members of a heart group would assign students to learn and explain how blood flows through the body in and out of the heart.
One student in a hand group reports that she and her partner would ask children to explore how the different bones in the hand work together; to bring that idea to life, she cleverly leads her college classmates through an activity where no one can move their ring finger independently.
Downey loves what she hears.
“Kids demonstrate mastery when they can teach something,” she says, “when they can explain it to someone else.”
That idea clearly resonates with MacDonald.
“I think teachers have such power,” she says. “That might sound cliché, but when you invest the time into your students, they invest the time in your curriculum and their learning. Teachers really can control the engagement in their classrooms to drive the love of learning.”
— Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom