The Westmont education department prepares future teachers to excel — and to weather a difficult economic climate
At a time when the economic crisis has forced cutbacks in spending on education, Westmont graduates continue to land teaching jobs at public and private schools worldwide. The Westmont Education Department, which has a reputation in the community for sending out well-prepared, highly professional teachers, has succeeded by preparing students for a wide range of situations. Andrew Mullen, department chair, says it’s critical for students to become more versatile by equipping themselves in as many different areas as possible. For example, a student who majors in English and liberal studies can teach English to secondary or elementary students.
“We’re not hiding the situation from them,” Mullen says. “We’re making students aware that to get a teaching job they’re going to have to work 10 times harder than in the past.”
Westmont graduates have an advantage in the international job market because the Lincoln School, an American international school in Costa Rica, has welcomed Westmont student teachers since 1988. “We have a high percentage of students who do an international semester,” Mullen says. “Our students are more aware of the world, more adventurous, more risk-taking than students at other schools. Educators in general tend to be cautious and want to return to the area where they went to school. Our students have a wider horizon.”
The department encourages students to meet with international recruiters. Alana Woodin ’09 teaches history at an international school in Mexico, Kelsey Hardeman ’10 is at a missions school in Japan, Sage Johnson ’09 is a teacher at an international school in Honduras, and Miranda Lahr ’09 found a teaching job back at the Lincoln School.
But not everybody will get a job offer immediately after graduation. The department stresses the importance of patience during any difficult period. “This is a tough time, and we’re realistic with students, telling them they’re going to have to apply to a lot of schools,” says Professor Michelle Hughes ’89. “We encourage them to grab hold of opportunities like teaching summer school or substitute teaching.” Such positions can lead to full-time employment; Sarah Tilton ’08 and Amy Sprouse Gates ’05 both taught summer school at Monroe Elementary and now teach in the READ180 program there. “We’re teaching students to market themselves and capitalize on the connections they’ve made through the schools and their experiences,” Hughes says. “Students need to be prepared because the state budgeting process can result in school districts hiring at the last minute toward the end of summer.”
Professor Jane Wilson and Hughes experienced similar challenges when they became teachers and share their stories of perseverance with students. “Always do a great job and somebody’s going to notice,” Wilson says. “Teaching is a profession that’s not going to go away. Although it happens to be a difficult time to get a teaching job, graduates who excel are going to find a way in.”
After completing Westmont’s credential program, Hughes stayed in Santa Barbara even though there were few teaching positions. “A principal gave me the opportunity to be an office assistant,” she says. “I substituted and worked as a secretary, and by November two jobs opened up. If you have the patience and can commit yourself to getting a job, it can definitely pay off.”
Mullen says until last year, the depart-ment had a high rate of placement. “Last year we had amazing students — any of us would be glad to have our children in their classes — but they didn’t all get full-time teaching jobs,” he says. In the meantime, graduates piece together positions such as substitute teaching, tutoring, preparing tests, working as teacher’s aides and teaching at pre-elementary/early childhood schools.
Despite the economic forecast, the education department is growing in popu-larity on campus. More than 20 students will be enrolled in elementary and secondary education programs next fall, twice as many as last year.
After 33 years of preparing generations of teachers at Westmont, Gayle and Ruth Tucker retired in 2009 to travel and spend time with their five grandchildren. They joined the department in 1976, working with Professor Russell Carr, who was also the Warrior soccer coach. The two were teaching in Barranquilla, Columbia, before moving with their daughters, Kim Hardt ’91 and Lori Howard ’93, to California. Their experience in international education helped them launch Westmont’s 22-year partnership with Lincoln School in Costa Rica, where more than 60 teacher candidates have completed their student teaching.
Hughes and Wilson came to Westmont last fall, replacing the Tuckers. “Jane and Michelle have brought wonderful energy and enthusiasm,” Mullen says. “Apart from their skills in the classroom, they have both invested a great amount of time into getting to know students as individuals.”
Hughes worked as a teacher and assistant principal in Santa Barbara for two decades, and Wilson earned her doctorate from UC Santa Barbara, was an adjunct professor at Westmont from 1996-2006, taught at Azusa Pacific University and served as academic dean at Providence Hall High School. The two women possess a wealth of knowledge and connections in local schools.
This semester, Wilson accumulated and organized a binder of testimonials about the teaching credential program, highlighting alumni, listing where they’re teaching, what they love about teaching and how Westmont’s program shaped them. There’s also a roster of 120 local educators who collaborated with Westmont this year.
“Teaching will become more of a collaborative enterprise in this century than it has been,” Mullen says. “As the world gets more complicated, there’s more experi-ences and topics requiring expertise. Teachers need to be able to bring other people into the classroom, whether that takes the form of guest speakers, or Skyping or simply working with their colleagues more closely.”
“Our job is not only to teach our students about the classroom,” Hughes says, “but also to help them to understand how to be a team player at a school, how to deal with a new level of accountability in our state and nation, how to care for kids more than just academically and how to gain access to classroom resources.”
Her familiarity with local schools and friendships with educators have helped her find the most beneficial classrooms for her students to student teach in. “We also use those terrific teachers and administrators as guest speakers and to serve on panels at Westmont,” she says.
That came in handy this spring when Wilson developed a new course, “Windows into Teaching,” that introduces teaching as a career. The one-unit class invited teachers in the region to talk about their profession and attracted 21 students, 12 of whom said they wanted to pursue a vocation in education at the end of the semester. “It was a way to see if this might be God’s calling in their life,” Wilson says. “I do think Christians want to sense that it’s God’s call leading us into the field we choose.”
That’s exactly what happened last spring for Nathan Kemp ’10, who enrolled in “Explorations into Teaching” to test the teaching waters. He will spend next semester student-teaching and taking courses; eventually he wants to earn an advanced degree and teach at a college or university. “I feel called to teach because I want to share my passion for learning as well as my deep interest in people,” he says. “I believe there is nothing more valuable than passing on knowledge, virtues and wisdom to youth. To be formative in fostering students’ ability to be successful as an entire human being is very rewarding.”