Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Elementary Education is not so Elementary

Many, many years ago someone asked me which 3-credit course she needed to take at College to become an elementary school teacher. When I told her that she needed a Bachelor's degree with a double major in Elementary Education and a liberal arts major she was stunned. Such is the public perception sometimes of what it takes to become an elementary school teacher. No longer is the elementary school teacher the unmarried, virtuous maiden required of the local community to staff the one-room school house of two centuries ago.

Today, elementary school teachers are knowledgable about everything, skilled at dealing with every possible type of human interaction, and familiar with just about every research-based teaching strategy known to the profession. Well, maybe not quite that much, but the demands we place on those who teach our under-eleven offspring are pretty significant in a fast-changing and complex world such as the one we live in.
The epistemology or elementary education comprises three broad areas; knowledge of child development, pedagogical content knowledge, and the teaching strategy skills that act synergistically between these two areas of knowledge. Knowledge of child development means understanding how neuro-typical children develop as well as the unique characteristics of children with special needs. It means having a sense of what students from other cultures might need to adapt to US classrooms as well as the customs of their families that might impact their child's education.

Pedagogical content knowledge is knowing and understanding the content of the elementary school curriculum at a developmentally appropriate level. For example, the science that kindergartners learn is very different from that in fifth grade. The reading skills we teach in first grade are also quite different from  the reading skills we might expect a fourth grade student to learn.

The third piece of the puzzle is knowledge of, and the ability to operationalize, the actual teaching skills that help students learn in an orderly and motivating classroom environment. These skills range from the ability to write an effective lesson plan to the way one uses one's voice during interactions with students in the classroom.

The Elementary Education program at St. Mike's helps students progressively develop their knowledge and skills in each of these three cornerstones that make being an elementary school teacher one of the best, most rewarding occupations on the planet.

The picture, by the way, is of a group of students from the Lawrence Barnes Sustainability Academy in Burlington who are taking part in the Vermont Community Garden Project.

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