The teacher connection

Ongoing contact with education graduates helps ensure success in the classroom

“Mrs. Mac, I’m not from America. I’m from Nebraska! Just wanted to let you know.”
Courtney McCrain McLachlan’s ’12 job was cut out for her. These adorable and amusing youngsters in McLachlan’s K-2 classroom at Wichita Adventist Christian Academy needed not only a geography lesson, but also a well-rounded education in all subjects, demonstrated through a Christ-like example of leadership and compassion. And all 17 kids in this multi-grade classroom needed to be kept in line while she simultaneously instructed them in reading, writing and arithmetic. Easy, right?
Becoming a teacher requires a courageous leap in role reversal. As a college graduate transitions from behind the desk to the front of the classroom, a whole new world unfolds. And despite the abundance of observation, practicum and student-teaching hours, taking ownership of one’s own classroom will always be a daunting task. Fortunately, Union’s education faculty and staff realize that it’s a multifaceted road to quality education and hold fast to the idea of connection. This connection involves a process that spans throughout a student’s college career and extends beyond graduation. And it starts with connecting college students to the classroom almost immediately after they select education as their major.
Kelly Ree Fernandez ’11 was able to observe the importance of this connection almost immediately after landing her first job teaching fifth grade at Everett Elementary School in Lincoln, Neb. She noticed a major difference between herself and her fellow first-year coworkers. Though she had a year of substitute teaching under her belt to equip her with teaching experience, she also found out that her total undergrad hours of classroom observation and participation were significantly higher (and experienced much sooner) than those of her colleagues.
“The biggest difference I’ve seen between Union’s education program and [other colleges and universities] is the number of hours spent in actual classrooms, even before your senior year,” Fernandez explained. “I found out that most of my coworkers had not seen the inside of a classroom until their third year, while Union’s program has you in a classroom during the second semester of your first year. And I didn’t just sit there and watch. They eventually had us prepare educational activities for the class and spend some time up front. Being in the classroom early on helped make me confident that I chose the right major.”
Fernandez noted how much more comfortable she was with her current classroom management because of that fact—and also because Union’s education curriculum includes a required class dealing with special education.
“Most of my coworkers weren’t required to take a course in special education before they graduated,” she continued. “And I used that information a lot, especially when I was working as a substitute teacher. I ended up filling in for several special-ed teachers, I had special-ed kids in my fifth-grade classroom, as well.”
The education program provides mock interviews, résumé preparation and also arranges for employed graduates to return to Union as guest speakers, giving students a glimpse of what is to come. But even while Union reaches out to connect with the community around it, part of that same connection principle lies in the graduates also being able to reach back.
McLachlan is grateful that Union indeed prepared her well for her first job. Previous experience with multi-grade classrooms and exposure to public classrooms helped frame McLachlan’s expectations so she could better establish her classroom management.
“Without the education faculty and staff’s support, my practicum experience and my wonderful advisors throughout my student teaching experience, I would not be a successful teacher,” she explained.
McLachlan was able to find a job right after graduating, but her education didn’t end there. “I received a lot of communication from my former advisor, Kathy Bollinger, during those first few months on the job. And I had endless amounts of questions! I also kept in touch with the division office manager, Amy Webb, through Facebook. I appreciated both their friendship and helpfulness. It helped make the year go much more smoothly.”
This continued connection after graduation is especially important concerning such an influential and demanding line of work. Starting a teaching career definitely throws one into the deep end, and recent national statistics for new teachers are far from inspiring. According to the National Education Association (NEA), 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession during their first five years.
“Nobody’s perfect, and we all need to be bolstered up from time to time,” said Kathy Bollinger, associate professor of education. Because of the high demands placed on teachers, faculty and staff in the Division of Human Development strive to remain approachable for recent grads to contact them for advice or encouragement. “We have a burden on all our hearts to stay connected with our grads. We feel it’s important for them—especially those who start out teaching in multi-grade classrooms in small towns. We want them to know they’re not alone.”
“We also try to visit them on site within their first or second year of teaching,” Bollinger continued. “We’ve traveled to Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon, Florida—we take it seriously!”
Additionally, recent education graduates automatically become part of an online community through Union’s education division’s website, “Teacher Features.” Its home page lists new teachers for the current school year who have recently graduated from the program. Teacher Features also provides links to relevant news stories, campus updates and blog posts.
“We want to share the progress of our new teachers and keep them connected,” explained Amy Webb, office manager for the Division of Human Development, who also maintains contact with many recent education graduates via email and Facebook. “We can keep track of them pretty closely through different methods of communication. We like to broadcast their successes to the rest of the campus through our website and on the TV screens across campus.”
And the feedback on these efforts has been incredible. Both Bollinger and Webb have received several glowing messages of appreciation for their continued contact and support. 
“We also send them a checklist after their first year of teaching,” Webb continued. “It assists with accreditation, and it gives them a chance to personally evaluate their first experience as a professional. It gives them an opportunity to be honest, give suggestions and note any aspects of their educational experience that were particularly helpful.”
Through these many efforts in making and maintaining connections, recent graduates are coming away from their experience with not only appreciation, but with a recognition of the true value of connection. McLachlan, who now teaches Pre-K at Vista Ridge Academy in Colorado, stays in contact with many others who graduated with her, creating even more links in a supportive professional network. “Several of my former classmates and I exchange helpful suggestions and advice, as well as websites or articles, etc., we come across that have helped us as we teach.”
These exchanges are a ripple effect of the endeavors of the faculty and staff, continuing the growth of the many teachers they have worked hard to prepare and support. This can facilitate limitless growth in professional development and self-esteem for the graduates, and mutual enrichment of the education program as well.
Working through school and through life, there’s always more to learn. For kids it’s exciting, fun and amusing, but for adults it can be stressful and frightening at times as there is more at stake.
“People like to know you’re interested in them and care about their success,” Bollinger reflected, and Union’s existing connections demonstrate just how valuable that interest can be. As students evolve into educators and as young teachers develop into seasoned professionals, the graduates of Union College begin a new wave of teaching and a new generation of making and sustaining connections.