What is the role of a small, liberal arts college ?


What is the role of a small, liberal arts college in the area of teacher preparation?

           The book, Taking Teaching Seriously: How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare Teachers to Meet Today’s Educational Challenges in Schools (Edited by Christopher Bjork, D.Kay Johnston, and Heidi Ross,c.2007) makes the point that liberal arts colleges have a significant role to play in the area of teacher preparation.

A panel presentation at Occidental on October 22, 2012, dealt with specific experiences at three different liberal arts institutions.  Ruthanne Kurth-Schai, Professor and Educational Chair of Educational Studies at Macalaster; Shari Becker Albright, Education Department Chair of Trinity University; and Vicki Kubler LaBoskey, Professor and Co-director of Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools at Mills College were the panelists.  All three of these professionals expressed their strong beliefs that liberal arts colleges had an important role to play in the development of outstanding educators.

Liberal arts colleges are uniquely situated to provide outstanding teachers.  Their students have a depth of intellectual experience in the subject matter.  They are taught to be critical and reflective thinkers.  They have a strong belief in the concept of equality of access to instruction.  Teacher education programs should focus on“…a desire to attract individuals who are both intellectually capable of handling the challenges of teaching and pedagogically prepared to translate their goals into effective classroom practice…” (Bjork, p. 11-12)

An education program based in a liberal arts college will ideally combine a strong undergraduate program with the tools necessary to communicate information to students.   While this is a call for intellectually demanding programs, it continues to be important to provide the instructional tools and experiences that allow students to evaluate them.  “One of the themes that emerged from interviews with faculty at liberal arts institutions was the idea that teacher education should be intellectually demanding; rather than simply providing pre-service teachers with a cache of instructional tools, such programs should challenge individuals to think seriously about the role of the teacher and the school in society.”  (Bjork, p. 16)  “Although liberal arts teacher education promotes intellectual exploration and development, it rejects the notion that content knowledge alone is a sufficient prerequisite for teaching.  The liberal arts faculty members I interviewed emphasized that individuals who have studied instructional methodology and applied that knowledge to actual classroom settings will make stronger educators as a result of their pre-service experiences.  Field experiences grounded in college-based coursework represent the pairing of academic study and firsthand exposure with the dynamics of school communities.”  (Bjork, p. 21)

Larger institutions may be able to maximize the benefits of their size with large numbers of students and a wide variety of course offerings.  However, this is not necessarily a disadvantage to a smaller liberal arts college program. “One of the limitations of liberal arts education programs or departments is their small size.  With only a handful of full-time faculty, they seldom provide the breadth of offerings commonly found in the course catalogue of a large research-oriented university.  However, the size of the liberal arts institution often requires education professors to seek out collaborative relationships with colleagues in other departments who have expertise in education-related topics.” (Bjork, p. 17)

At the same time, the smaller size can allow for more innovation, creativity, and cross-department teaching.  At Swarthmore,” (m)any courses are cross-listed in other departments.  Most of the courses require a field placement, ranging from classroom observation and assisting, to tutoring, to action research and evaluation projects in local schools and community agencies: (Smulyan p. 86)

The size of a smaller department allows for closer communication and more personalized attention on the part of faculty, prospective teachers and assisting schools.  “Members of education department faculty closely supervise students as they conduct fieldwork.  One of the distinct advantages of liberal arts teacher education is the regularity and depth of interactions between professors and students…Assigning this dual role to professors encourages the fusion of intellectual and pedagogical thought, for student teaching supervisors are likely to have a thorough understanding of the research and theory that students explore prior to entering the field.  It also facilitates an ongoing dialogue between supervisor and pre-service teacher centered on reflection and analysis of the student teacher’s actions in the classroom.

As the above discussion suggests, education programs at liberal arts institutions attach great importance to the integration of academic study, pedagogical preparation, classroom experience and clinical supervision.  Each of these activities could be undertaken independently, but doing so would obfuscate the inherent complexities of the profession of teaching.  Teacher education at liberal arts institutions emphasizes the multiple roles assigned to educators and the variegated skills demanded of them.”(Bjork, p. 22)

A college such as Occidental, with a firm commitment to serving the community, finds that the preparation of teachers is an ideal vehicle for that sort of relationship.  “What is the role of the teacher preparation program within the liberal arts college environment?  Personal experience has reinforced my belief that teacher preparation specifically, and educational studies more generally, can play extremely important roles within liberal arts colleges, but in ways that are perhaps somewhat different from other academic disciplines.  First, the existence of teacher preparation programs visibly reiterates the importance of the teaching mission of the institution…Second, the existence of teacher preparation programs can demonstrate visible institutional commitments to the pursuit of social justice…A third role that teacher preparation and educational studies programs can fulfill centers on the service responsibilities the liberal arts college has to its surrounding community.”  (Epstein, p. 42-43)

Well-trained, well-prepared, well-educated teachers from selective liberal arts colleges are well-placed to make significant changes in the schools they lead.  They are also more likely to remain active in educational fields for longer than most of their peers.  “While there is a strong theoretical base to support and promote the education of teachers at selective liberal arts colleges, this practical question remains: Do the graduates of such institutions contribute substantive differences to the teaching profession and to the students and communities in which they teach?” (Mendoza [Colorado College], p. 198)  “Both groups present a higher retention rate than the national rate…Retention may indeed reflect the preservice teacher education experiences shared by the teachers.”  (Mendoza, P. 199-200)


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