Hail and Farewell
Celebrating the Graduate School of Education
In education, sometimes the quietest moments are the most powerful
By Linda Peterson
In 2010, as Rita Moore, professor of education and former interim dean of Willamette’s Graduate School of Education (GSE), tells the story, fellow faculty member David Ward organized a “read-in” for all GSE Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) candidates. Moore describes a scene imprinted on her memory: “Candidates lounged on chairs, on the floor, spreading out across the north and south lobbies of the executive building as they celebrated reading and talking about books. A quiet, pervasive hum hung over us, as our candidates modeled what they hope their own students will practice: celebrating reading and literacy.”
That quiet hum is a near-perfect analogy for the impact that GSE has had in its 26-year history — sending well-prepared, committed, innovative education professionals into the world to shape the art and science of teaching and learning. At commencement this spring, GSE made its last hail and farewell. The reasons for closure were complex but primarily strategic: The university was unwilling to compromise the quality of the educational experience to reduce costs and remain competitive in an uncertain market.
It was a difficult decision, reached after consultation with the campus community and the university’s governing board, and it was announced a year ahead of time to ensure current students could finish their programs.
Willamette’s history in education has been transformative for the region — and beyond. As President Stephen E. Thorsett observed, “Willamette will continue to be an excellent choice for undergraduate students who wish to pursue teaching careers. We are tremendously proud of and will continue to support and celebrate all of our alumni, graduate and undergraduate, who choose to serve the world in this critically important way.”
Now, it’s time to celebrate the GSE’s contributions — past, present and future. Educating others has always been in Willamette’s DNA. In fact, Willamette’s first graduate, a woman — Emily J. York — became a teacher.
From the university’s start in 1842, it was dedicated to training educators for the children of the families settling in the Oregon Territory, expressing in its founding bylaws that none would be excluded on account of race. The Oregon Institute (as Willamette was then called) raised money in its first capital campaign to construct a permanent building at Wallace Prairie, north of the current campus location, and the work began.
However, in 1844, when the nearby mission school was unexpectedly closed by the Methodists, Willamette bought their building and relocated to its current spot in what has since become modern-day Salem. The university hired its first teacher, Chloe Clarke Willson, who moved to Salem in November 1842 and began tutoring the children of the settlers. On Aug. 13, 1844, Willson stepped into the newly acquired building to teach her first official class.
Fast forward to 1988, when the Graduate School of Education was formed to address a need for educational leaders for a growing Pacific Northwest school population. Interim Dean Mark Stewart (who also serves as the College of Liberal Arts associate dean for faculty development and professor of psychology) emphasizes the innovative spirit of the GSE — from its membership in the Oregon Technology in Education Network to its programs that focus on the needs and aspirations of all learners.
Steven Rhine, professor of education, highlights one such need: for a “relational” approach to preparing teachers. “We believed that by developing strong relationships with our students — through small class sizes and partnerships — we could most effectively help them meet the challenges of teaching. Professor Karen Hamlin’s work on ‘shifting the gaze’ from focusing on the teacher to focusing on the resulting actions of the students helped us develop our own education students into confident professionals. Our graduating students felt like second-year teachers when they got their jobs.”
For Rhine, one of the greatest pleasures of teaching came from this relational approach. “I enjoyed working with a small group of eight to 10 students. It was deeply satisfying to shepherd them through the process of becoming effective teachers.”
An Ensemble with a Toolbox
Vanessa ’01, MAT’03 and Jason ’01, MAT ’05 Niedermeyer, with their son CJ.
The motto “be prepared” may be identified with Boy Scouts, but it’s the byword of virtually all Willamette GSE alumni, as well. Vanessa Niedermeyer ’01, MAT’03, a double Willamette alumna and a social studies teacher at North Salem High, says, “To be prepared was the most important thing I took away from the GSE. The program really prepared me to know not just what I was doing, but why I was doing it, and how different strategies work for different students. I learned about collaboration and left with many tools in my toolbox.
“Now that I’ve been teaching for 12 years, I’ve come to realize that student teachers from Willamette are simply better prepared, more thoughtful and more open to new ideas than those from other programs.” She concedes, “Of course, I’m biased because I came from Willamette, but I think about our great professors — Jill Bryant, Karen Hamlin, Cheryl Brown, Steve Rhine — and how well they supported and prepared us. They taught us how to work independently and with others.”
“Education is a process. There’s never an end to becoming a better teacher.” Jason Niedermeyer
Besides being a loyal alumna, Niedermeyer was also an informal recruiter for the program. Her husband, Jason ’01, MAT’05, was her biggest success story. Explains Jason, “Vanessa said, ‘You like coaching, why not try teaching? It’s just coaching in a classroom.’ So I followed her back to Willamette to get my master’s.”
The most important thing he learned? “Education is a process. There’s never an end to becoming a better teacher. You can always hone your philosophy, your practice, your toolbox — there are always new things to learn, either in content or pedagogy.”
That commitment to going deeper and learning more is best carried out in a community of students and teachers that support learning from each other. Angela Obery, an instructor for more than 12 years at the GSE, says, “I’ve felt such great support and camaraderie from the faculty. Over the years, as the GSE went from one MAT program to four different programs, I’ve seen a lot of different faces and programs, but for me, professionally, everyone has been so welcoming and supportive. We were always learning from our students and from each other.”
In movies, a teacher’s success often arrives with climactic music, as a student suddenly and dramatically “gets it.” Think Edward James Olmos teaching higher math to at-risk kids in “Stand and Deliver,” Robin Williams imparting carpe diem to his students in “Dead Poets Society” or Anne Bancroft’s Anne Sullivan pumping water over her protégé’s hand in “The Miracle Worker” — the moment when Helen Keller first comprehends the sign for water.
Minus the lights, camera, action and movie stars, “aha” moments happen every day between teachers and students. “That’s been the most interesting thing to me over the years,” says Obery, whose work includes 20 years with the Oregon Writing Project. “As the MAT candidates would come to understand their young students’ motivations, a light bulb would go on. Suddenly, one would say, ‘Oh, yeah! I see how I can better serve my student.’ I love that moment.”
For Robin Fromherz, assistant professor of education, many “aha” moments came out of the GSE’s unique culture — integrating faculty, staff, students, schools and the community so that education became “a way of life,” as she describes it. “The conversations, activities and classes teemed with creative energy, intellectual thought and caring hearts.” Fromherz cites examples of involving GSE students in special events on campus and in the field — from bilingual author days for parents and children to arts festivals for kids to bringing arts to children in Mexico, Alaska and the Southwest.
In 2000, Fromherz and her colleagues collaborated with principals and teachers to host a fine arts festival on campus — a multiday, multilingual experience for children. Says Fromherz, “The National Standards for Arts Education refers to the arts as ‘society’s gift to itself,’ and we brought that commitment to life. Not only did the schoolchildren attend the weeklong festival, but teachers and classroom assistants were the artists — in visual arts, dance, writing, music and theater.”
The festival was so successful that it became an annual event. “Much of this was led and organized by our GSE student teachers,” says Fromherz.
A Global Outlook
GSE alums see the wider world. Andrew Morris MAT’12 uses his teaching experience in Japan and his volunteer tsunami cleanup work to bring an international point of view to his classrooms.
Other students test their skills elsewhere in Asia, and in Latin America and Europe. Matthew Wilson MAT’07 crossed the Pacific to find his calling. “I grew up in Salem, but I was a little directionless after I graduated from college. I remembered that a friend of mine had gone to South Korea to teach English to preschoolers. I looked her up, got connected with a job, and spent six years teaching Korean 5-and 6-year-olds.”
By then, he was hooked on teaching but knew he needed to learn more.
“What I took from that experience is that teachers have to realize what a big responsibility we have. Students’ successes are their own, but as teachers, we have to help them through failures to reach the level where they can succeed.” Wilson had heard good things about the GSE, so he applied, was accepted and jumped right in.
“The program prepared us well to understand teaching in ways most people don’t,” Wilson says. “There’s a big difference between teaching — most of us could teach something — and being a teacher. My experience in South Korea and at Willamette made me into a teacher.”
Today, Wilson is in a Ph.D. program at the University of Florida’s School of Teaching & Learning. His focus is on the use of technology, and he teaches in the undergraduate education program. “I’m enjoying the Ph.D. program, but I love teaching absolutely, and I miss being in the classroom with kids.”
Not Unto Ourselves Alone Are We Born
Perhaps no profession more explicitly exemplifies Willamette’s motto than teaching. During its 26 years, GSE has had an exponential influence. Teachers have made an impact on students, and their students have made an impact on the world. Some students have become educators themselves — and so it goes, heightening that multiplier factor.
Rhine recalls a rewarding moment in his career that makes the point perfectly. “My mentor, Kris Gutierrez, professor of education at UCLA and subsequently at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was our GSE commencement speaker in 2011. At the time, she was president of the prestigious American Educational Research Association. She delivered an excellent talk that inspired our graduates to consider themselves as more than simply teachers but also as active seekers and workers for social justice.”
To date, more than 2,500 GSE students have deepened their training and found their calling through degrees and licensure. The GSE acquired close to $4 million in federal grants in the past 15 years to work with pre-service teachers, Willamette CLA faculty, and schools. The impact of these contributions in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world has been — and will continue to be — enormous as teachers, principals, administrators all focus on others.
Poet Robert Frost wrote, “There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.”
As commencement 2014 ended the GSE’s operations, it’s time for a toast: Here’s to the teachers — and to the “skyjumpers” they inspire.
(Left image: Marla Pasterick, GSE’09)
Willamette Graduate School of Education by the Numbers