A student teacher smiles and reaches out toward and elementary school student. There is a white board in the background. Another student is blurred out in the foreground.

Teaching our teachers

In a changing PK-12 environment, GVSU responds with comprehensive programs for the needs of today's future educators.

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Changes in state certification requirements for elementary school educators as well as to content standards for teachers led to a new approach for training education students and a new major at Grand Valley.

The major is called Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Elementary Teaching (PCKET). This is the second year for the major that was developed to address those changed state requirements while continuing to provide the rich knowledge of disciplines that sets GVSU-trained educators apart, said Amy Masko, professor English education and PCKET coordinator.

A student teacher kneels at a whiteboard covered in writing. She is writing on the board as is the small child next to her. Another student watches from the desks behind them.

At left, Katelyn Meyer, a GVSU sophomore, works out a math problem with a third grader at Evergreen Elementary School in Allendale.

Creating the new major required intense collaboration and melding of different processes and philosophies from the previous model for training elementary teachers, Masko said. Those who created the program also placed an emphasis on field work earlier in students’ academic career.

“I think it’s really quite an excellent model and teachers are going to come out of this really well prepared,” Masko said.

Broader learning of disciplines

A key change at the state level was that certification for elementary education teachers, which used to be K-8, was separated into two bands: PK-3 and 3-6. In addition, Masko said, all education students used to study one teachable major, such as math or social studies. That has now changed.

Grand Valley’s previous model for training elementary teachers was unique in that they received education both from content specialist faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as well as faculty members from what was then the College of Education, now the College of Education and Community Innovation, Masko said.

State content requirement changes for teachers meant that majors for teaching in individual disciplines gave way to the PCKET major, where students are learning a broader range of subject areas for elementary students rather than a deeper dive into one, Masko said. Students pair the PCKET major with the educational studies or special education major through CECI to receive the professional and content-specific preparation they need.

Rounded type with a pink background reading: Pedagogical content knowledge for elementary teaching (PCKET)

Completed in four years, not five

Students seeking elementary teaching certification may earn it in either the PK-3 or 3-6 band. Masko said students are encouraged to earn both to boost marketability; training for the 3-6 band also includes a nine-credit concentration in one of these content areas: English language arts, mathematics, integrated science or social studies.

Three icons done in a sketchy outlined style. The first is a globe outline, the second a paper plane, and the third a calendar

Students training in either grade band have an opportunity to earn an endorsement in English as a Second Language. PCKET majors are encouraged to participate in a study abroad program with the opportunity to earn a certificate in international teaching, which serves as a type of badge they can include on their resume, Masko said.

The major is now a four-year program instead of five. “We intensified it and shrunk it,” Masko said.

An advantage that PCKET majors have carries over from the old model, Masko said: Learning disciplines from faculty members who also teach those disciplines at the university level, providing a depth of knowledge in not only how to teach the subject matter but the discipline itself.

“We have had a reputation for producing teachers with deep content knowledge,” Masko said. “We receive informal feedback from schools on a regular basis that our students are well prepared in the content. Now, working with this integrated, interdisciplinary model, we want to ensure that continues.”

The deeper learning across multiple disciplines with an opportunity to specialize in one field is an important part of the new major, said David Zwart, associate professor of history who specializes in social studies education.

“Overall, the advantage here is that we are building a coherent liberal education PCKET program,” Zwart said.

Zwart said an important factor as experts continue to refine the PCKET program is to continue to build in ways to offer classes that foster deep thinking, even if they aren’t directly applicable in an elementary teaching setting.

“We’ll get there because we’re all committed to preparing teachers who are liberally educated and who are deep thinkers,” Zwart said. 

A student who was studying under the old model as a group social studies major but is now majoring in PCKET said the advantages of PCKET have been immediately apparent.

“I feel like I’m going to be better well-rounded in learning all of the content areas and learning how to teach each one individually,” said Chloe Houser, who is preparing for the PK-3 grade band.

Houser also values the opportunity to do field work before the official teaching assistant part of the major. The work so far has included tutoring math as well as conducting reading and writing lessons.

Houser recalls how a writing lesson was also a good learning experience because the elementary students showed a wide variety of comprehension levels for the exercise.

“It definitely showed me that I need to make some adaptations and that I need to expect certain things from some kids but then be able to adapt for other kids in the class,” said Houser, who has wanted to be a teacher since childhood, and who used to set up stuffed animals to “teach” them.

‘Highly motivating’ field experience

That experience is part of the “concerted effort” by those crafting the PCKET program to include more field work, said Esther Billings, chair of the Mathematics Department and a PCKET faculty member (who incidentally as a child also used to set up stuffed animals as “students” to teach).

Billings said another concerted effort when it comes to math field work is ensuring the lessons, activities, or math games the GVSU students work on with the children align with the learning goals of the elementary teacher they are working with.

“We want to design an experience that is mutually beneficial for our learners and the children,” Billings said. “Sometimes we find our teachers in partner elementary schools working on building computational fluency with their students’ fact knowledge, so they may want us to do some extra work with that. It may not be directly tied with what they’re studying, but it may be something they want us to be working on.”

The opportunity to experience working directly with elementary students early in their studies is “highly motivating” for the GVSU students and also provides crucial preparation for their eventual apprenticeship, Billings said.

“Guided field work for our classes is providing a structured, supervised experience. I think that’s really key,” Billings said.

Joy Oslund, an assistant professor of mathematics who works with the PCKET program, also believes the structured, supervised experience is beneficial for students. Oslund has taken a GVSU class to work with two third-grade classrooms at an Allendale elementary school.

Oslund has talked with the elementary teachers about goals for the GVSU students as well as the teachers’ goals for their third graders. Oslund also said the ability to coach the GVSU students in the moment, such as when they seem to have hit a roadblock working with the elementary students, deepens their training for when they have their own classroom.

“Because we are all going into the class together I know that the things they are doing are helping them become better teachers, and I get to observe them change and grow over the semester. And the growth has been enormous,” Oslund said.

Indeed, the opportunity to learn and grow while working in a classroom with this age group is something Michael Miller, one of Oslund’s students, values. Miller said an important characteristic of GVSU’s field learning is how early in their studies Lakers are in a classroom, noting that doesn’t happen everywhere.

“Being able to apply what we’re learning in the classroom and take it into a real-world setting is important,” Miller said. “Education doesn’t only happen in a book, education also happens because of an experience between students and an educator.”

An adult hand points to something on a piece of paper at a school desk. A small child largely cropped out of the image appears to be looking at the paper.
Rounded text with an orange background that says: CECI Programs addressing state's educator shortage
Two teachers stand by a long desk in front of a window where three students sit. The walls in the foreground are lined with blue lockers. Two students sit agains the lockers on the left in the foreground.

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