Olivia Jones knows what it’s like to struggle in school.
The Pellissippi State sophomore was diagnosed with a learning disability in kindergarten and had an Individualized Education Plan that assigned her to resource classes until she was in ninth grade.
It was the words of her high school Spanish teacher that finally got through to Jones in a way nothing else had.
“She said, ‘Olivia, you can do anything you put your mind to,’” Jones remembers.
Now Jones, who is part of Pellissippi State’s Teacher Education program, wants to help other students who may feel the way she did growing up.
“I struggled myself, so I know how to help students who struggle,” says Jones, noting her case manager in Disability Services tutors her three days a week in math. “I will teach them different ways until it makes sense to them. I am confident I can help them.”
Pellissippi State’s Teacher Education program is helping college students like Jones determine every day whether teaching is the correct career path for them, says Program Coordinator Laura Lawson.
“We need passionate teachers in our schools,” says Lawson, who taught in the Knox County school system for 14 years before joining the full-time faculty at Pellissippi State. “A lot of people say this work is stressful and underpaid, but we still need strong, effective teachers – and we try to get these future teachers on fire here at Pellissippi State.”
That starts in the classroom, but Pellissippi State’s Teacher Education program is mostly relegated to a portable building on the Hardin Valley Campus.
“On the outside, we may not look as nice, but inside, we make the most of it,” Lawson says, noting they decorate the education classroom in Portable E like a real elementary setting, complete with the clawfoot tub Lawson used in her own classroom, full of pillows so that children will be inspired to climb in there and read.
Pellissippi State’s Teacher Education program soon will get an upgrade, however. The program is included in the plans for a new center for math and science on the Hardin Valley Campus, with one classroom dedicated for students studying K-5 education and the other for students studying Early Childhood Education.
“They do a good job making do with what they have now, but to have what looks like a temporary presence in a rundown building is not helpful,” says Kane Barker, dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences. “Right now our Teacher Education program is hidden. To be able to prominently incorporate that into a dedicated and clearly marked presence in the new building adds an extra layer of legitimacy to a program we’re very proud of.”
The center for math and science is “the perfect place” for a teacher education center, Barker adds, because Pellissippi State students pursuing an Associate of Science in Teaching are taking extra math and science classes, more than are required for general Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees.
“One of the hallmarks of our Teacher Education program is to include science throughout the program,” Barker explains. “While most Pellissippi State graduates only need two science classes, we’ve added a third, which is designed to help our teacher education students learn how to apply what they’re learning as teachers. They can take these lessons back to their future students.”
Teacher education students also take two additional math classes designed to help future teachers, he notes, whereas students completing general associate degrees are only required to take one math.
“We’re being intentional in placing the teacher education center in our new center for math and science because we think our teacher education students need to be in an environment that runs across science and math,” Barker says.
Lawson was excited to be included in the planning for the teacher education center so that classrooms can be built to look more like the classrooms Pellissippi State students will be teaching in when they enter the workforce.
“We’ve asked for a kidney (shaped) table, which is useful when we teach the importance of small-group rotations, as well as bulletin boards instead of just white boards so that we can display concept anchor charts that they’ll use in their own classrooms to reinforce learning,” Lawson explains. “We’ve also already been able to buy, through a grant, a brand-new interactive whiteboard, which teachers are required to use in all subjects K-5. By having one here, our students can learn how to use it now instead of their first week on the job, when everything seems overwhelming. We can show them that it’s not as hard as it looks.”
Having classes in the new teacher education center will help students feel at home when they start their field experience – observation of teachers in Knox County, Blount County, Maryville City and Clinton City schools. Lawson pairs each teacher education student with a school, where they are required to actively participate for 15 hours a semester, typically working at the school once a week.
“We want our Pellissippi State students to stay a span of seven weeks in their assigned schools so that they can see the concepts we are learning in our education courses come full circle,” notes Lawson, adding that Pellissippi State students also do service projects at local schools to earn required professional development points for class. “No matter how hard I teach or how much I try to engage them during classes on campus, what you can learn in an actual public school setting will help you understand far more.”
Reflecting on their field experience recently, Pellissippi State students told story after story about what led them to want to be a teacher – from Paul Harris, a U.S. Air Force veteran who knew he wanted another “job with a purpose,” to Lexie Matthews, who wondered if she had “what it takes” to teach in urban schools and ended up “loving everything” about her field experience. Anna Shankle returned to school as a divorced mom of two and is leaving “confident that I can make a difference,” she says, while Brandon Akins remembers the exact moment he was helping English as a Second Language learners with their “O” sounds and they finally figured it out.
“They were struggling, but they kept trying, and the first time they got it, they were so excited,” Akins says. “That lit a fire in me. It was so amazing.”
And then there are students like Jillian Hobbs, who was living out of her minivan and bouncing around to different houses to sleep, working two jobs while going to school.
“I knew I wanted to help people, but nursing wasn’t it,” says Hobbs, who was attracted to Pellissippi State because of the 2+2 program that allows teacher education students at Pellissippi State to finish their bachelor’s degrees on the Hardin Valley Campus through a partnership with Tennessee Tech. “I love being in a classroom, particularly with a special education student who has an IEP.”
It’s these kinds of varied life experiences that are helping Pellissippi State turn out teachers whose skillsets go beyond the curriculum they have learned.
“You’ll see students at Pellissippi State who have amazing potential, but they have struggles – from child care to textbooks to gas money,” Lawson says. “Our students go through more than we realize, and because of that, they will recognize and pick up on those same things in their own students, which will enable them to help those children not just academically, but in many other ways as well.”
“Our Teacher Education program is changing lives,” he says. “That’s what we do at Pellissippi State. We are transformational.”