All of the students who shared their experiences for the purpose of this article have been given aliases. This is for the purpose of students’ feeling able to express the full extent of their opinions without fear of recourse.
I was on the education track for seven semesters. After a rough mental health semester that resulted in a failing grade in one of my education courses, I received this email:
“At this point in the semester, there is nothing more you can do to salvage your grade. My suggestion is to work toward graduating from Muhlenberg with your degree in Media and Communication and, should you decide you would like to rededicate yourself to pursuing teacher certification, continue that path at another institution in the future. In addition, a departmental recommendation is required to be admitted to the professional semester. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the department to give you a recommendation to proceed into the professional semester.”
Upon receiving this email, I was distraught and taken aback. Teaching has been a dream of mine since the tenth grade, and this was not the experience that I had hoped for when I applied to Muhlenberg. Since leaving the education program, I have had time to reflect on the aspects of the program that need to be addressed and evaluated, and I’ve come to this conclusion: there are inherent flaws in the education program at Muhlenberg and in writing this article I hope to bring attention to some of these shortcomings.
The education program is not a major, it is a certification program where students graduate with a teaching license. The program is a strict four-year-long intensive experience where students must take 11 courses (for students on the secondary education program) or 18 courses (for students on the pre-k to fourth grade program) in addition to their separate major courses and GARs, and that’s not counting the time and effort that goes into fieldwork placements which range from 20 to 40 hours a semester. Fieldwork placements involve allocating three hours a week to go into a local school and shadow a teacher in the field. Students also are expected to teach at least one lesson in the semester and assist the cooperating teacher while working in the classroom. Despite being a pressing time commitment, and acting as almost an extra class in terms of the amount of time necessary for many students, fieldwork hours are unpaid, and students do not receive credit for them beyond completing the fieldwork requirement. Several education students have expressed being pressured to put their work for the program above all else, and have been made to feel bad if they aren’t giving all of their attention to education. In my experience, my dedication to the education program was questioned when I talked about my desire to go abroad.
In gathering quotes for this piece, I spoke to a student, called Sage here, who is one of many students that made the difficult decision to drop the education program.
Sage said, “I understand that our field work program is meant to help us succeed once we’re actually in a classroom. That being said, the amount of hours required of us outside of the Muhlenberg classroom is like a job, and if you’re doing two fieldwork placements at the same time, it becomes really not feasible to be a successful well-rounded student. It just did not feel realistic, and I wasn’t receiving the flexibility that I needed.”
Sage added, “The circumstances around me deciding to drop was the pressure of time commitment when it came to field work. ‘Cause I had to do two field work placements [at the same time]… I have to have a job on campus and have a source of income on top of finishing my major requirements on top of finishing ed track requirements [and] GAR requirements. It is difficult to be a student and to also do those field work requirements and to try to make money at school and be leaders of clubs and organizations that I care about deeply. I didn’t feel like I could be a person or at least a functioning person, while also trying to do that and the education program. It was not feeling fulfilling in the way that I had wanted it to be.”
Riley, another former education student, also noted time as a factor in her decision to leave the program. “I have been left feeling defeated and invisible in the eyes of some of my education professors. As someone who holds many different areas of academic and extracurricular interest, it has been extremely frustrating to have to turn down experiences as a result of the immense time and energy I have been required to commit to the education program. This has left me feeling extremely burnt out, with minimal verbal support given by education professors after expressing this struggle. While I continue to hold a passion for education and positively impacting students, the constraints of the education program have left this difficult to achieve while maintaining my wellbeing in the process.”
From my experience, the education department also continues to employ professors who do not promote or uphold the standards which Muhlenberg claims to be at the forefront of their mission, bringing down the academic excellence of this institution as a whole.
Former education student Lily noted, “The first meeting that I had with my advisor, I sat down and she basically told me, ‘I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t know how you’re going to use your mobility aid around kids.’ And this is the teacher of the special ed and diverse learners class. So having this conversation pretty early off the bat was very discouraging, especially as this had been something that I’ve wanted to do for my entire life. And to hear that because of my disability, it was looking like I wasn’t gonna be able to do it, was really disheartening. Unfortunately, after having my advisor be so negative about my possibility of being on track, I decided that it was not going to be physically or mentally healthy for me to stay on the track at this school in the future. I’m not exactly sure what I wanna do [now] as that has always been my go-to plan. I hope that later on I can find a group of people that is willing to make the proper accommodations and that no student in the future is ever made to feel like their mental or physical health is a barrier for something like teaching.”
Bailey, a former education student, said, “From my first encounter on campus with the ed department, I was told by [a professor] that I should try not to let the kids in the public school system see my mobility aid because I didn’t want to scare them. Later on, I took Disability and Difference in America with [this professor] and throughout that semester, every single day I would go home and scream at my mom or cry to my roommate because of all the offensive and old language [this professor] used in class. We spent multiple days learning about Aspergers, which is not in the DSM [The DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is the handbook used by healthcare professionals to diagnose mental disorders] anymore. It was removed in 2013; you can’t teach a class about it. We also watched a movie called ‘The Ringer,’ it’s about someone who fakes being disabled to compete in the Special Olympics. After finishing the movie she announces, ‘Half the cast is disabled. Can you guess which ones?’”
This was not this professor’s first time using outdated language surrounding her field of special education. Sage noted, “[She played] a big part of me no longer wanting to be in the program just because of the way that she acts and responds to situations and classes, [about] special education being so problematic and felt really discouraging. She frequently uses wrong terminology and it’s extremely inappropriate.”
Chloe, a student who has completed the education program, said, “[She] has said some problematic things in her class. When speaking about the Holocaust she completely failed to mention that Jewish people were part of those who were persecuted in the Holocaust, and in her special ed course she has used the ‘R’ word to refer to students with disabilities.”
Bailey said, “Kids only learn things by experience. How can you be actively teaching multiple classes on special ed and using the wrong language and not believing that disabled individuals should be in the school?”
Students who make it through all of the education courses participate in a “capstone” student teaching semester where they take two night courses while spending every weekday in a classroom, acting as a full-time unpaid teacher. Students not only are not compensated for their work, but have to pay around $400 for participation in this semester.
Chloe said, “One of my professors… essentially invalidated my experience being a woman teacher in a high school. During my second student teaching placement, I was explaining to him how uncomfortable I felt by students staring at me a certain way or trying to talk to me in a certain way and how that made me apprehensive to continue having and building relationships with my students. He did not show empathy towards me and almost shut me down in a sense which really hurt me and my desire to give one hundred percent to the program.”
In a field that has been dominated by women for so long, and in a department that is filled with female professors, it is shocking to me how much the professors still hold heteronormative and outdated views, which impacted my experience in the classroom.
Chloe said, “In field work, you have a meeting before starting field work to talk about how you dress, how to act, etc. And when talking about clothing… [the professor] kept the gender binary there and present. She would say that men wear ties and slacks, and that’s the only acceptable way to dress. When it came to women, long dresses, long skirts, your chest had to be covered because, and I quote, I don’t wanna receive an email that’s titled ‘boobs’ or ‘cleavage.’ It was not inclusive to people who don’t adhere to a gender binary. It just felt like it was coming back to the whole argument of women should cover their shoulders in school because they don’t wanna distract men. And that was uncomfortable. Someone I spoke to afterwards jokingly was like, ‘What am I supposed to wear then? Do I wear nothing?’”
I was called into a professor’s office and berated for missing the pre-fieldwork meeting one semester, even though I was in attendance for it every semester before, and knew all of the information already. While I acknowledge the meeting was mandatory and I should have been there, when I tried to defend myself and explain my absence I was yelled at. Then, the professor told me to smile more because no one likes a girl with a rude face.
Students in the education program are taught to have empathy for their students, because you never know what a child is going through, but in my experience we are rarely afforded that same courtesy.
Chloe added, “I did not feel cared for when I was in the program. I did not feel like I was supported in any way. For people who are supposed to be teaching us how to teach others, I feel that they have not done a great job of showcasing that as professors. They teach us to be sensitive to the baggage that students come into the classroom with, but at the same time, they are not willing to give us the same grace in their classroom. And it feels very performative. And that’s I think the best word that I can use to describe the education department, it’s performative.”
Personally, I was struggling in one of my courses and I spoke with my professor. Instead of coming to me with compassion and guidance she told me maybe I should rethink my decision to be a teacher because she didn’t think I had it in me. I still want to be a teacher; the failures of this program have not diminished my passion for education. I’m not sure what changes I hope come from this article, I just hope to give space to empower students in the education program to speak on their experiences.
Education is going to be difficult, it’s meant to be, students need to be equipped to be teachers. However, my experiences and those of the others in this program indicate that the desire to teach and ability to do so is not being fostered at Muhlenberg.