Preparing for the school year

Q & A with Beth Ackerman, Ed.D., Liberty University

For Dr. Beth Ackerman, it was logical that she ended up working in the field of education.

“It’s the family business,” she explains, noting that she is following in the footsteps of her parents. In fact, as the Associate Dean in the School of Education at Liberty University, she currently serves under her mom, Dr. Karen Parker, who is the School of Education’s Dean.

Dr. Ackerman attended Christian schools, graduating from Liberty Christian Academy and Liberty University. Her desire was to work with children with disabilities, but LCA didn’t have a special education program at that time so, after graduating, she went to work for a private alternative school that worked with students with emotional behavioral problems.

“I went kicking and screaming saying, ‘God you don’t want me here.’ I ended up staying for 10 years and loved it.”

Dr. Ackerman went on to earn a master’s degree from Lynchburg College and a doctorate from the University of Virginia. She joined the staff at Liberty University to help develop a special education program.

“That became a big passion of mine,” she said, adding that Christian education hasn’t addressed that need as it should. “For our special ed majors there are not a lot of special ed programs in Christian schools so they have to go into the public schools (to teach). That is something I would like to see changed.”

She said special education programs can be good for the entire school. “Not everybody sits in a desk all day and learns that way. Sometimes it’s a little bit of a philosophy shift.”

Liberty University’s School of Education has some 4,000 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs. The philosophy of the program: To develop competent professionals with a Biblical worldview for service in public and Christian private schools.

So is it different training a teacher for the public school system from the one who will serve at a Christian private school?

“We teach them all the same,” Dr. Ackerman said. “Obviously there are differences, but we would like to see the differences come together more.”

One area she would like Christian schools to embrace is in the area of standards.

“We would like to see more standards. When we prepare our students for the public schools there are the SOLs (Standards of Learning) and No Child Left Behind (standards) issues they have to be aware of. Those concepts exist because they are good concepts.”

But even in the public school system, those standards have come under fire from some educators. Still, Dr. Ackerman believes they serve an important role in helping make sure all students receive an equal education. She came to this understanding after hearing Dr. Lorraine Monroe speak. “She was so encouraging to me,” Dr. Ackerman stated. “I was getting burned out.”

In four years the high school Dr. Monroe founded, Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, had 98 percent of its students go on to college. When asked how she did that, her answer was this: “I’m upset by 98 percent. It should have been 100 percent. And that’s how we did it,” Dr. Ackerman stated of the educator’s response. “Everybody should have the same playing field and the same rights.”

While teachers go into the Christian schools enjoying the freedom to share their faith, Dr. Ackerman said those Christian teachers going into the public schools can go with a mission focus, like those who go into a foreign country as missionaries.

“We see our teachers who are going into the public schools to be a light (there for Christ),” she said. Teachers must know the content of their subject areas and be able to share that knowledge effectively — along with having their faith. “Do you have integrity? Are you Christ-like? Are you loving with your students?” Those are all questions she said Christian teachers have to ask themselves.

“You can have all the faith in the world, but you won’t be respected in the school if you don’t know the subject. And you could have all the subject knowledge in the world but if you lack faith, then you’re not being a light… Just imagine where our public schools would be if there were no Christian teachers there.”

Whether a Christian teacher chooses to work in the public school system or at a Christian school is a calling each must answer, she explained. “Each student has a different calling… We allow God to call them to where they should go and we train them for both.”

In order to do that, Liberty requires the prospective teachers to have a practicum at both a Christian and a public school, as well as working with a diverse population of students, from those with special needs to those who are gifted. An interesting trend has been discovered from that requirement. The number of students desiring to teach at a Christian school almost doubles after their practicum at a Christian school.

“I think somehow, even these young adults don’t understand what it means to teach in a Christian school,” Dr. Ackerman said. “After their (practicum) experience at LCA, they had more of a calling and were more open to teach in a Christian school.”

She said, too often, money can be a driving force as to whether a student wants to teach at a Christian or public school. But, she added, students shouldn’t avoid teaching at a public school simply because they don’t want to teach “those students.”

“We always tell them that’s not a reason. You don’t go to a Christian school because it’s supposed to be easy. God would never call you into something that is easy.”

Prospective teachers should consider this question: “What is the real reason you want to go into a Christian school? Is it because you believe in the mission of a Christian school; (the belief) that you can’t learn subject matter without the truths of the Bible? Then you go to a Christian school (to teach).”

She added that Christian teachers in a public school system should know their rights. “I actually joke with my students that one of the best places you can shine on this earth is the teachers’ lounge. The teachers’ lounge can be place of backbiting and gossiping and talking bad about students. What an opportunity as a Christian to be a light there. There are opportunities. It’s like being in the mission field. If all the Christians left the public school, that could be bad for American civilization as we know it.”

Here are some tips Dr. Ackerman shared for parents, teachers and students as the 2009-2010 school year begins:

Q: What is a parent’s role in education?

A: “The U.S. Department of Education said that the greatest predictor of academic success is parental involvement. They have to plug in. I think there are different ways to plug in. Sometimes schools don’t accommodate the working families.

“I think Christian schools are even a little behind in this too. A friend of mine’s son went to a school and they sent home a list of ways she could get involved. It was a big list of about 25 things. About 20 of the things involved never having to even go to the school. There are the untypical things (that parents can do). Can you make some phone calls for the teacher from home? I respected the way they allowed for parental involvement taking different forms. Parental involvement doesn’t have to mean I read to my son at school every day. I think schools have to find ways to get parents involved.”

Q: What can a parent do to help their children succeed at school?

A: “Talk about school; talk about education (with their children). A study I read said that another great predictor of academic success is how many books are in the home. Parents (should) just look around and take account of how many books (compared with) how many video games and how many sports toys they have. Where are they putting a priority in their home? Is there a priority in learning? Is there a priority in cutting the TV off and reading a book … or is everything video games, footballs and barbies. Just make education a priority.

“As the school year starts, I think knowing what is happening in the school (is important). Know what they’re learning. Just make it a priority and talk about it with your child.”

Q: How would you define a successful school year for a student?

A: “Of course there’s academic success, but I think sometimes we put too much (emphasis) on that. My Mom always just said to me “Did you do your best?” She never made me feel bad for my grades not being the same as my siblings. I think most families deal with that in one way or another. Know your children and know whether they did their best.

“I say the same thing for the student. Did you do your best and did you have integrity in doing your best? I think that would be a successful year.

“So many times we emphasize winning and losing. It really is how you play the game. Parents need to do that. I think there’s so much emphasis on being the best and not everybody can be the best. That goes again to the integrity issue. You just foster that with the relationship you have with your children.”

Q: What can a teacher do when they know the parents are not involved?

A: “Teachers sometimes use that as a reason not to try. That’s a pet peeve of mine. At a Christian school that should never happen. There’s always a reason the parents aren’t involved. First teachers must find out and understand that reason. Is it because they work full time and are very busy? Do they work multiple jobs? Is there a way to encourage involvement without breaking into what’s already going on?

“It shouldn’t be an excuse. We as a school should figure out a way to foster the involvement. There (should be) positive calls home. Follow up with what you expect (the parents) to do with that positive call. I literally would tell parents their assignment that went with the positive call.

“We need to get parents involved. It’s our responsibility to figure out how.”

Q: How much homework should be given by teachers to their students?

A: “It should be age appropriate. They’ll need some homework as they get into the high school years because they’re preparing for college. Homework should always be the practice of a skill; it should never be a new skill. I think teachers miss that sometimes. Students should practice the skills so they don’t forget it. That should lessen the homework to me, particularly in the grade-school years.”

Q: What makes a successful teacher?

A: “It’s that balance between knowing your clinical skills and having interpersonal skills. You know your stuff. You know your subject area, but you have the ability to interact with your students and their parents.

“Teachers tend to be against No Child Left Behind; I tend to be a fan of it. It used to be that before No Child Left Behind 30 percent of the students in a school wouldn’t have to pass the standards. And guess who that 30 percent was — special ed, minorities, low socio-economic and ESL (English as a second language) students. ‘The least of these’ is what I call them. In a sense ‘the least of these’ is who we set up for failure. We didn’t even care if they passed because we only needed 70 percent. The whole intent of No Child Left Behind is that those four categories have to make Adequate Yearly Progress to 100 percent. I think the problem without doing it is that we’re setting students up to fail. It’s not equitable education. This (NCLB) is forcing their hands on that a little bit. Now there are problems with it. But it’s better than it was before.

“I’ll be honest and frank: Teachers don’t like it because they haven’t had to be held accountable. We’re the only profession that has no accountability. Christian schools also need accountability. It’s the same thing. They need to be held to some type of standard. Christian schools need to have some standards and some curriculum mapping making sure they’re hitting on the content.”

“We’re talking about science, math and history. But (also) what are we doing to test that we’re raising disciples for Christ? Are we teaching the spiritual disciplines? I don’t think we’ve done enough thinking about the product and being held accountable for our product. (Ask) do we see change; are we making a difference — what is that picture of a student before and after my class?”

Q: If you had five minutes to spend with a first-year teacher, what would you say before the school year began?

A: “Behavior management: I think that’s what frustrates the first year teachers so much. They spend so much time on lesson planning and curriculum. Behavior management is almost a skill you learn by fire. I always say your behavior management (skills) can be taught in one sentence: Finding that balance between being well-liked and well-respected. They need to go into their class being both liked and loved by their students, but respected. The first year novice teacher, especially, goes in (wanting to be) liked too much.

“Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you err in (wanting to be) too well-liked, you make sure you set up your classroom with very specific rules, consequences for breaking the rules and rewards for doing the right thing. Sometimes we go in, we set up our room, we do beautiful bulletin boards and we have our curricula ready, but we didn’t plan our seating charts, we didn’t get our rules posted — we didn’t have a system for behavior management.

“The younger grades get this right. For some reason we stop doing that as they (the students) get older. The systems can still exist. I had a high school student teacher who did a Survivor game with the high school class. It was a reward, behavior-management consequence system. I would make sure I had a system.”

Q: Anything else?

A: “I really believe in the power of prayer. Sit at every one of your students’ desks and say a prayer for them as you’re starting the year. Say ‘God sent these students to me and He’s entrusting them with me for a year.’ Pray for them individually. Ask God to lead you in how to educate them and train them.”

Q: What should a student’s attitude toward the new year be?

A: “I’d say prayer, too. Plan, be organized. Really it’s a lot the same for parents, teachers and students. Get that agenda. Manage your time. We really load kids down today with extracurricular things, even in elementary school. Start getting to bed early.

“Students should also prepare themselves for integrity. It’s a whole different world out there. We’re seeing it (integrity issues) in younger grades.”

Q: What should every teacher want their students to know about their class?

A: “That everything I do in my class is because I care for you as a student; it’s because I want you to be successful and to have integrity.”

Q: How should a student prepare for college?

A: “Typically by your junior year, you want to start looking at the different colleges, deciding what you want to study and who offers what. Visit the colleges, ask the right questions.

“Learn how to study; learn how to manage your time. Learn how to multi-task. Once I learned that it opened up a whole world of opportunities for me. They should be teaching that in high school. They should be teaching how to study.”

By Tom Wilmoth