Teaching Teachers: Baker’s newest school is built on a solid reputation

Baker Teachers

When Abby Burnett stepped in front of her own class for the first time, she had more than 100 years of experience behind her.

Burnett, a Baker alumna and middle-level mathematics education major from LaCygne, Kan., said she felt confident when she began her student teaching practicum.

“Through my experience and my practicums, the School of Education has prepared me more than I could ever imagine to be in the classroom,” she said. “With all of the huge responsibilities of a teacher, I feel comfortable knowing that I can help every student succeed.”

An emphasis on classroom experience has been a primary focus throughout the history of Baker’s education programs, setting Baker teachers apart from other institutions.

“We’ve always had a lot of practicum experiences. I think that’s crucial,” said Peggy Harris, Vice President and Dean of the School of Education.

“I think that’s why we don’t have many people who get to student teaching and decide they don’t want to do this any more.”

Harris said by the time the undergraduate education student at Baker goes into student teaching, he or she must have completed anywhere from 212 to 431 classroom hours.

Merrie Skaggs, ’67, said her classroom experience was pivotal in her preparation for a 13-year stint teaching in public schools.

“Baker was much ahead of the time. At other schools, nobody was in the classroom until student teaching,” she said. “We have a longstanding tradition of linking theory with practice, and I really think that’s what makes our programs valuable.”

In more than a century, Baker’s education programs have gone from one of the earliest forms of teacher training — the Normal School offering a non-baccalaureate teacher license – to the modern-day School of Education with bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. A reputation for highly qualified teachers and an excellent preparatory curriculum have been consistent throughout history.

When the Kansas State Board of Education began granting teaching certificates at the beginning of the 20th century, Baker was one of the few universities included. Baker was also on the first list of accredited teacher colleges in 1913 after gaining accreditation five years earlier.

When Skaggs attended Baker University in the 1960s, she witnessed the same standards for aspiring teachers she brought to the classroom during her tenure as a faculty member. Those ideals were instilled by two legends in Baker’s history.

Education faculty lead school to success

“Mr. Sam Hill was here then and Dr. Lowell Gish, and they’ve become icons in education here at Baker. They really set the tone and the expectations for teacher education at Baker, and that was high,” she said. “When I was a student, I felt the department was excellent. The program was very rigorous, and that’s something we continue to aspire to today.”

It was those two professors who proved Baker legends and propelled the reputation of Baker’s teaching programs through the end of the 20th century.

Hill, 1941, had educational experiences much different than those he accommodated later as a professor of education. Born in 1916 near Gardner, he received his earliest formal education in a one-room schoolhouse. In the 1930s, Hill received a teaching certificate from Baker but returned for his bachelor’s degree.

Sam Hill

Sam Hill

As Hill was inducted into the faculty Hall of Fame for his work at Baker from 1959 to 1983, he stated what makes a great teacher, providing the same philosophy he had preached to aspiring teachers for decades.

“It doesn’t make any difference what curriculum, what program you have. The heart of it goes to the teacher,” Hill said. “To be a teacher, you have to be authentic. You have to stand for something. You have to be real. You have to love kids. You have to love to learn, and you have to love to teach.”

Shortly after Hill’s arrival, Lowell Gish, another future member of the University’s Faculty Hall of Fame, came to Baker to serve as chair of the education department from 1963 until 1995.

The dynamic duo set the foundation for teacher preparation that continues to  show high results today. On state teacher assessments, Baker repeatedly sees either 100-percent pass rates or those above the state average. The most recent round of assessments was no exception, with 100 percent of elementary-education students passing the Principles of Learning and Teaching exam and the field content exam, which are required to become a licensed teacher.

Lowell Gish

Lowell Gish

In 2005, the Kansas Board of Education introduced the Kansas Performance Assessment, a more extensive measure of determining teacher preparedness. Of the 14 Baker students who participated in the assessment, all passed.

Since Gish’s retirement in 1995, Baker’s education programs have taken that excellence beyond the undergraduate level, expanding in opportunities and growing in numbers.

Bill Neuenswander came to Baker in 1995 as chair of the education department from a long career in education.

As the department added two master’s programs – a master’s of arts in education and a master’s of arts in school leadership – in the late 1990s, Neuenswander said Baker’s education programs grew rapidly, going from 180 undergraduates to about 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

With the success of the initial expansion in the 1990s, Neuenswander and his colleagues were given the task  of continuing expansion. In August 2005, the University’s first doctoral program – a doctorate in education – was approved by the Higher Learning Commission, and in November of that year, the Baker Board of Trustees approved the development of a new school – the School of Education.

When the newest school officially opened in 2006, the enrollment in education programs had grown from about 180 to 1,100 in a decade.

Neuenswander said the route to the modern School of Education has been challenging, just as is the role of the teacher.

“There’s a lot of change, and if you don’t move with it, you’re gone,” he said. “Of teachers in the classroom 40 years ago, few would survive in today’s classroom.”

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