The Colgate Scene
November 2005

The reflective teacher
Challenging students to think about the world in a different light

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Kay Johnston wonders about students who have their hands in the air when classmates are speaking.

"If you have your hand up, you're waiting to talk rather than listening to the conversation," the former middle school teacher explained. "It drives me crazy. Once you get older, you realize that it pays to slow down, listen, and, most importantly, ask more questions."

It's clear from observing Johnston in a number of different situations that the professor of educational studies and women's studies takes her own advice to heart. A meeting in September of her Seminar on Moral Development course, for example, started not with a discussion about Jean Piaget's book The Moral Judgment of the Child as was originally planned, but with a timely conversation about displaced children who survive devastating events such as Hurricane Katrina, and how schools can accommodate and nurture them, wherever they settle in the wake of disaster.

Then came the questions.

"Do you ever think about what your moral responsibility is at a time like this?" she posed, leaning forward in her chair toward the 11 students gathered around the long classroom table. The undergraduates took turns sharing their thoughts about whether evacuees needed more care and concern than a district's current pupils.

She continued to prod them before effortlessly segueing into a debate about the scheduled topic of the class, moral realism. "How do you set up a classroom in this kind of situation?" "How do you elicit mutual respect for everyone involved?" "What are the future implications for education?"

"It's my goal to challenge my students to think about and see the world in a different light," Johnston explained later of her pedagogical modus operandi. "I guess I would say that I'm not only imparting my information and knowledge, but also showing them why it's important to be critical of it." Her goal, she added with a laugh, is somewhat ironic given her position, but fitting nonetheless: she wants her students to leave Colgate not just as teachers, but as lifelong learners -- and questioners -- themselves.

"I guess I would say that I'm not only imparting my information and knowledge, but also showing them why it's important to be critical of it."

The teacher as student
Johnston's own passion for learning and discovering is in her chemistry, she said, and that enthusiasm spilled over into her professional life. Her career began in the 1960s, when she earned her bachelor of arts degree at Ohio University, and went on to take a job as an English teacher at a middle school in Long Island. She quickly realized that a startling portion of her students had trouble reading and needed extra assistance. After asking herself what she could do to help, she enrolled in a master of education program in reading at Boston University, which led to a series of reading positions at a school district in the Boston area. She took a year off from teaching "to think" and concentrate on her studies for a graduate program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in the late 1970s, and then decided to work part-time and complete her doctorate in education at Harvard simultaneously.

Although those in-the-trenches experiences in Long Island and Boston helped spark her joy for teaching and then fanned the flames, a "unique opportunity" at Colgate in the mid-1980s soon beckoned, Johnston said. The university was advertising an opening for a faculty member in educational studies who could teach reading. The position seemed to fit her perfectly, so Johnston packed her bags and headed west on Interstate 90 to Hamilton. "I've been really lucky in my career -- each step in it has built on the last," she said.

Since coming to Colgate, Johnston said she sometimes "looks back" at her experiences as a reading teacher and shares her own wisdom with students who seek out her advice during office hours or casual conversations in the corridors of Alumni Hall. In her own classroom, though, she rarely talks about herself. "My courses are more about the material we read and connecting that theory to the students' lives and experiences," she explained. "I don't hide my perspective, but class is more about teaching my students how to understand the work with which we are dealing, and why that work matters in the world in which we live."


Questioning herself
Many of Johnston's former students agree that her approach to connecting students to the coursework -- which can involve educational theory in one course and practical skills in another -- provides a great example of what works in the classroom. "She didn't tell us how to teach; she modeled for us how to teach," said Elizabeth Tarvin '92, now an education instructor at a community college. "She read aloud children's literature to us -- which reminded me the pleasure and value of doing so at any age -- she made thoughtful choices about our readings, she gave assignments that were learning experiences as well as assessment pieces, and she spoke to us with respect and kindness, while challenging us at the same time. When I taught elementary school for nine years, I frequently heard her words in my head as I faced different situations."

Darcy Richardson '06 believes that Johnston's style works particularly well with students because it forces them to grapple with real issues, not just sit passively and "soak it in."

"Her questions constantly push us to think a little harder or to look at things in slightly different ways," Richardson said. "What is especially effective about the questions she asks is that they are not already planned. She is knowledgeable enough in the subject matter that she can adapt her questions to our responses and interests while still directing the discussion to points of importance."

Not surprisingly, such positive feedback from pupils hasn't stopped Johnston from continuing to evaluate and fine-tune her own methods. After a discussion at a recent conference about education programs, Johnston and former Colgate colleagues Heidi Ross, professor of education in Indiana University-Bloomington's School of Education, and Christopher Bjork, assistant professor in Vassar College's Department of Education, decided to research educational studies and teacher certification programs on liberal arts campuses for a future book. The purpose? "To look back at what works through the lens of practice," said the almost 40-year veteran of the field.

Johnston even contacted a handful of graduates who were certified to teach through Colgate's program and have been in the field for approximately 10 years, and talked to them about how they feel Colgate prepared them for their profession. Two particular sentiments from those conversations struck her, she said. Several alumni emphasized the importance of finding a support group of fellow teachers, and others said they realized how well they learned to think and to write. She plans to incorporate some of the practical feedback of the graduates into the educational studies program soon, but she does not foresee fundamentally changing her teaching technique of questioning and assessing anytime in the future.

After all, she said: "Learning is a lifelong process for all of us -- I'm still learning, and I've been teaching since 1969. Think about it. If we all stopped learning new things, wouldn't we be in some real trouble? And if we stopped thinking and questioning things, where's the joy in life?"

Jenkins is associate director of media relations at Colgate.
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