Teaching challenges now include student safety

  • Thursday, December 20, 2012

    Commentary by Dr. Karen A. Verbeke

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    Dr. Karen A. VerbekeEleven days from Christmas, 12 days until Kwanzaa, the sixth day of Hanukkah and just five school days until holiday vacation. This is how Dec. 14 started for millions of students, teachers and other school workers across this country. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day obliterated this season of hope for the people of Newtown, Conn. -and millions more who looked on in horror.

    Along with teachers, their principal and a school psychologist, 20 hopeful 6- and 7-year old children were killed in the most brutal way. They were where most 6- and 7-year-olds like to be -school. Safely ensconced, or so they thought, they were working in learning centers, in reading groups, solving math problems and going about their day. Their parents trusted the school and its staff to teach, to nurture, to support and yes, to keep their children safe.

    Newtown had the appearance of being a peaceful small town. It was rated one of the safest places to live. Bucolic and serene, beautiful and rural, it enjoyed a highly rated school system. These facts should be important to us. They remind us crimes of this enormity can happen anywhere and at any time.

    As the director of 17 programs designed to train teachers, counselors, principals, supervisors and superintendents, I see many more challenges ahead for my colleagues and me. We are increasingly aware of the changes in education.

    It wasn't long ago those of us who embraced the responsibility of training the next generation of teachers were primarily concerned about ensuring that these future educators understood their subject matter thoroughly and knew effective strategies to teach children. We knew our students needed deep understanding of child growth and development, and experience in working in classrooms with mentor teachers.

    During the past few decades, we have seen a startling upheaval in society that now means we also must prepare our students to address poverty, homelessness, drug and substance abuse, pregnancy, child and sexual abuse, and numerous other topics that many of us had never encountered.

    School safety has always been in our curriculum, but not at the level at which we must address it now. As the community that trains our next generation of teachers, counselors and administrators, we pledge to learn and do all we can to work with local schools to enlighten not frighten, inspire not incite, and to provide skills, not skepticism.

    We cannot be complacent; we cannot continue to be surprised and overwhelmed by this. We must find ways to prepare those who have the most important jobs -teaching our children -for perhaps the most challenging part of their new career -the safety of those in their care.

    Dr. Verbeke is director of teacher education and chairman of the Department of Education at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.