One Size Does Not Fit All: What It Means to Serve All Learners

The evolution of a teacher candidate into a professional educator does not occur overnight. Rather, it is a slow, steady, empowering journey that unfolds over several years, with teacher candidates receiving support and encouragement from mentor teachers and university faculty alike. Through it all, teacher candidates learn just as many lessons as they teach, ideally with one overarching principle repeatedly impressed upon them: that they must serve all learners.

This is no small task, as today’s educators enter increasingly diverse schools. This diversity creates wonderful learning opportunities for all, but it also presents its fair share of challenges. Teachers will encounter students with disabilities. They will encounter students who are gifted and talented. They will encounter students from low-income families. They will encounter students from various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as students who do not speak English as a first language.

As a result of these and other differentiating factors, teachers cannot approach their profession with a one-size-fits-all mentality. They must get to know their students as much as possible, recognize individual differences among them, and determine how each student learns best. And then they must adjust accordingly. A lesson plan that works for one classroom may not work for another. Similarly, a lesson plan that works for one student may not work for another. Without this knowledge, teachers – especially new teachers – will struggle.

That is why AACTE’s member colleges and schools of education must impart this knowledge, and we must be intentional about it. We cannot assume that teacher candidates are aware of this need for flexibility, nor can we expect it to resonate after one course or one quarter or semester. Instead, schools of education must infuse these concepts throughout curricular and cocurricular experiences and course content.

At my college, Ohio University’s Patton College of Education, we ensure that all teacher candidates have clinical experiences in both rural and urban settings. This dichotomy is crucial for teacher-candidate development. Ohio University is located in Athens, Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia. The knowledge, skills, and dispositions nurtured in this region differ from those nurtured in suburban and urban communities, and it is important for teacher candidates – and schools of education – to realize that.

I recall the journey one of our teacher candidates took as she struggled in relating to her students. She came from an affluent suburban background vastly different from that of her students, most of whom lived in poverty. The teacher candidate felt sorry for these students for not growing up with the same advantages that she did.

One day, however, that changed. As she was getting to know her students, one of them was stunned when she shared that she had never been squirrel hunting – or deer hunting, fishing, or four-wheeling, for that matter. These activities were staples of this particular student’s life, and he could not believe that someone – especially someone with as much experience and opportunity as she has – had not experienced them.

The student said that he felt sorry for her.

For the teacher candidate, the lesson was as clear as it was eye-opening: Instead of judging someone’s background or quality of life, understand and appreciate the differences between and among us – and then adjust your teaching methods as a result. If for one moment we doubt whether students have value – or the capacity to learn and grow – we should question whether we have chosen the right profession.

James Sutter is a prime example of that. He graduated from our college’s Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program, which recruits and prepares math and science majors to work in high-need districts. Sutter, who had previously worked in the private sector assessing environmental risk for corporations, went on to teach AP environmental science at Wellston High School in Wellston, Ohio, where many of his students were climate-change skeptics. Sutter tried facts, data, and documentaries to convince his students otherwise, but to no avail. He received staunch opposition in his classroom and even had one student walk out mid-lesson.

Sutter realized he needed to do a better job of teaching science and relating to his students’ lived experiences. So he did. He led a field trip to a wooded area and stream near the school to show students how climate change was affecting their immediate environment, whether it was the preponderance of emerald ash borers, heavy rainfall, flooding, or neon-orange water samples, which, according to pH tests, were as acidic as white vinegar.

It worked. By localizing the lesson plan, Sutter impacted his students in ways data and documentaries couldn’t. While some of Sutter’s students remained climate skeptics, many changed their views on the matter, with some even doing "a 180."

New York Times national correspondent Amy Harmon published several stories about Sutter and is returning to Southeast Ohio November 7 to participate in an evening program cohosted by Ohio University’s Patton College of Education and the New York Times: "Teaching, Learning, and Reporting About Science in Times of Public Mistrust." Harmon, Sutter, and current and former Wellston students will participate as panel members, along with Sami Kahn, assistant professor of teacher education in The Patton College, and Bernhard Debatin, professor of environmental and science journalism in The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be live-streamed on The Patton College’s YouTube Channel.

None of this would be possible without Sutter’s dynamic and innovative teaching methods grounded in sound pedagogical preparation.

In the end, AACTE and its member institutions must remain committed to the endeavor of serving all learners effectively. We must be passionate about our work, and we must model in our own classrooms what it looks like to educate and serve all learners. After all, if we do not model and value a differentiated learning environment at our own institutions in our own classrooms, how can we expect our candidates to do so in PK-12 classrooms?

The onus is on us. Let’s not fall short in this effort.

Renée A. Middleton is dean of Ohio University’s Patton College of Education and chair of the AACTE Board of Directors for 2017-2018.

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Renée A. Middleton

Ohio University