A new pilot program in the School of Education at Mississippi College is helping students cultivate a dynamic learning community while gaining a fresh perspective on the joys of becoming a teacher.
In conjunction with the Office of Student Success and Student Engagement at MC, the initiative is making strides towards engaging with students to enhance retention and recruitment efforts within the school, according to Cindy Melton, School of Education dean.
“At the very heart of our University, we are a family, and we want to embrace that in the School of Education,” Melton said. “We want to be a connecting point for students who are brand new to MC. We want everyone to come and feel included in what we’re doing at this University.”
School of Education leaders distributed a wide-ranging survey among returning upperclassmen to understand how they could more readily connect with incoming freshmen and transfer students and better equip them to tackle the field of education.
“We want to get to know everyone, especially those in teacher education,” Melton said. “We don’t get to teach everyone in our classrooms until well into their sophomore year, so we want to make sure we’re engaging them fully.
“When parents come for Preview Day, they are looking for people who are going to invest in their child when they can’t be here. They want to know whether MC is a place they can feel comfortable having their child learn and grow. These parents entrust us with their students to equip them as well as we can for their professions. We want to be everything they expect us to be.”
With that in mind, during the first week of fall semester classes, School of Education leaders created a welcoming environment for students in Lowrey Hall, hosting a photo booth, snacks, and a place to relax and visit with their classmates.
“We wanted them to know that we were glad to have them back and that the school is not the same without them,” Melton said. “We want them to feel like this is their home, too.”
On the first Tuesday of the fall semester, dozens of freshly baked donuts greeted students as they entered Lowrey Hall, welcoming them to Tuesday-Thursday classes. A “tailgate” tent on Thursday offered a variety of food, music, and an opportunity for newcomers to mix with older students and faculty members.
Melton said the idea for the program is to morph the dynamic events into an “education club” that will involve students monthly in social activities, such as bowling, skating, painting pumpkins, and hosting a Friendsgiving meal.
“It’s all in an effort to connect as an educational community,” she said.
The School of Education’s community initiative may be of particular interest to transfer and commuter students who may not find it easy to get “plugged in” to events on campus, according to Stephanie Carmicle, professor of biology, who leads MC’s Office of Student Success.
“The School of Education represents one of the top three areas our transfer students enter into,” Carmicle said. “This initiative is an effort to help these students reach graduation in a timely fashion.
“Coming off of the pandemic, people seem to be starving for community and are looking for ways to interact with one another. This initiative seemed like a good opportunity for us to intentionally build that community.”
While speaking with some of the students who participated in the initiative’s early activities, Carmicle said she could sense their excitement.
“Because community building is tied to specific courses in the School of Education, there is an opportunity to assess student learning, both outside and within the context of the classroom,” she said.
Abigail McCoy, a junior elementary education major from Southaven, was so excited about the pilot program that she agreed to serve as a student ambassador for the initiative. Drawn to the School of Education at MC because of its sterling reputation for educating the teachers of tomorrow, she was convinced the instructors could help her determine – and achieve – her career goals.
“I love children and wanted to center my career around working with them,” said McCoy, who is working on a servant leadership minor with an endorsement in special education. “Being in the education program at MC has helped me realize I want to be a hospital educator, and it has given me avenues to make connections that I would never have been able to otherwise.”
She said participating in the pilot project has made her feel closer to new education students and to the school’s professors as well.
“To be able to work with professors that I love and help bring out the community aspects of the Education Department is so much fun,” she said. “The organization of education ambassadors is new this year, so our responsibilities have consisted of voicing our opinions to our sponsors and professors, attending the tailgate during the first week of school, and encouraging the new education majors.
“I love getting to meet the new education majors at the events that we’ve hosted. They’re so excited to be here. It’s fun to get to know each other outside of class time, and I want new students who are entering the program to see the joys of becoming a teacher from a different view. Ever since I got to MC, my department has felt like a family. I love sharing that with people, and I think people like hearing how closely knit the Education Department is here.”
McCoy said School of Education students understand the value of community, especially since many of them will work alongside their current classmates after graduating from MC.
“I am walking through the Education Department with future teachers, educators, administrators, and professors, and no matter where we end up after graduation, we will always remember where we came from,” she said. “We have all done observations together, we do group projects together, and we will end up student teaching at the same time. If you feel close to the people you are in classes with and work so closely with, it makes the hard times and late nights so much more enjoyable.
“I have a group of people who understand what I’m going through when we talk about the details of lesson plans, or do a silly kindergarten craft, or discuss how we may best handle a crying child. Our professors must be closely involved with us, because we could look to them for connections and jobs, or even just advice on a life problem. They have all been teachers before, so they understand more deeply what we are going through now.”
Melton said School of Education faculty track data to analyze how well the program keeps students connected to their faculty and peers. In the meantime, she said the school plans to continue the pilot project in the spring semester.
“It’s something we want to see grow,” she said. “When you see excitement, especially from returning students, it drives home the point that this initiative is helpful. Getting buy-in from faculty and current students was a critical piece of this puzzle. Eventually, we want this community of teacher educators to become a part of who we are.
“The foundation of effective teaching is building great relationships. We want to make sure we are doing that well with our students and model that and be an example of that, because we realize how incredibly critical it is for effectiveness in the K-12 classroom.”
Carmicle said similar community initiatives may debut in the future.
“Learning communities may look different in other departments or schools,” she said, “but I am excited to think about establishing some other new communities on campus.”