The Education department continues to strive for critical engagement within classes and extensive support for its students
Burke Martindale ’21 first became interested in special education while attending high school in West Hartford, Connecticut, where he had the opportunity to work in special education classrooms and as an au pair with a high-need student during the summer months.
Jeff Frank, associate professor of education and coordinator of undergraduate education programs, says educational studies has just one learning goal: “Students will understand that educational problems are complex.” That may seem simple on the outset, yet it goes deep to the core of what Frank and other education faculty at St. Lawrence aim to achieve with students like Martindale.
“This is an important goal because conversations around education tend to be deeply ideological, partisan, or polarizing, or they are driven by a belief that there are simple solutions to educational problems,” Frank says. “Our students, building off their major field of study and overall liberal education, are positioned to be a voice in these conversations that ask us to appreciate complexity. For example, charter schools aren’t all bad or all good; someone who appreciates complexity is able to see this and also propose good solutions to problems that aren’t going away.”
While St. Lawrence recently let go of its graduate certification tracks, Frank says the University should be seen as a leader in the field of educational studies among its peer institutions.
“I would like to think we are doing things that the New York Six and other elite liberal arts colleges aren’t doing,” Frank notes. “The teacher certification track is narrowly focused and highly regulated by the state, and this has put it at odds with the purposes of a liberal arts education. Many liberal arts colleges are either sticking with their certification programs or are still trying to get off the ground an educational studies program that looks like St. Lawrence’s model.”
Approaching education as a discipline as opposed to a regimen is what makes Assistant Professor of Education Jessica Sierk’s work applicable across majors. After earning her doctorate from the University of Nebraska in 2016, Sierk knew that she wanted to teach at an institution that encouraged conversations about education both on campus as well as in the greater society.
“My dissertation focused on critical whiteness studies, and it asked, ‘How does white supremacy manifest itself at educational institutions?’ That’s the kind of questioning I hope students who take my courses ask when looking at education policy,” Sierk says. “I want my students to come away from my course, saying to themselves, ‘I want to do something to enact change so this stops happening.’”
Sierk aims to teach St. Lawrence education minor students that educational issues, especially when looking at public K-12 schooling, are not merely one-dimensional; they are more nuanced and require multi-faceted solutions that require expertise from a variety of academic disciplines.
“Education isn’t just about schools; it’s also about poverty, health care, minimum wage, food scarcity, etc.,” she says. “Complex problems require complex solutions.”
Sierk also aims to make the campus community more aware of the work being done within St. Lawrence’s Department of Education. One exercise she had students in her Contemporary Issues course conduct, including Martindale, was titled “Caption This.” It had students relate LGBTQ photos to quotes from their class readings, and they hung the collage in the Sullivan Student Center.
“It’s one of those things that gets people to ask who we are as an institution,” Sierk says.
Only in his second year, Martindale, who plays quarterback on the men’s football team, declared a psychology major and education minor with the hopes of creating a career in special education. He understands that different schools have to deal with the complex problems that Sierk describes differently. While he considers his high school suburban and middle- to upper-middle class, he’s also interested in what issues districts with less resources face. He hopes to intern at a school in St. Lawrence County, which has some of the highest poverty rates in New York state.
“In my [First-Year Seminar] with Professor Frank, we looked at what it means to be in education. There’s more than just teaching; there are bigger societal issues at play,” he recalls. “My final paper focused on the high attrition rates for special education teachers and how changing policies might help reduce stress and increase retention. I suggested new mentoring programs as well as changes that would reduce the administrative work among special ed teachers. But that may not be possible everywhere.”
According to Frank, the education minor complements just about any major offered at St. Lawrence. It works, he says, because there is no preordained path to getting an educational studies minor, and it allows a student to build upon and explore one’s major in ways that puts philosophy into action.
“Even if a student doesn’t enter a career in education, the minor is a good one because it prepares a student to become an active citizen and a concerned parent,” he argues. “Instead of falling for the next educational fad, our students are positioned to see through these fads and commit to better forms of education for their children and their communities.”