When Dr. Leigh Monhardt, associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, is asked what he loves most about teaching, the answer is clear: he loves the challenge of making each class he teaches meaningful and relevant to his students.
Monhardt, who joined UW-Platteville in 2007, teaches all of the elementary and secondary science methods courses offered by the university’s School of Education, including two STEM-integrated science courses.
Professionally, Monhardt has been teaching for 31 years – 11 years as an elementary and middle school science teacher and 20 years in higher education. These teaching experiences allow him to provide his current students specific examples that are not from a textbook, but something he has actually experienced in the classroom. For example, in his science methods courses, he can give students very specific examples that help build not only a better understanding of the concepts being taught, but also give a richness that is often lost in textbooks.
Monhardt has extensive in-service experience as a lead teacher and clinician for several National Science Foundation teacher enhancement projects, including STEM Connects, UW-Platteville; Science Co-op Project, University of Missouri-St. Louis; Science PALs (Parents, Activities, and Literature), Iowa City, Iowa; and Iowa Chautauqua Program, Iowa City, Iowa. In addition, he has been involved in science teacher training throughout the states of Utah, Iowa, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
What is your primary goal in the classes you teach?
How one teaches is necessarily influenced by what one perceives as the goals of successful education. Certainly, the primary goal in my field and in the classes I teach is to prepare our students to be effective educators. To achieve this goal, I must be reasonably clear about two things: (1) the capabilities, achievements, strengths and weaknesses, background and interests of my learners; and (2) the short- and long-term objectives I hope to achieve.
How do you build a community of learners in your classroom?
Students enter my classroom with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, which have an influence on how they perceive the world of teacher education. Knowing this, the first experience that students have in my courses is building a community of learners – which includes groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.
One experience that I utilize in every course I teach is to put students into base groups that last the entire length of the course. These small groups of 4-5 students become more than just study or discussion groups. Students are given opportunities to develop relationships with the students around them through various team-building, shared experiences and problem-solving strategies. This provides an opportunity for students to not only get to know the students they are interacting with, but also to develop their capabilities, share their strengths and work to improve their weaknesses. Over time, students develop a common sense of purpose and a desire to share class-related knowledge and experiences.
How are you involved in the community of learners?
As part of the community of learners, I actively involve myself in the student groups, getting to know not only the students’ names but also their needs, backgrounds and the experiences they have had which will be an asset to them as future educators. This information informs my instruction, as I use this information to build experience and lessons that reflect the background and interests of my students.
Students are individuals and that is not lost in my courses. What does change is that now students have to look beyond just their own ideas to include the varied experiences and ideas and relationships that occur within a community of learners. In this way, I strongly think that learning can become more relevant for my students.
What are your affective objectives for the courses you teach?
In teacher education, students first need to develop confidence in themselves, in their understanding of effective teaching practices and in the content they will be teaching. Students build confidence by getting opportunities to practice their craft. In this practice phase, students have varying levels of success. In each course that I teach, there is a practicum, or school teaching component, or an in-class teaching experience.
It is also very important that students have time to reflect on how they think they achieved the goals that were set. Students are required to write reflection papers in which they provide feedback on what they think went well and what areas are in need of improvement. In responding to my students’ reflections, I provide feedback that hopefully encourages and strengthens their confidence in becoming more effective educators.
Another very important affective goal is for my students to develop a joy and enthusiasm for teacher education. Because the models that students view and experience in the classroom profoundly influence them, it is my goal to show, through my example, the joy and enthusiasm that I feel for what I am teaching. In this way, my objective is for my students to share their enthusiasm with their students.
Why is it so important to provide instruction that is meaningful and relevant for your students?
Only when students’ needs and interests are taken into consideration does the content that is being learned become truly meaningful. In each course I teach, students have opportunities to choose and explore topics and issues of their own choice. The topics are explored within the context of a cognitive course objective, but end up being more significant because the topic is of high interest to the student.
For example, in a science methods course, students learn how to effectively implement inquiry strategies with students. After exploring the concept of inquiry in class, students develop an inquiry of their own to present to the class. In this way, students are learning strategies and concepts, but are being allowed to explore them within the context of their own needs and interests.
When students enter my classes, they are welcomed into a community of learners. With their help and input, hopefully, they will leave my class better able to not only understand the content of the course, but also better able to understand themselves and those with whom they have worked throughout the semester. My teaching philosophy and strategies are established to help all my students enter into this community.
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