Person of the Week
Bethany G. Hill-Anderson
Associate Professor in the School of Education and One Who Teaches College Students To Become Teachers
No one in my family has a PhD. When you don’t have that history, it is kind of scary. You don’t see it as being a possibility. But once I got over that hurdle, then I was good to go. My doctorate is in educational studies curriculum and instruction. Teaching is about relationships with the students first and then it is about the content.
1. What led you to the mission of being an Associate Professor in the School of Education – one who teaches college students to become teachers?
My undergraduate degree is in economics and French. I did the business world for a while. I always knew that that wasn’t me. Then I had my daughter Hillary and started to understand the importance of education. Then we had Blake, my son, and I started to understand how different children can be. I stayed at home with them when they were little.
My husband was in the Air Force, so we were moving every three to four years. When we lived in Tampa, Florida, the children were in preschool and first grade. We did so many things with them. We taught them. At this point I actually looked at being a school psychologist. I started to take classes at the University of South Florida. But then I realized that the school psychologist really did more testing then building relationships. At the University of South Florida I learned of the Masters in Social Science Education and started the program.
As soon as I graduated, we moved here to Illinois. Illinois would not take any of my teaching certifications. I had to go through the whole testing process again to become a teacher. During this time I did a lot of subbing in the schools. I also taught GED classes. I also taught adult basic education. It was quite interesting to go from subbing with fifth graders to teaching adults. (Note: GED is General Education Development, a series of classes and tests to give those who did not complete high school the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency credential.)
I felt that I could go either route – teaching high school or teaching GED classes. But the GED classes were grant funded. That wasn’t very secure. I wanted to teach in the high school where I lived. The first social studies opening was posted but also five coaching positions were also posted. There is a joke within social studies education, “What do you call a social studies teacher?” The answer is, “Coach.”
When I was still at the University of South Florida, my mentor and my university supervisor, started going after me to get my PhD. So this had kind of been in the back of my head to do. My husband started working on his PhD at the St. Louis University. It seemed that if I could get an assistantship – that would be the route for me to get my PhD.
But first I was upset the school psychologist thing didn’t work out. I had thought about that for so long. I could see with my own children how different they were. They both had been tested for the gifted program in Florida. I knew their IQ’s were about the same. They actually tested same. But the way they used their intelligence was so vastly different. I was disappointment that I didn’t go the route of school psychologist. I went into social studies.
Then I got to Illinois. I got settled with being a social studies teacher. But then there is the thing with life. Sometimes when things don’t work our your way it is a way to stop focusing on that and see a broader picture as to what else is possible. No one in my family has a PhD. I have twenty-six first cousins and none of my cousins have a college education. I’m the youngest of four girls. My oldest sister has a Bachelor’s. My second sister was the first medical doctor in the family. My third sister has an MBA and so I was the first to earn a PhD. When you don’t have that history, it is kind of scary. You don’t see it as being a possibility. You don’t see it as being something that you and your people do. Other people do that. It took a while for me to accept the fact that I was smart enough to get a PhD. (To see a copy of the dissertation abstract, click here.)
At first I just thought people were being nice to me because they felt sorry for me – because I didn’t think I was that smart. But once I got over that hurdle, then I was good to go and I knew I was where I was supposed to be working on my doctorate at St. Louis University. My doctorate is in educational studies curriculum and instruction.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
It means something different at different times, quite honestly. It is extremely rewarding when students graduate and get jobs and they let me know. Or two years after graduation I’ll get a message through Facebook that will let me know that the big project I made students do in college was actually used in their own classes.
My one particular class on how to teach social studies is not an easy class. Students generally had boring social studies teachers themselves so they come in generally speaking with the idea that social studies is boring – that it is only about dates and old dead white men. I make it relevant to them. I make the content interesting to them. I teach them what kinds of questions they need to ask students so that they can make it interesting to elementary and middle school students. Those are some pretty big concepts. They have to do a thematic unit. They get to pick their topic. They have to do a lesson on history and geography and social systems or civics or economic — based on learning standards and common core.
Several times I’ve gotten the comments that it was a real struggle or that they didn’t like me at certain times during the semester. But when they finish that project, they truly feel like they have accomplished something. They are most proud of that individual piece of work from the program.
I have a former student who now teaches fourth grade. She said, “Remember the time that you went through the list of everything that can go wrong on a field trip and some of us believed you and some of us didn’t? Everything that you said could go wrong went wrong on my first field trip with my students. I just kept hearing your voice. ‘What if it rains? Where are you going to go?’”
I had a group of students who really didn’t want to do the work. Enough of them felt this way to make it a challenging group. Most of them made it through student teaching but I had one student come up and say, “I know that we weren’t very nice to you sometimes and we didn’t do the work that we should have been doing, but that project that you made us do was what got me through my student teaching. I went back and looked at all the feedback you gave me and you told me I could do it. You told me I was doing a good job.” She told me that I had written good comments all the way through, but I was holding her to the task and providing her the support. Hearing that was a good day. I walked away from the conversation saying, “OK.” You have to realize that they don’t always get it that semester, but quite often it really comes to fruition when they have to do it with real children and not just for me. They will understand what I am asking them to do is not for me – because that is what I get – “What do you want?” My response is, “No, it is what you want and what do the children need?” Then during the student teaching, this is when they get it.
3. What was your best day being an Associate Professor in the School of Education – one who teaches college students to become teachers?
One of my best days happened in another class. After I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I had a fun group of students. One of their other professors was teaching them how to write a biography. The whole class chose me as the topic to write their biography. The class together talked and the professor wrote it up on the board. They put something in about how much I love social studies. They wrote about women’s rights and individual freedoms and how I have pain and I have joy and I worry about my son’s wild side. It was truly personal. They took a picture of it and sent it to me. It is framed in my office. That was something that was really special.
4. What was your worst day being an Associate Professor in the School of Education – one who teaches college students to become teachers?
The worst day is when students are being so very critical of you. They have that freedom to be so critical but there is a process of understanding that they don’t know. It seems as though they will get angry at you for the work that you are having them do, when what you are having them do may help them.
Sometimes on the evaluations I’m overall very pleased, but I can tell when there is anger because they will say things that aren’t true about me such as, “The professor was not available”. But I was available. My cell phone number is on my syllabus. One of the students from that particular class I had met. He wanted to go over his project. I made arrangements with him. But then when I see a student like that make comments that aren’t true, I understand it is their own lack of knowledge about understanding that teaching is a difficult job.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I have a little spot in my house with my little yoga pillow that I sit on and it is right in front of a window. When I look out of that window I just see trees and the back of the yard. I meditate and I breathe and I think of the now and the present. Breathing is a miraculous thing. Just breathing and trying to be in the present to disconnect myself from the event and understand that probably what was said or happened wasn’t about just me but about the person who has said something or done something. I concentrate on all the lessons that I have had and turn it around to hope that that individual or those individuals find peace.
6. What advice do you have for someone who would like to be an Associate Professor in the School of Education – one who teaches college students to become teachers?
The priority is the children and the students. Secondary is the content. You have to know the lives of the children – what is going on and don’t judge them for what may or may not be happening in their home lives. When they come in it is your classroom and you can have your rules, but you need to understand that if a child is angry and bursts out at you, that child may be hungry. That child may have seen his parents in an argument repeatedly. Teaching is about relationships with the students first and then it is about the content.