Epiphany: 150 Years, Founded on a Normal School “Soul

Illustration of two abstract figures learning from a book with the gazebo at Geneseo in the background

Illustration by Rachel Mihlstin ’21

SUNY Distinguished professor and School of Education director Dennis Showers examines the college’s teaching history — and how it enriches Geneseo’s soul.

By Dennis Showers

Ella Cline Shear, for whom our School of Education is named, came to the Geneseo Normal and Training School in 1933 and stayed engaged with us for more than six decades. As director of the School of Education, I had the pleasure of corresponding with her over several years.

When I reflect on the normal school beginnings of Geneseo, Ella’s words help me consider how qualities central to teacher preparation opened the possibilities of Geneseo’s liberal arts future.

First, I considered whether our teacher preparation might be how we provide access to knowledge for teachers. However, knowledge sharing cannot be all it is. If teacher preparation was just about providing teachers with knowledge, Google could do it. Google can’t do what we do. Then I considered whether teacher preparation might be about providing skills and techniques. But if teacher preparation was simply about skill development, YouTube could do it. YouTube can’t do what we do.

Preparing teachers is both sharing one’s own knowledge and skills while at the same time igniting and nurturing a teacher’s soul. The soul of a teacher transcendently brings the other components together, giving a career meaning beyond an occupation and a paycheck. 

Not identified or measured by certification exam scores, the soul of a teacher is tested every day — some days more than others. Take the November 5, 2008, election test: “Describe how, after waking to the news, you discuss how Barack Obama’s election changes the reality and possibilities of our world.” The March 15, 2020, pandemic test: “Describe how you tell your students they will not come back to school until it is safe, but you will do everything you can to provide the education they were promised. Use that explanation to shape every day for the next year or more.” Then there is the 9/11 test: “Tell 12 six-year-olds to hold hands as you lead them to safety. Be strong. Tell them everything is going to be all right — although you are not sure that is the case.” These are not multiple-choice questions. They cannot be looked up in a book. They are tests of the soul.

Contrary to what one might think, the mission of a normal school is not to create great teachers. It is to create great beginning teachers. Great teachers come from great beginning teachers using their acquired knowledge, skills and soul. This is not professional training; it is soul development. The great normal school creates a foundation upon which great teachers construct themselves.

Just as each teacher develops their own teaching soul, SUNY Geneseo itself has its own living, generative soul. It emerges from a collective of students, faculty, staff, alumni, school partners and the wider community. It is the coalesced manifestation of shared sunsets and academic achievement. It is coming together in tragedy, coming together in triumph, and coming together in mission.

From its founding through 150 years of growth and change, SUNY Geneseo created its singular soul. Preparing teachers became the foundation of the public liberal arts college. The liberal arts college initiatives for anti-racism and social justice today come directly from the basic pedagogical norm of a vision to look past race, gender and other labels to see students as wonderfully diverse, capable individuals. Now, the great liberal arts college creates the great foundation upon which great citizens and scholars construct themselves.

Remove instruction in the “norms” of curriculum and pedagogy from which “normal” schools get their title and replace it with depth and breadth in the arts, sciences, humanities and other liberal studies. The education is different, but the soul that drives it is the same.

In her last letter to me in May 2001, Ella Shear commented, “Hope you, too, are pleased with the progress at Geneseo this year.” We should all be pleased to look back on progress at Geneseo over 150 years, each pleased with our share of the Geneseo soul.

About the Author
Dennis Showers, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor of Education, twice served as director of the Ella Cline Shear School of Education. He, his wife Emily, and their son Joe joined the Geneseo community in 1986. He has worked with teachers, teacher educators and schools in 18 countries. As the Spencer J. Roemer Supported Professor (2013-2016), he taught UFOs, Science and Society. He is currently on sabbatical examining anti-racist and social justice curricula in science and mathematics teaching.

 

Author: geneseoscene

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