Mount student teachers flourish in the classroom

March 05, 2013


Michelle Watch

Mount Saint Mary College student teacher Michelle Watch explains human internal organs to her ninth grade class in living environment at S.S. Seward Institute in Florida, NY.

On a winter afternoon at S.S. Seward Institute in Florida, NY, Michelle Watch, a student teacher from Mount Saint Mary College, led her living environment class in taking interactive notes.

Spread throughout the presentation were engaging photos of frogs and insects, lively discussions and plenty of class participation from the ninth grade students. As they split into groups to complete the accompanying assignment, Watch showcased a model of an internal organ to answer a student’s impromptu inquiry.

“I love kids and I love discovery,” said Watch, a biology major from Westtown, NY. “It’s so enjoyable to see them interested in something, to be able to encourage learning and help them discover that learning is a lifelong process.”

The placement with longtime science teacher Ernie Vanderkruik marked Watch’s first major teaching experience in public education.

Michelle Watch

Mount student teacher Michelle Watch speaks with her mentor, S.S. Seward biology teacher Ernie Vanderkruik.

She will remain in Vanderkruik’s class for her second experience, in which she will lead high school seniors in a college level course.

“Ernie is very knowledgeable in his content area,” she said about her mentor. “He’s willing to share that knowledge with me and give me pointers on my teaching. I feel very fortunate working with him.”

Vanderkruik observed that Watch is developing a keen sense of planning and flexibility, as well as gaining confidence in her teaching ability.

“I cannot wait to continue working with her to see how she will inform my teaching,” he said.

The Mount’s courses were vital in Watch’s preparation in the classroom and evolution as a teacher. Chemistry professor Lynn Maelia “had a great influence” on her, she explained, adding that all of her natural science and education professors encouraged her to succeed.

“I got to see those professionals in action, and they really inspired me,” Watch said, of her Mount education. “They go out of their way to help you and guide you.”

S.S. Seward Institute principal Michael Rheaume is a 1991 graduate of Mount Saint Mary College with a degree in childhood education and special education. He credits the college with preparing him for success: particularly courses with Paul Schwartz (psychology), Kate Lindemann (philosophy), and Joan Miller (education).

“I owe Dr. Miller a whole lot,” said Rheaume. “She’s an awesome teacher and a wonderful mentor.”

Watch finds her new environment and responsibilities challenging. She handles the occasional behavior management issues pragmatically, explaining, “The only way that you can learn about that, and prepare for that in your own classroom, is to learn how to do it during student teaching.”

She admitted, “It’s a stressful time, but there’s so much to learn. This has been an invaluable experience.”

The blossoming teacher’s successes outweigh her struggles. Watch’s students often ask her questions that go beyond the material covered on the tests she administers. That’s a good thing, she said – in doing so, they demonstrate a higher level of learning.

“You know the teaching profession was made for you when you’re able to have that kind of discussion with your students,” Watch explained. “That’s an ‘aha’ moment.”

Watch’s experience has confirmed what she already knew.

“This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

More than 16 percent of current first year students at the Mount aim for careers in education. The college’s nationally accredited education program embeds fieldwork in coursework beginning in sophomore year, and earns high marks in preparing students for New York State licensure.

It’s not uncommon for Mount alumni to take the college’s student teachers under their wings.


Kelly Dempsey, a Mount student teacher and history major from Hicksville, NY, leads a discussion about immigration during a global studies class at Newburgh Free Academy. Supervising (right) is Barbara Rubin, social studies teacher and a 1993 Mount graduate.

Elsewhere in the Mount’s large network of student teaching sites, Kelly Dempsey, a history major from Hicksville, NY, was experiencing her own triumphs.

Working with Barbara Rubin, a 1993 Mount graduate with a degree in history, Dempsey says the 3,500 high school students at Newburgh Free Academy can teach her as much as she can teach them.

“I’m really proud of making relationships with the students,” she said. “The more they feel you know them, the more they’ll give back to you.”

Mount students often find the college’s many co-curricular and extracurricular activities useful in becoming a well-rounded individual.

For Dempsey, a Mount basketball player, connecting to her students through sports is easy. Dempsey enjoys spending time with students at school basketball games, and in doing so, she learns more about their academic needs. Additionally, Dempsey and her father have taught basketball camp classes in their home town for the last four years.

“You can transfer that experience from the court to the classroom,” she said.

At the Mount, professors Frances Spielhagen and Dolores Berlinghoff were instrumental in molding Dempsey into a confident teacher.

“Dr. Spielhagen taught a few of my classes, and they were the most instructional,” said Dempsey. “She’s a great teacher.” And Dr. Berlinghoff is “amazing. Anything you need, she’s happy to help.”

Dempsey’s classmate, Christina Cruz, a math major from Plainfield, NJ, also accomplished her first student teaching experience at Newburgh Free Academy.

Cruz is adjusting to her new responsibilities “nicely,” she said. “At first it can be nerve-wracking in front of the classroom. You’re not sure how the students will react to you. But it’s a worthwhile experience. I’ve grown so much.”

Cruz says she’s learned how to project her voice, handle behavior issues in the classroom, and command her students’ attention.

But perhaps her greatest accomplishment so far is her impact on the students. After reaching out to those in her class who were struggling with the material, Cruz noted marked improvement in their grades.

“That’s my triumph, when I see the students asking questions, wanting to learn, and doing well,” she said. “I explain math to them, saying, ‘It’s not as hard as it looks.’ As soon as that light bulb goes off in their heads, you can tell that they get it.”

And helping that “light bulb” go off in Cruz’s head is her cooperating teacher, Joanna Muller.

“Anytime I have a question, she’s always willing to help,” said Cruz, whose future is looking bright; she wants to teach urban students who have difficulty in traditional classroom settings.

“Coming from my background, you can do anything that you set your mind to,” said Cruz, a first generation college student. “Teachers have it in them to be motivational people in a student’s life.”

At the Mount, Cruz was motivated and inspired by professors Berlinghoff and James DiLorenzo.

“They’re always finding a better way to teach so that we understand it,” she said.

For Christopher Vollaro, an English major from Poughkeepsie, NY, finding great ways to teach has become his passion. At Dutchess BOCES in Poughkeepsie, Vollaro leads special education students, under the watchful eye of Maria Sita, a 1999 graduate of Mount Saint Mary College.

“The experience so far has been really good. I’ve built up a good relationship with each of the kids,” said Vollaro.

He said that Sita is an excellent educator.

“I’ve been really lucky to work with Maria. She’s been really helpful to me; she doesn’t make me feel under pressure,” Vollaro observed. “And Maria has a great rapport with the kids.”

Creating a lesson for fourth through sixth graders which “lends itself to all of the different academic levels in the classroom” can be difficult. But Vollaro pointed out that Mount educators like Joan Miller taught him how to achieve that balance.

“It was worth it to go through the Mount’s teaching program,” said Vollaro. “Now that I’m getting results in the classroom, it’s all coming together.”