This Pre-Service Teacher Wants to Have a Word with Higher Education

Learner Voices   03 March 2020
By Hannah Bertram, University of Northern Iowa


It is the responsibility of higher educational institutions to put their students in charge of their education. Colleges must listen to what students want and need; they must become learner-centered.

Hannah Bertram

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to attend a project-based, inquiry-driven learning environment called Iowa BIG. This learning environment was different than any other I had been a part of before, and it was amazing. 

Iowa BIG changed my self-perceptions and how I perceived the world around me. More specifically, it changed how I viewed my post-high school ambitions and the world of education. Before Iowa BIG, I had no interest in becoming a teacher. My conventional education experience lacked engagement and neglected to nurture my passions. To me, becoming a teacher would just mean creating the same experience for other students. 

Iowa BIG turned my perceptions of education upside down. I was learning in ways I never thought possible—working with actual businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits—and discovering facets of my personality and identity that I had never noticed before. I felt valued at Iowa BIG. I felt like my peers, teachers, and community truly cared about me. My strengths were strengthened, and my weaknesses were seen as opportunities for growth.

When I discovered education could be done differently, I made it my personal mission to catalyze change from the inside. I was going to be a teacher. 

Motivated but yearning for so much more

I’m currently a third-year undergraduate, and I love that my courses have taught me about content delivery, technology in education, the physical and intellectual development of children, and how to analyze societal impacts on the education system and vice versa. 

But, when I decided to study education, I believed I would be exposed to different types of education and learning just as I had been through my learning experiences at Iowa BIG. However, throughout my course of study at the university level, I have realized teacher preparation programs completely ignore what truly makes students interested in learning. 

As an undergraduate student studying Elementary and Middle Level Education, I find myself frequently pondering what I want my future classroom to be like; I think about the greatest teachers I have had, the teachers that I did not get along with, and the people who have helped shape my goal to become a teacher. I also think about the classrooms today that are doing admirable things, the students who are unleashing their potential (thanks to creative teaching), and the schools that are truly preparing their students for life outside classroom walls. From this reflection, I have identified 10 goals that I think are crucial for me to create the future classroom I imagine for the students I serve.

  1. A classroom should be a place to find your identity.
  2. A classroom should be a place to explore your passions.
  3. Students should have voice and choice in their learning.
  4. Social environments should be cooperative, not competitive.
  5. We should celebrate wins (big or small)! 
  6. We should be challenged in a positive way.
  7. A classroom should celebrate and learn about many cultures.
  8. Students’ strengths should be developed.
  9. We, as a class, should be a creative team.
  10. We should actively be a part of a larger community.

Upon discussing this list with pre-service teachers like myself, it seemed these goals were relatively universal. Meaning, many current teachers want these goals to define their classrooms as well. As an undergraduate student, there are things I need from my teacher preparation program to help accomplish these goals as I begin my career.

I need… to be educated on how to nurture identity development.

I need… to understand the process of integrating the community with the classroom. 

I need… exposure to organizations/networks who are dedicated to exploring new educational models, so I can stay on top of the latest thinking beyond my time in college. 

Today, colleges, including my own, are mostly preparing teachers to teach content. Although content is important, many educators would agree that creating students who know content is not the only goal of education. And, teaching content that is disconnected from our student’s personal interests and strengths is exactly what made me not want to become a teacher before attending Iowa BIG. 

The 10 goals I have for my classroom are important to many teachers because they develop students who want to learn the content they are particularly interested in and the environments that support them to do so.

Currently, the only thing standing in the way of someone becoming a teacher is obtaining a college degree. And, with “teaching content” as the main objective of current teacher preparation programs, there is no need for future teachers to know how to help students find their identity, explore their passions, and develop their strengths; design classroom environments that celebrate wins, challenge young people in a positive way, and encourage student voice and choice in learning; or create opportunities for their students to engage with the larger community. 

What if we all took a step back?

I challenge colleges to take a step back and ask their pre-service educators (and themselves), “Why do we educate?” This question led me to develop my 10 goals for my future classroom. Many pre-service teachers will first answer the question in a teacher-centered way: “I just love seeing that lightbulb go off for a student!” or “My mom was a teacher, and I grew up admiring her.” 

As we dig deeper though, we’ll begin identifying learner-centered reasons for why we educate: “I want to support students in discovering who they are;” or “I want students to know their voice matters and that they can choose their learning experience based on their interests;” or “I want my students to feel challenged and know from past experiences they have what it takes to find success.” 

With these answers on the table, I challenge colleges to ask what needs to change with the education they provide pre-service educators and the networks and communities they should be connected with in order to develop learner-centered education programs. Even more interesting is how this might impact all degree paths.


As I reflect upon what I hope to see in teacher preparation programs, I realize it is time for higher education as an entire institution to be reimagined as well.

Hannah Bertram

For so long, the value placed on higher education has been seen as a way for people to combat social stratification. The “college experience” is romanticized as a time of self-discovery, growth, a transition to adulthood, and the deepening of knowledge specific to your unique interests.

However, most college students rarely leave campus, branch out of the social bubble, or find classes to be too different, if not even less engaging, than what they experienced in high school. They remain trapped inside walls of expensive classrooms, experience learning in a one-dimensional way, and find themselves walking across the graduation stage with just as many questions about “what’s next” as when they left high school. 

Simply put, students graduating from college are not receiving the education they need to influence what they do next in their lives. As I reflect upon what I hope to see in teacher preparation programs, I realize it is time for higher education as an entire institution to be reimagined as well.

I believe higher education deserves its standing as an important place to continue our growth and development as people. But, not as it is currently designed. Many of my college courses have not practiced what the institution preaches—Academic Freedom, Access, Accountability, Collaboration, Community, Diversity, Engagement, Excellence, Sustainability. 

As a pre-service teacher, I am instructed to fight the societal barriers placed on my students, treat every student as unique individuals, and hold “social-emotional learning” in high regard, but can my school say that they follow these guidelines? The answer is “no” because the industrial model doesn’t allow them to.

Where do we go from here?

The personal and professional goals I have should be defining my education experience, full stop. The personal and professional goals of every higher education student should be the foundation from which their education is built upon, full stop. Higher educational institutions can redefine what it means to declare a major; they can help students design learning experiences that cater to what they need to know and what they want to know. 

Every student in higher education should be walking across the graduation stage with knowledge and experiences that have advanced their personal and professional goals, but until this level of learner-centered education is delivered, many will not. They will abide by what’s being handed to them and expect it will serve them well once they enter the career world. 

It is the responsibility of higher educational institutions to put their students in charge of their education. Colleges must listen to what students want and need; they must become learner-centered.

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