Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 13, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Nina Dorsch didn’t set out to lead national discussions on curriculum revision. She didn’t plan to author a book on school reform. She didn’t expect to teach adults.
She wanted to teach English to teenagers.
“The standard line is ‘I love children,’ and you do have to love children,” said Dorsch, who is retiring this spring from the Northern Illinois University College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, where she is co-chair and associate professor. “But it’s always about making a difference.”
Dorsch began her career in education in the Cincinnati Public Schools, teaching English to eighth-graders. She soon shifted to special education, however, after teaching an English class that then – 1969 – was labeled as “slow” learners.
Such language eventually became a disdained relic, but Dorsch’s enthusiasm for working with students with disabilities only grew. It carried outside the classroom as well through volunteer work to serve that population.
When the opportunity arose to earn a certificate in special education – compliments of the federal government – she jumped on it. In 1978, she completed a master’s degree in special education from the University of Cincinnati and began a 14-year career as a special education teacher in Carlisle Local Schools of Carlisle, Ohio.
“We had a statewide initiative in Ohio about inclusion, and I saw that special education and regular education were going to have to collaborate closely,” Dorsch said. “I thought, ‘If I had a doctorate, I’d be in a better position at a state agency or a university to facilitate that collaboration.’ I already had a foot in both areas from my teaching career.”
In 1995, the year Dorsch came to NIU, she finished a doctorate in educational administration and curriculum studies from Miami University of Ohio. She discovered a passion for curriculum and, through supervision of student teachers and teaching undergraduate classes, an interest in teaching adults.
“During my doctoral work,” she said, “I broadened my view to look at the process of developing curriculum, understanding how policies like inclusion came into being and how schools and teachers change in response to those policies.”
Educators who shape curriculum are “finally heeding advice given them long, long ago,” Dorsch said. “Students need to be involved in their own learning. Teachers are more mindful of engaging their students and having their students take more responsibility for their own learning.”
The “standards” movement launched by the federal “No Child Left Behind” legislation has produced greater accountability and greater data-driven decision making, she said. Personal assessment of students has supplanted “teacher’s intuition” and lunchroom conversations about what works and what does not.
Simple demographics also demand changes in teacher education, she said. Classrooms are increasingly diverse places, including different languages, cultural backgrounds, multiple races and ethnicities as well as the inclusion of students with special needs.
“One size fits all? That’s gone,” she said. “Teachers need differentiation. A teacher has to have a lot more tools in his or her repertoire to meet the needs of all students.”
Preparation of teachers has adapted, she said. New teachers enter schools with a wider array of instructional strategies and with greater number of clinical and practical experiences under their belts.
Dorsch, who served as chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning from 2002 to 2006 and then stepped into the role of co-chair on an interim basis this year, has enjoyed the “multiplier effect” higher education has provided: When she taught children, she touched their lives. When she teaches teachers, she indirectly touches all the lives of their students.
She also is fond of teaching each level of students.
“The doctoral students – each one of them is going to be a significant person in whatever educational context they choose. Some will take leadership positions in school districts or school buildings. A few choose the academic life,” she said.
“Master’s students have gotten over that initial survivor mode and are looking to expand their knowledge and to get involved in curriculum in their schools,” she said. “Undergraduates are so eager to begin their career and see how they’re going to be part of this whole thing.”
NIU students are fortunate, she added.
“This is an incredible college. The folks here are knowledgeable. They’re caring. They work extremely hard. They’re so committed to the teaching profession and to the students’ becoming a part of that profession and becoming better in that profession,” Dorsch said. “It’s truly a joy to work with them and to know that our students are benefiting.”
For her part, Dorsch is eager to move on to the “darn good question” of whatever retirement might bring.
“You always want to end on a high note, and I feel that’s the case now,” Dorsch said. “And my husband, Don, is already retired. He keeps asking, ‘Can’t we have fun now?’ ”
Dorsch said the couple plan to return to Ohio, where their son and his family live.
She might seek out opportunities to consult with local schools or to “occasionally teach a course – on my schedule. I’m not ready to hang up my hat and veg out. I want the freedom to do the things I want to do, and on my terms.”
Dorsch enjoys ample admiration from students and colleagues, said department co-chair Lynette K. Chandler: “People really respect her. They feel she’s done a really good job. They’re sorry to see her leave, as am I.”
“When she first became chair, she certainly brought stability to the department, which we really, really needed. She’s always had an open-door policy. People can just drop in, and that always helps people feel valued,” Chandler said.
“Nina gets really high teaching evaluations from her students. She has supervised many, many doctoral students as well as master’s students, and certainly has had an impact on their lives and their learning,” she added. “She is very up-to-date on the current trends within the schools. She treats students as individuals, and they certainly would say she treats them with respect. She also is honest with them.”
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