By Kate Hartman
Millersville University was founded as a teacher’s college in 1855. While the University has greatly expanded its programs of study to include STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), social work, meteorology, nursing and fine arts — to name just a few — education continues to be an important program for current students and alumni.
Many education graduates choose to take their degrees and pursue careers locally in the Lancaster region, throughout Pennsylvania or across the country, but there are some who choose to travel abroad and influence the international community with the education and experience they gained at Millersville.
NICOLE DOTY, who graduated from MU in 2008 with a dual degree in elementary and special education, is one such alumna. A trip to Switzerland and Mallorca with a family she babysat for during her junior year sparked an interest for travel within her. Prior to that, she had never left the country. After graduation, she moved to Florida and taught for a year in a fifth-grade classroom before her wanderlust inspired her to look for international opportunities.
“That spring I felt this itch like I need to travel,” says Doty. “If you don’t do this now, you start to settle down somewhere. I tried to figure out how to get to Europe. I wasn’t sure if my qualifications would [allow] me to teach in Europe, but I had heard about people becoming au pairs.”
Doty spent a year with a family in Stockholm, which she considers the “best decision” she could have made.
When her contract was up and she needed to figure out her next step, Doty decided to stay in Sweden instead of moving back to the United States or exploring another country. She got a job teaching English to sixth- to ninth-grade students at a newly built public school called Internationella Engelska Skolan Nacka (International English School Nacka). This school is part of an organization started by an American woman, which now includes 30 schools throughout Sweden.
“It was amazing. It was a whole other world of education,” says Doty. “We wrote the whole curriculum. We chose what we would teach. There was a huge [emphasis] on mentorship. That is 50 percent of your job besides teaching. It’s a lot of work, but you put a lot of passion into it.”
Over the next six years, Doty learned a lot — about herself, about education and about the world. She moved through several different positions in the school, and finally became what is called a “first teacher.” Part of her responsibility in that position was to launch a new project, and that is where Doty turned back to her alma mater.
“I wanted to develop the special education program. I called Dr. [Thomas] Neuville and we started brainstorming,” says Doty. “We created a multilayer project with a partnership between Millersville and my school.
“Because teachers are coming from all around the world — 50 percent of our teachers are from Sweden, and 50 percent are from around the world — they all receive a different education. I wanted to find a common ground,” she continues.
“She was seeing that students that had some learning disabilities were not getting what she thought was a good education,” explains Neuville, Disability Studies Advisor and founder of the Career & Life Studies program at Millersville. “She thought, ‘We need to learn how to do this better, and we need more Millersville students.’”
Doty was joined by her Head of School in Sweden, Donald Christian, on a trip back to Millersville in early spring of 2014 to lead workshops and recruit students.
That May, Neuville traveled to Sweden to observe classes and host several workshops. Through his observations he identified three main areas of growth to strengthen the special education program — co-teaching, the act of two teachers working together in one classroom; differentiated instruction, a teaching framework that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning; and universal design for learning, a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials and assessments that works for all students. These three techniques have been useful in special education classrooms, but Neuville says they are applicable to all students.
These practices were implemented, and while the program is still a work in progress, Christian says there is already a marked change. The whole program was replicated this past year, and will continue into the future. Partnerships between Kutztown University and Salisbury University in Maryland have also been forged for recruitment and expertise.
“We went from, like most schools in Sweden, a pull-out-and-educate methodology to a total-inclusion methodology,” explains Christian, who is originally from upstate New York. “We went from no co-teaching taking place in our school to having co-teaching in all our theoretical subjects.”
“I think there has been a shift in leadership, awareness and method,” says Neuville.
Doty has moved on from her position as first teacher at Internationella Engelska Skolan Nacka. She now works as an academic coordinator at another school within the organization in the countryside, where she says there are plans to implement a similar program in the future. She maintains strong relationships with all involved in the program and many of her former professors here at MU. She says she’s “pretty set” on her life in Sweden, and doesn’t see herself moving back to America.
“I have hopeful plans to continue the work that I started with the Millersville professors,” she says. “They have had a major impact on my success both at MU and my career in Sweden. I am forever thankful for their ongoing support and dedication.”
The program continues at Nacka with Christian at the helm. He is committed to solidifying the lessons the school has learned and continuing the education of teachers to get everyone on the same level and committed to the same educational goals.
Stateside, Neuville is in the process of handing the reins off to Dr. Jason Petula, assistant professor of early, middle and exceptional education here at MU, and Dr. Gwen Beegle, an education professor at Salisbury University in Maryland. They are planning a trip to Sweden in January and are in the process of writing a MU course that would allow students to complete coursework in Sweden. That plan will be implemented in January 2018.
Other MU professors have gotten involved in the last two years. Drs. Elizabeth Powers and Deborah Tamakloe were instrumental in planning the study-abroad component that has allowed students to travel and work abroad in Sweden.
Many Millersville students have taken advantage of this partnership and been hired as teachers in Sweden. Gabrielle Pratz, a 2015 graduate, spent a year teaching math, science and English to fourth- and fifth-graders. Originally, she was not very interested in the opportunity but decided to give it a try after a teacher unexpectedly resigned from the school and they were looking for a replacement.
“The experience was truly priceless and I [wouldn’t] trade it for anything. If I could go back and do it again, I definitely would,” says Pratz, who now teaches in Florida. “That being said, it was challenging and scary, and there were days that I just wanted to pack and come back to what was familiar to me.
“Teaching abroad humbled me beyond belief,” she continues. “Living and teaching abroad and facing challenges I didn’t anticipate, I now know that I could move anywhere in the world and make it. I grew and changed in ways I never thought I would, but am so grateful to my students and supportive colleagues that helped me along the way.”
Neuville encourages all education majors at Millersville to look into this teaching opportunity because of the undeniable value it adds to their learning experience and that of the Swedish students.
“To be a good teacher, you need experience to draw on that’s worldly,” says Neuville. “The opportunity to work abroad for a year with no real effort on your part–it’s one hell of an opportunity.”
Christian calls this partnership “a win-win for the professors, the students, for us and for our children here in Sweden.”
“Everyone we met and continue to meet is excited about bettering education whether it’s at Millersville University; elementary, middle and high schools; or even internationally,” says Christian. “I think that’s a brilliant thing we’ve discovered. Love of education is universal.”