COLUMBIA — On the dirt floor of a scorched skeleton of a building, a group of children waited patiently. Windows and doors that used to provide privacy had been shattered or burned. If anything could make this place identifiable, it had been reduced to ashes. But the objects were not what made this room what it was. It was the people. They were students, and they were waiting for a teacher.
Staring back at the children of East Timor, a country near Indonesia, was Daniel Clay.
“All of the assumptions I had about teaching and education were shattered, just like that,” he said.
At the University of Iowa, Clay was part of a team of experts sent to East Timor to aid the civil war-battered people. He had come to help rebuild their education and change their lives. He found, however, that they changed him.
“That experience really brought home for me how we really just take for granted what we have for education opportunities in our country,” Clay said. “When I drop my kids off at school like I did this morning, I know they’ll be in a safe environment. That’s not true everywhere, and I didn’t know that — I didn’t see that at the time.”
Clay said he knows his eye-opening experience is an important factor in his success as an educator. It allowed him to be more sensitive to diversity, open to new learning styles and appreciate what different students bring to the classroom.
This multicultural awareness is one of the goals of the teacher training program at MU, said Linda Bennett, an associate dean in the College of Education.
Eight years later, Clay would share the lessons he learned in East Timor with MU students through an initiative called Personal Transformational Pathways.
“As a dean, you can paint on a bigger canvas," Clay said. "I’m really interested in having an experience for every student that’s as meaningful to them as mine was for me.”
It’s an effort that Clay said he hopes will result, after five years, in every student of the College of Education walking away with a multicultural experience that improves them personally and distinguishes them from the scores of graduates they will compete with for jobs.
“The more opportunities an individual has to work with whom they’re going to teach, the more likely they [are to] have the expertise to stay in the profession," Bennett said.
Already, Clay has addressed faculty and students and received positive feedback.
I think it’s a very impressive program,” said Kelsey Ponder, a member of the Education Learning Community that houses students of the same major together. “I think it’s really good they’re opening it up to everyone, not just people who have the money.”
Ponder said she hopes to work in a St. Louis urban school district for her pathway.
Bennett said Clay used the word 'pathway' because it suggests the improvement is not over when one program is completed, but rather students will continue to seek out challenging experiences.
Students have the choice about whether to participate in the pathways initiative.
“This is not a graduation requirement,” Clay said. “This is a goal for the college.”
The pathways initiative has already begun, and is making use of some traditionally offered opportunities like study abroad and alternative spring break programs.
“Those kinds of experiences could teach you so much more than you could ever learn about by reading a book,” Clay said. “Imagine the stories some of them will have to tell.”