By KELLY BARTLING
KEARNEY – Dawn Mollenkopf’s philosophy about education is simple: Everyone can learn.
So that is how she approaches her work in teacher education: Just as every child can learn, every future teacher needs to know that he or she will be making a difference in the life of a child.
Both child and future teacher are approaching education from differing circumstances and backgrounds. Some may have obstacles that make their learning more difficult – distance, access to tools, time constraints or lacking family support.
Mollenkopf serves as a role model to inspire and motivate future teachers to keep striving, and her success as an inspiration and motivator earned her the University of Nebraska’s highest award universitywide for teaching excellence, the Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award, a.k.a. the OTICA.
She received the award at a luncheon Wednesday (April 30).
“I want my students to be comfortable with who they are as an educator, and that they will take their life experiences and be role models for their students. Some of these various students are the ones who are also ethnically diverse (and) have had some issues with poverty, have disabilities, have other life circumstance that made learning difficult,” Mollenkopf said. “And I want them to be able to show that to their students and say, ‘you know, I made it and you can make it too …and I believe in you’.”
Mollenkopf believes in her students and challenges them at every opportunity to think creatively and let their passion compel them to continue to learn.
An associate professor of teacher education with expertise in early childhood education and policy, Mollenkopf arrived at UNK in 2003. While previously teaching elementary students, she grew more eager to improve her curriculum and teaching/learning methods.
“…And then I was going to create the world’s best classroom,” she said. “Finally I realized how many challenges teachers had, and I thought ‘I need to change the environment for the teachers.’
Moving into her role as an instructor of future and current teachers, she carried with her a desire to help rural teachers, who are critical in the lives of these sometimes-vulnerable children. Offering online courses and degrees was new then, and Mollenkopf fought for her students to get maximum access. As a result, it’s now easier for students and teachers across Nebraska to get classes they need to earn their degrees or endorsements.
Creating flexible assignments and changing rubrics for assignments for student-teachers could cause some administrators heartburn, but Mollenkopf sees it as essential. It has a direct benefit to their classrooms and these teachers’ confidence.
“I have a lot of teachers online who are clearly out in the fields coming back, which is very different from the wide-eyed sophomore who has a couple of experiences and says, ‘I can’t wait to get my own classroom.’ And clearly, there are students that are teachers that are older than I and certainly taught longer than I have. I think they bring a depth of experience that is fun to work with, and they also are very eager to learn.
“The teachers out in the fields, the older students, nontraditional students, they now know the emotional cost of learning. They know what it’s like to have to work harder, to learn to balance more responsibilities, to go to work, to balance family and to learn, and they ask meaningful questions.”
Mollenkopf’s commendation for instructional creativity is also buoyed by her work to combine regular and special education concepts and strategies into the early childhood unified endorsement, providing broader endorsement for those working with children newborn to age eight. Her doctorate is in special education policy integration, and she has researched and advocated for Head Start and served on policy councils such as the governor’s Early Childhood Interagency Coordinating Council, and contributed to Nebraska’s preschool early learning guidelines.
Standards for quality, guidelines and regulations for education for children age 0 to 5, K-6 and eighth grade and above, continue to push the education field.
“I like change,” she said. “I tend to thrive on it. Not everybody does, and I recognize that. So, as the change agent I need to be careful and make sure that in trailblazing I’m not burning the forest, but I make sure I take people with me and lay the foundation. I think the biggest thing is when people see what the causes are, when they see what the needs are, and then they have the resources to be able to get there, I think people are usually willing to make those changes along with me over time.”
What kind of feedback about her teaching does she get from students?
“A lot of my students like my classes because they say, ‘She’s so high energy regardless of the time of day.’ And it’s true, I tend to teach like the first thing in the morning …or the last class at night and I’m still awake. The goal is to keep them awake. And so, they like that energy.
“They say that I care.They know that I care for them.They like the fact that I’m more flexible with assignments and will work with them to make those meaningful and that they find things fun.”
Source: Dawn Mollenkopf, 308.865.8362
Writer: Kelly Bartling, 308.865.8455, firstname.lastname@example.org