By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Never Stop Learning: Go Back To Class


September 26, 2016

One of my favorite education professors is convinced that formal education should not begin for most people until the age of 30. He argues that the average individual in our modern American culture does not have the experiences necessary to reflect upon or the self-insight to withstand the hard work and delayed gratification that a quality education requires.

“Most of us need to go out and live and work for awhile and experience life before we can seriously enter a learning community and make the most of what it has to offer,” he would often say.

I am increasingly finding that my best college students are my older, non-traditional students who bring to the classroom a depth of experience and enthusiasm that enriches our learning communities. They have the courage to return to school and continue learning, using their experiences and self-awareness to gain new experiences and knowledge that they can use to grow as individuals and to help our society.

Students over age 35, who accounted for 17 percent of all college and graduate students in 2009, are expected to comprise 19 percent of that total by 2020 according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Columbia University’s General Studies Program in New York City is specifically created for returning and nontraditional students seeking a rigorous, traditional undergraduate full or part-time degree. Closer to home, Brevard College is welcoming more nontraditional students to our classes by offering reduced tuition for both local and post-baccalaureate students.

One of those non-traditional students is Susan Thrower. After raising three children, Susan decided to return to Brevard College to prepare to become an elementary teacher. Having earned an elementary teaching license over 25 years ago which she had never had the opportunity to use, she decided that now was the time when she could start the profession. She also knew that if she were going to be successful as a teacher, she needed to refresh her knowledge and skills. So while one child was completing college applications, Susan herself applied to college and Brevard College’s post-baccalaureate program for elementary teaching and licensure.

When asked why she made the decision to come back to school with the time, hard work and expense such a decision requires, Susan responded, “At this point in my life, I just realized that I wanted to do important work as in the kind of work that makes a positive difference in the lives of others. Frankly, I could think of no more important job than that of a teacher who helps children feel empowered, excited and prepared for the world and all of its wonder.”

With this attitude and with years of experiences to share, Susan is inspirational for our younger teacher candidates and her presence in the college classes helps motivate them to think deeper and work harder.

Currently, Susan is student teaching in Transylvania County Schools with Jackie Miller, Brevard Elementary’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year. According to Miller, “Ms. Thrower will be a valuable addition in the educational system. She brings experience, excellent work ethic and an understanding of children that a traditional college student entering the workforce has often not yet acquired.”

Susan is not the only non-traditional older-looking student that you will find in Brevard College’s classrooms. On most Mondays and Wednesdays, you will find Sheriff David Mahoney sitting with our criminal justice majors discussing legal processes and procedures, forensics, ethics and cultural diversity issues, ways to prevent crime, and dispositions of good leaders — all the fascinating topics associated with being a quality law enforcement professional in our society today. When informally asked why he would take valuable time from his busy job to return to classes, Sheriff Mahoney says that to be a good law enforcement officer, you must continue learning and re-examining your knowledge and building new skills.

According to Dr. Tim Powers, the coordinator of Brevard College’s criminal justice major, “Having Sheriff Mahoney in class changes the dynamics of the discussion. He provides our Brevard College students with critical thinking opportunities in regards to addressing community issues and helps students to see the practical application of the knowledge and theories we are discussing.”

Sheriff Mahoney has become a role model for his own deputies who are also taking some classes and a good influence for our traditional 18 through 21-year-olds straight out of high school.

In the 21st century, learning never stops, and those of us willing to remain students for our entire lives may just be the most fulfilled, happy and successful. Intelligence is a willingness to grow, re-learn, and to keep developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions to allow us to adapt to the inevitable changes life will bring. By educating people for lives rather than only providing specific job training, we develop individuals, like Susan Thrower and Sheriff Mahoney, who have in them the desire and curiosity to keep learning and re-learning and changing and adapting in a dynamic world.

(Burrows is director of Teacher Education at Brevard College.)


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