Joining the faculty in 2018 as one of the first practice teachers to be hired by Wittenberg, Erin Hill teaches courses in adolescent development, reading and writing methods at English Language Arts (ELA ) and the integration of the arts. She also supervises student teachers. Having worked with Clark County Exemplary Writers, Nashville Metro Public Schools Young Writers, and Dayton Muse Machine, she has been a leader in the development of arts programs throughout her career. She recently took the time to answer a few questions about the role of a practice teacher, her experiences teaching in Wittenberg, and her thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on education at all levels.
Wittenberg: Please describe your background in teaching and what led you to change your path to teach in Wittenberg.
Hill: I was fortunate to have had what I consider Hall of Fame faculty as a student at Clark County Schools – with a special nod to Visha Ritter and Susan Shively, my deeply formative English teachers in high school. These positive school experiences motivated me to become an educator myself, and I was particularly interested in the democratic notion of an excellent, equitable and accessible education for all students. Since obtaining my undergraduate degree in Teaching English in 1997, I have taught at various public schools in the United States, from South Charleston, Ohio, to Nashville and the Bronx, and have learned so much of my students, my colleagues and the unique communities who invited me to their schools.
I don’t necessarily think of joining Wittenberg as ‘changing lanes’, but rather as switching from one lane to another – the destination is the same. I like to learn and I want the students to like to learn too. If the students have a teacher who enjoys learning and encourages that spirit in the classroom, then we are doing something worthwhile, whether it is in a preschool class or in an upper class. I believe in the transformative power of learning, and as Rita Pierson, one of my teachers, said, “Teaching and learning should bring joy”.
Wittenberg: What is a practice teacher? From your perspective, what are the advantages for Wittenberg and the education department of having a faculty member in this type of position?
Hill: Well if you ask my dad he will tell you that I am a “practical teacher” which is probably the most accurate description!
Technically, a practice teacher is an educator who brings previous career and field experience to the disciplines in which he teaches. Business departments have a long history of employing practice professors, experts with years of field experience as accountants, financial advisors, CEOs, marketing managers, etc.
I was hired as a practice teacher in the education department because I had 20 years of practice and experience as an English teacher in a public high school. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers, because teaching and learning is not about the answers. But it does mean that I have had plenty of time to practice, make mistakes, learn, and grow as an educator in a variety of different school settings. I hope this experience will be useful to our future teachers.
Wittenberg: Brian Yontz, Associate Professor and Director of Education, describes you as “an author, artist and sports fanatic”. Please specify. Do these interests / passions influence the way you teach or interact with your students?
Hill: Reconciling these identities took a lifetime of learning. When I was younger I thought I had to choose between being an athlete and an artist. Now I understand how important it is to integrate these identities. I love to read, write, make art, play the piano, travel and follow my favorite teams and athletes, especially those on the front lines of social justice – and I think all of these activities make me a better teacher. It also sometimes makes the students happier – many have benefited from Schuler donuts, a tradition of celebration whenever Rafael Nadal, my favorite tennis player, wins a tennis tournament.
I like having different interests because it really helps me get in touch with a wide variety of students. Strong relationships are essential to good teaching, and I really enjoy learning what the students are interested in and building from there.
As an essayist, I am inherently curious and always ask questions to continue the threads and themes of my writing. Recently, this has taken the form of a series of athletics essays. I enjoy this work, especially as I prepare to give a specialist seminar this fall on the power of storytelling in sport.
Wittenberg: What was your experience teaching the students of Wittenberg? What are the rewards of educating students to become future leaders in the country’s school systems?
Hill: Teaching the students of Wittenberg has been significant. Most of the students are really involved on campus and in the community, so I appreciate their drive and commitment throughout their studies. I think our students have also been remarkably flexible and resilient over the past 18 months. It was not easy and I respect their tenacity.
I appreciate that you said “future leaders” in the school systems across the country. This is exactly what we want for our students: we hope to prepare them to be not only great classroom teachers, but also great teacher leaders in their grade and service teams, in their communities. buildings, in their districts and in their communities.
The work is rewarding. There is nothing better than watching Wittenberg teacher candidates come out to our local schools, even in 100 level education classes, and start building strong relationships with K-12 students. and associate teachers. They come back to campus so excited and full of energy! Being in the field is essential to the learning of teacher candidates, and it is an honor to support our students as they grow and mature through this four-year process and beyond.
Wittenberg: Given the profound impact of COVID on the educational experience at all levels, what do you see as the challenges and potential benefits as school systems begin to return to “normal”?
Hill: COVID has been a devastating tragedy, both global and national, and my main thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones. I am extremely grateful to the healthcare workers and scientists who also served and sacrificed themselves during this time.
As an educator, I am not necessarily interested in a return to “normal”. The past 18 months have highlighted disparities in our education systems, and it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t reflect on what we have learned and implement change moving forward. These thoughtful conversations should take place collectively with educators, students, parents and community members. Perhaps more than ever, we see that schools are community institutions. COVID has highlighted the role schools play in food security and child care. We have also seen structural inequalities such as digital redlining that have had a significant impact on student learning. In addition, we would be wise to develop solid plans to meet the mental and emotional health needs of students in the future. The social isolation that many students experienced during COVID is no small feat.
This is only a short list of examples. While the past 18 months have been spent reacting to a difficult situation, I hope we can use what we have learned to proactively move forward on these challenges.
About Erin Hill: Hill received his BS in Teaching English from Taylor University and his MA in English and American Literature from New York University. Its alumni include sports writers, teachers, activists, actuaries, farmers, theatrical lighting designers, a unicyclist and artist Prince Royce. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.