Early Career Energy Spurred by Excellent Preparation at Curry

Stephen Schroth (Ph.D. '06)

Only five years out of his doctoral program, Stephen Schroth’s scholarship and seemingly boundless energy have already made a mark on Knox College, a nationally ranked private liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, where he is an assistant professor in the Educational Studies Department.

In the past four years his research publications with Knox colleague Jason Helfer on gifted education topics have won three awards for excellence in research from the MENSA Education & Research Foundation. Last fall Knox College presented Schroth with an award for distinguished teaching.

His service and outreach activities include a current two-year term as chair of the Arts Network, a post in the National Association for Gifted Children. He also co-directs Knox College 4 Kids, a summer enrichment program for students in grades K-8, similar to the Curry School’s Summer Enrichment Program. He has collaborated with Lyric Opera of Chicago for five years producing educational materials that introduce opera to nearly 30,000 grade school children in the city. He has led five student trips through Knox’s Teaching in China and the Knox/Navajo Teaching & Learning projects.

Schroth spoke with the Curry Alumni Scholar about his experiences here and their influence on his early career at Knox College.

What was most valuable about your Curry experience?

While I had a great education before entering the Curry School, the level of civic and intellectual engagement the Curry faculty modeled continually amazed me. Since its founding by Mr. Jefferson, the University of Virginia has prided itself on preparing leaders in all fields. At Curry, I found especially valuable the level of interaction and mentoring I received from numerous professors. The mentoring I received at Curry was first rate. It prepared me to be an effective teacher, scholar, colleague, and advisor in ways that I did not realize or fully appreciate until I began teaching at Knox College. I still find myself discovering skills in these areas that were first introduced and developed at Curry.

We certainly were prepared to conduct research and write on our own, and had numerous support systems to assist us to learn how to do this. This training was essential to hitting the ground running when I got to Knox. I knew how to frame research questions, collect data, and write it up and submit it for publication from the moment I started.

What strikes me the most looking back is the emphasis that Curry professors placed upon their teaching. I remember taking Tests & Measurements with Dr. John Sanderson. At that time he had taught that class twice a semester for over forty years, but every class session he was in the room an hour and a half beforehand, setting up and preparing. That really struck me at the time, and continues to influence my practice here at Knox.

What was most valuable about my Curry experience was the sense of “family” that existed. While areas I needed to work on were certainly addressed, my professors and colleagues celebrated my accomplishments. This type of encouragement is rare, and something I certainly attempt to develop with my students and colleagues at Knox.

Was there a professor who was especially supportive?

Every class I took at Curry was outstanding, and I am eternally grateful for that. That being said, the professors who comprised my dissertation committee were especially supportive and helpful to me, while at Curry and beyond.

Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson was my advisor from the moment I entered Curry until I graduated. Carol is one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever known. Her gentle advice always included suggestions to work harder, write constantly, yet also to celebrate the little things that occur, such as the success as a student or an especially well-written paragraph.

Dr. Carolyn M. Callahan really impressed me with her passion for research and her commitment to ensuring that all of the work that came from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented was first rate. She taught me that loyalty, and honor, and excellence are not just abstract concepts but guiding principles that one should use to shape one’s career and life.

Dr. Daniel L. Duke effortlessly made the connections between psychology, leadership, architecture, history, education, and change. It was really inspiring to see how all of the aspects of the liberal arts influence what we do, and to realize that we could do that in our work.

Dr. James Esposito always provided a willing ear and a great deal of support through the dissertation process. He always knew how to listen just enough, then to nudge me back to the work. It was great to have an advocate who never thought any of my questions about the dissertation process were too simple to answer.

How has your Curry experience influenced your subsequent career?

Curry has had a tremendous effect on my career. I remember telling Carol during our first meeting that my long-term goal was to teach at a liberal arts college in the Midwest, a goal that stemmed from my personal history, insofar that I grew up a few blocks from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and studied history at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. So when I arrived at Knox in 2006, I felt like I was home.

When my friend and colleague Jason Helfer and I arrived here, we had never met before, but worked to help the Educational Studies curriculum at Knox evolve. We began by emphasizing differentiated instruction in our course sequence, something that proved advantageous two years ago when the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) decided an increased emphasis needed to be placed upon that instructional approach. I feel that the most important thing teachers do is write curriculum, and then deliver that curriculum, assess to determine the needs of each child, and differentiate the instruction as needed. Since I had learned about differentiated instruction from Carol, I was asked to be on several ISBE committees that assisted in revamping teacher certification programs across the state.

Jason and I also changed our curriculum classes so that we were studying Carol’s Parallel Curriculum Model, which I believe is the most elegant and eloquent approach to exploring curriculum extant.

Curry has also greatly influenced how I interact with students. I still remember how excited I was the first time Carol and Carolyn asked me to collaborate with them on research projects. Knox is a highly selective national liberal arts college, with very able students (average ACT scores of 29-30). As a result of my experiences at Curry, I’ve encouraged Knox students to get involved with our research and to write and publish with me.

Collaboration on research projects really builds a sense of community between faculty and students, a sort of “academical village west” that Mr. Jefferson envisioned 200 years ago. And, as with so many things, Mr. Jefferson was right. Providing students the opportunities to really work closely with faculty members is a tremendous way to assist them in seeing their future place in the academy.

You have been involved in so many projects in the past few years. What is that overarching internal mission statement that motivates your involvement in all these areas?

Curry, and especially Carol and Carolyn, really infused me with a love of excellence and a drive to be successful. Maybe this message took hold with me because the grounds are such a magical and inspiring place. My sister Anne attended law school at the University, and I had always admired it as a special place, but it wasn’t really until I got there that I began to understand the breadth of Mr. Jefferson’s vision. It is difficult for me to put into words, but his accomplishment is somehow even more spectacular when I understood that he began building the University when he was in his 70s. Mr. Jefferson’s deep desire to have the varied liberal arts interact with and influence each other is one of the singular thoughts in education. Because my background is in the liberal arts, tempered by my experiences as an elementary school teacher, I really have sought ways to make those connections between fields come alive for my students.

Knox is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and was founded by abolitionists from the Oneida Colony in New York who also founded Galesburg. As a result, the connection between town and gown has always been important, and Knox College 4 Kids is a tremendous way that we build the connection between the College and Galesburg.

Dean Lawrence Breitborde has very generously allowed us to make the program more diverse, funding scholarships that have permitted us to increase the number of non-Caucasian students served by the program from about 3% to 45%. We also hire about a dozen of our Educational Studies students each summer to work as REACH fellows, who work at first as teaching assistants and then transition in later years to teaching their own classes. The REACH fellows are students of color, males, or first-generation college students, and I work with them in the afternoons in seminars that focus on differentiation, talent development, or other associated skills. Every student we have employed as a REACH fellow has become a certified teacher, and several have won national awards or other recognition for their excellence in the classroom.

Carolyn once told me that the Saturday and Summer Enrichment Programs at Curry were her proudest accomplishment, and I share that pride with Knox C4K. It is a tremendous amount of work, but the children and our students benefit in so many ways.

As to the curricular work we do, for me it’s pretty simple. I am a teacher who teaches teachers. Constructing quality curriculum is the most important thing teachers do. As a result, we try to keep our hands in the process, and there is no better way to do so than by planning curricular materials that are used in the classroom. We are now moving into year five with our work with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the support they have provided has been exceptional. The Lyric distributes these materials to almost 30,000 students in the Chicago area each year. Jason and I have worked with teachers who have provided us with great feedback about what works and what else they need.

This in turn has informed my practice, and helps me to understand some of the challenges our teacher candidates face when planning instructional units for the first time.  As so often happens, our success with the Lyric has led to other opportunities. Jason and I have begun working on curricular materials for Knox’s Lincoln Studies Center publications, which was made possible with a grant from the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

As for travel with students, while I was at Curry Carolyn suggested I take part in the Symposium on Globalization and Higher Education, which took place at the University of Edinburgh during the summer of 2005. We examined the importance of studying abroad and how some students, especially those in the sciences and education, found it difficult to fit in study abroad opportunities. For that reason I have willingly embraced Knox’s Teaching in China and Knox/Navajo Teaching & Learning projects. My colleague Diana Beck and I have now made five such trips, to Anhui Normal University, in Wuhu, China, and the Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission in Rock Point, Arizona, where the students we took with us taught full-time for approximately three weeks.

In addition to the many fantastic opportunities that students were able to participate in, it was incredibly rewarding to watch certain students take their first flight on an airplane or to travel beyond the United States for the first time. As teachers, we are often planting acorns, and it is tremendous to witness students first realizing that they are part of a global culture that benefits from their expertise.

As for a personal mission statement, I have been greatly influenced by Carol’s emphasis on seizing opportunities that will best serve my students. This involves watching them, finding out what motivates and excites them, and then trying to match this with opportunities where they will be successful. The one thought that really terrifies me is letting a student down, so I try my hardest to have multiple projects going that allow me to have opportunities available for my kids where they can try their hand at being successful. I’m always on the lookout that will provide students the opportunity to engage with first-rate organizations and rigorous disciplinary-based work.

What advice do you have for graduates of Curry's PhD programs who are in the early stages of their academic careers?

When students enter Curry, they need to appreciate that there is no finer education school in the United States. They have already begun their academic careers, whether they know it or not. I think it is important to think about what they want post-Curry. At what sort of a college or university do they wish to teach? What sort of specialty do they wish to follow in their research? Where do they want to go? Knowing what one wants to do, and then doing it as well as you can, is the best route to success I know.

When I left Curry, Carolyn emphasized to me the importance of a fast start, and the need to persevere with my research even when no one is looking over my shoulder. That was fantastic advice.

I would also suggest being active in one’s national and statewide organizations, as I have made some fantastic connections at those, allowing me to work with people such as Joan Franklin Smutny and Don Treffinger. I also have kept in touch with friends and colleagues with whom I was a student, such as Erin Morris Miller, who teaches at Bridgewater College, and Robin Kyburg Dickson, at Michigan State University, and Jennifer Beasley, at the University of Arkansas, as it is helpful to have that network of support, both for collaboration and advice.

 

by Lynn Bell