A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Thomas More College education department carries a tradition into the 21st century

By Tom Ward   
Thomas More University

Part 47 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

Villa Madonna College was founded in 1921 by the Sisters of St. Benedict for the primary purpose of educating their postulants to be teachers. Thus, it was conceived as being, in the parlance of the day, a “normal school” that would train teachers. With this as its founding principle, it was presumed that education would always retain a prominent place in the college’s curriculum.

When Bishop of Covington Francis W. Howard made Villa Madonna a diocesan institution in 1929, with the inclusion of the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of Divine Providence as part of the faculty and administration, the three congregations divided among themselves the responsibility for staffing the various academic departments. The education program, however, was to be the purview of all three, though Sr. M. Callixta Blom, CDP, was appointed as departmental chair (Sr. M. Irmina Saelinger, OSB, Retrospect and Vista, 1971). While future chairs might have cause to wonder if the administration was very supportive of education, Fr. John Murphy, while VMC’s President, left no doubt that he believed in carrying on the teaching tradition as he stressed “the exceptional importance of teacher education here at Villa Madonna” (Murphy to Blom, Oct. 3, 1956, TMU Archives).

Sr. Callixta Blom, CDP, first head of the VMC education department, 1946. (Photo from TMU Archives)

Because VMC was in the business of training teachers for the elementary through secondary levels, it had to meet the standards of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) for its students to become certified teachers. To meet the criteria, VMC’s education department had to undergo thorough self-studies and be evaluated by the state at regular intervals to ensure that it met Kentucky’s changing requirements for certification. The department also maintained connections with the National Catholic Education Association.  

The education department at VMC also wanted the recognition of its peers for its Teacher Education Program. In 1961, the department sought accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which would “guarantee good standards in the eyes of the Nation at large.” To facilitate this accreditation process, the department lobbied President Murphy to announce at the next faculty meeting on May 25, the formation of a “policy making committee.” This announcement was intended to “emphasize the point that Teacher Education is the responsibility of every faculty member” and to “produce better prepared teachers …” (Education Department undated memo to Fr. Murphy, ca. May 1961, TMU Archives).

This move highlighted the fact that college education of teachers is unique because it demands that students also have an education in other academic fields; hence, the need for other faculty to be members of the Teacher Education Committee. The formation of a committee first involved setting up seven subcommittees headed by various faculty to study the seven NCATE standards (Fr. Reifsnyder to faculty, June 9, 1961, TMU Archives). A regular Teacher Education Committee (TEC), as a subcommittee of the Academic Affairs Committee, was introduced in 1964, with faculty members from several departments (Fr. Rooks, academic dean, to faculty, Oct. 13, 1964, TMU Archives).

William Guilfoyle, 1983. (Photo from TMU Archives)

When trying to recruit other non-education faculty to the TEC, Mr. William Guilfoyle of the education department explained that they wanted to “to draw upon the expertise of members of the TMC community who, while not directly involved in the training of teachers, are people whom we know to be concerned about this area and able to contribute towards a committee who wants to work in this area” (Guilfoyle to Mann, Sept. 22, 1975, TMU Archives). It appears, however, that, although it was planned for at several junctures, it did not become a regular standing committee of the college and went into abeyance for years at a time.

While it was operative, the Teacher Education Committee not only helped establish the education program. With faculty members of other college departments and educators from other schools, they also appraised applicants to the program and were part of the process of selecting candidates to enter it. They further worked as a team to support the education majors until their graduation. 

A Teacher Education Program is a constantly evolving field in which it is important to keep up with current changes and best practices. Innovation and new programs are crucial. On the other hand, constants are also demanded.

Of course, student teaching was always an essential component of educating teachers—it was an essential condition that was over and above other cooperative education experiences and assignments. Students in the upper levels were paired in local schools with experienced instructors who could both advise and evaluate them. (In earlier years these instructors had been called “critic teachers”). The period of teaching in a classroom was usually reserved for students in their final year, though from the beginning they were given exposure to classrooms as observers. 

Some students were already teaching prior to completing college. For their benefit, the education department adopted a policy of granting four credit hours for those who could demonstrate teaching competency (Criteria for Awarding Credit for Demonstrated Competency in Teaching, March 1972, TMU Archives). This process would require recommendation from the principal of the teacher’s school and approval by the TMC faculty, similar to other credit for prior learning policies.

The move to the new campus in 1968 (when it was renamed Thomas More College) was often heralded as the “new era.” The department already had a good reputation of producing quality teachers. Classroom teachers who supervised student teachers were especially vocal in their praise, declaring that “the teacher education program at Thomas More College is of a superior caliber” (Aims and Services of the Department of Education, ca. 1968, p. 11, TMU Archives). 

Education faculty interviewed in TMC newsletter, ca. 1970. (Photo from TMU Archives)

But the department faculty were not content to rest on their laurels. In 1970, the education department devised a new approach to teacher education, one that the Kentucky Department of Education called “ ‘one of the most promising in the nation.’ ” The department members at the time (Sr. Joyce Quinlan, OSB, Mr. William Guilfoyle, Fr. John Reifsnyder, and Sr. Madonna Fitzgerald, CDP) extolled its perceived virtues as they were interviewed in a TMC newsletter (TMC Newsletter “Learn Together,” no date, ca. 1970, TMU Archives).

According to these faculty members, they “created an experimental program based on a home-grown definition of a teacher” as someone who “is primarily a developer of persons.” This would be done while guiding the student “as he works to become fully human.” Although it was still necessary for education students to acquire the “scientific body of knowledge” related to teaching, “it is equally true that most of this knowledge is intended to be used in relation to others” and it could “best be learned in the environment where it is intended to be used,” which seemed to mean the classrooms of grade levels at which students expected to teach. This meant in practice that the professors would try to discern the particular strengths and skills of their education majors so these could be developed on an individual basis. Throughout the process, the student would “develop certain qualities which relate to himself, to others, and to the profession.” This could “best be accomplished through a clinical – seminar – interdisciplinary – multi-media approach” (TMC Newsletter “Learn Together,” no date, ca. 1970, TMU Archives).

At the same time, however, the education department faced problems that virtually all departments faced—the fact that their expressed needs could not always be accommodated because of TMC’s financial difficulties. At least one more full-time faculty member was needed for 1971–1972. Without additional personnel “we will be forced to limit the number of day students in the department” (Summary Report on Department of Education, by Fr. Reifsnyder, chair, July 1970, TMU Archives).

As part of the implementation of the new program, the department sought to organize “a task force on education with as broad a base as possible.” Department chair Sr. Joyce Quinlan, OSB, contacted persons of the larger regional community, not just educators, asking them to join the task force that would “advise the department on the needs of the community” and assist it “in identifying the qualities and competencies that teachers need now …” (Quinlan letter, June 28, 1972, TMU Archives). 

It appears that this “experimental” program did not work out in practice as well as hoped, and after evaluations by many involved, it was determined that changes needed to be made. The introduction of this program roughly coincided with the college’s short-lived Venture Program that began in the 1972–1973 academic year. Perhaps the education program was similar to Venture in that it was well-intentioned, but not realistic in its expectations—with less emphasis on teaching a traditional curriculum, the professors may have found it difficult to provide the kind of mentoring of students that would be needed, but for which they had little to guide them. At any rate, the abandonment of Venture dictated a shift toward more “general requirements” for the curriculum, which “eliminated certain out of state deficiencies problems” that education students faced when following the Venture Program. However, as the program eventually returned to a more conventional “separate class structure,” it still retained an emphasis on clinical program visitations (Teacher Education Report for Kentucky Department of Education, 1980, pp. 4-5, TMU Archives).

The department also faced the challenges of certain negative perceptions. Some faculty seemed to think that education as an academic department demanded too little of its students. Such perceptions were probably given more credibility when the department “agreed unanimously to permit any education student, elementary or secondary, to take part or the total education program on the Pass/No Credit basis as they wish” (Quinlan memo to all administration and faculty concerned with advising students, Oct. 3, 1972, TMU Archives). A plan for freeing students to take courses without achieving a letter grade could have been seen as encouraging mediocrity. 

The perceived lack of rigorous requirements was further supported by the fact that the department was giving too many “A” grades. As Fr. Edward Baumann, director of Continuing Education, opined after presenting the statistics, “It almost looks as if a passing grade and a grade of A are identical” (Baumann to Ebben, June 19, 1975, TMU Archives). In a confidential memo, Dean Ebben wrote to new education chair John Tibbett that “an inordinate number of very high grades are being awarded to students taking education courses.” Dr. Ebben reminded him that an “A” represented “outstanding quality” and he admonished the faculty “to review the meaning of the various grades in the College Catalog” and to award grades accordingly (Ebben to Tibbett, June 20, 1975, TMU Archives). 

The board of trustees was apprised of problems in the education department. Enrollment was shrinking drastically, and there had been some student complaints. The department needed a “critical appraisal,” and it was apparent that some changes would have to be made (Board of Trustees meeting minutes, April 26, 1976, TMU Archives).

Sr. Evelynn Reinke, SND, 1983. (Photo from TMU Archives)

After some disagreements regarding the operation of the department, Sr. Evelynn Reinke, a Sister of Notre Dame and an alumnus of Villa Madonna College (1962), joined the education department in 1976. She became its chair that fall at a time when the other faculty, except for Mr. Guilfoyle (who directed student teaching, among other things), had departed. The new faculty members who would come into the department all had experience teaching at the classroom level for which they would be preparing TMC students. Sr. Evelynn herself was the secondary education advisor at TMC (Interview with Sr. Evelynn Reinke, SND, May 2, 2022).

While Mr. Tibbett had been chair, TMC’s education department focused on “competency-based teacher education,” with three “thrusts,” one of which—Needs, Competencies, Objectives, Activities (NCOA)—was designed by TMC staff to be appropriate for K-12 education. Students were to fulfill the NOCA requirements for “competency verification” that would meet Kentucky criteria for certification (Thomas More Education Department, ca. Jan. 1976, TMU Archives).

It was important to Sr. Evelynn to maintain a “student-focused” approach to teacher education. During her time as chair, the education department began some new programs. For one thing, the “on again, off again” nature of the Teacher Education Committee was finally converted into an ongoing entity that included faculty from other departments, faculty and administrators from local schools, plus a student representative. Under Sr. Evelynn’s direction, the TEC would have wide-ranging responsibilities, including to discuss and decide on issues such as, “admission of candidates to the department, to student teaching, to graduation; major changes in the direction of the program; new courses; problem areas; department and/or program policy” (TEC meeting minutes, Feb.11, 1980, TMU Archives).

During the 1980s, the education department had to contend with objections and requirements of the Kentucky Department of Education. It seemed that the KDE and TMC had different expectations for the direction of the education department. President Robert Giroux expressed disagreement with the state’s suggestion to limit the number of students admitted into education. Naturally, TMC wanted to increase enrollment, and its education graduates were finding no difficulty being placed in schools; in fact, just the opposite was occurring—“we have had fewer graduates than we could supply for all the available positions brought to our attention.” So, there was no need to refuse admission to those with “reasonable expectations of their successful employment” (Giroux to Dr. Harry Snyder, Executive Director of Council on Higher Education, Nov. 19, 1979, TMU Archives).

But it was not only the KDE with whom complications arose. When the department was devising a five-year plan to respond to a recent KDE evaluation, the committee formed for this purpose concluded, after reviewing pertinent documents, that “education has not been a priority to recent administrations of the College, and that standards set by the State of Kentucky Department of Education have not been met in recent years.” The committee took into account the obvious financial constraints faced by the college, but nonetheless asked whether teacher education should be recommended to the president as a priority or should it be recommended that “teacher education by dropped from the College curriculum”? (Dr. Thomas Hanna to Fr. Leonard Callahan [Covington Diocese’s director of education], Dr. James Fouche [chair of the Education Department at Northern Kentucky University] and Ms. Judith Harris, TMU Archives).

Judy Harris, 1983. (Photo from TMU Archives)

Judy Harris, along with Elizabeth Penn, came onboard in the department during the early years of Sr. Evelynn’s chairmanship; both would be long-term members of the faculty. When Sr. Evelynn took a sabbatical 1986-1989 to complete her PhD at St. Louis University, Ms. Harris became the acting chair of the department. Upon her return, Sr. Evelynn was hesitant to resume her role as chair—she did not want to accept the stressful position again unless the department would be granted four full-time faculty as stipulated by the KDE (Reinke to Hebert and education faculty, Aug. 14, 1989, TMU Archives). She did, however, serve another three-year term as chair after her return from St. Louis University.

Sr. Evelynn also believed in maintaining strict admission standards. She wanted to screen prospective students carefully because the “teaching profession enjoys low esteem.” Some critics referred to colleges of education as “diploma mills” for students who would not make it in other majors. She not only sought to dispel such perceptions, but, more importantly, to ensure that TMC students were truly prepared to be good teachers (Reinke to Hebert, Feb. 5, 1990, TMU Archives).

As the education department moved into the 1990s, it obviously faced challenges. It eventually became clear, however, that it was acquiring the personnel to meet them.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, Ph.D. is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment