Austenfeld and his staff developed and have promoted the program
over a number of years with a goal of helping teachers integrate character
values into the school curriculum. One way to do that is to work with teachers
already in the classroom. But Austenfeld also is trying to convince colleges and
universities to send education majors to his center as part of their student
teaching experience. Olivet College is the first to agree.
The college already allowed its teacher candidates to earn
credit at Sherman Lake, but in January the institution decided to make it
mandatory, according to Norma Curtis, vice president and dean for academic
affairs. "A lot of what they stand for is the same as what we stand for," she
explained the decision. The teacher candidates from Olivet who have spent time
at Sherman Lake "had a very rich experience. We’re really excited about it."
Olivet requires its teacher candidates to spend 14 weeks in
classroom training. Curtis said she believes the seven weeks they will spend at
Sherman Lake will help them become better classroom managers and give them a
better understanding of how to help children develop life skills in addition to
academic skills. They also will have direct teaching experience at the camp, she
pointed out. "I don’t think there’s one major subject area that can’t be
incorporated at Sherman Lake."
There are 32 state-approved teacher preparation programs in
Michigan and about 7,500 new teachers are certified each year, according to the
Michigan Department of Education. The state gives teaching institutions wide
leeway to structure their own programs, according to Curtis, although the
programs are subject to state review. Olivet currently has between 300 and 350
students enrolled in its education program.
The MDE conducts a review of each teaching institution every
five years, according to Flora Jenkins, director of the Office of Professional
Preparation Services. The state requires prospective teachers to spend at least
12 weeks in a directed teaching assignment under the supervision of a teaching
institution, but some universities and colleges require more time of their
students, she said.
Teacher training is also the focus of a new, state-level study
group on teacher preparation programs. The Michigan Teacher Preparation Policy
Study Group, formed in July, will make recommendations on the state’s review
process and will study teacher testing policies and the grading of teacher
preparation institutions, according to a press release announcing the group.
"Out motto is: Kids not only need to be smart. They need to be
good, too," Austenfeld told Michigan Education Report. He says the evidence is
clear that having embedded values in a school promotes academic achievement. But he said teachers don’t get much help achieving both goals in the classroom.
Instead, they are under "a tremendous amount of pressure to meet national (test) standards," he said, while their principals are "overwhelmed by all the
Even if a teacher wants to incorporate character values into the
curriculum, the commercial programs available are "almost entirely people trying
to sell you posters," said Austenfeld, who studied the topic for his master’s
thesis. Some programs suggest weekly character activities, but not many focus on
character values as the starting point in a curriculum. Integrated Education
does just that, he said, using the core values of honesty, caring, respect and
responsibility. Austenfeld noted that those are "universal values, not religious
How would a teacher combine character values with an English
lesson? According to the Integrated Education plan, the teacher would first
explain the activity and then the class together would discuss how it relates to
character. Next the class would carry out the activity and, finally, class
members would discuss it. Teachers in the Sherman Lake program learn that
technique along with the campers.
At Sherman Lake, most of the activities are hands-on, like
canoeing or archery or art. So before students climb into canoes, they talk
about safety and respect. "How are we going to be safe? We’re not going to tip
each other," Austenfeld asked and answered himself. "How are we going to treat
the equipment?" Learning is easier in an environment where children feel safe
physically and also feel they will be treated with respect, Austenfeld said.
On the first day of camp, counselors and students "sit around
and decide what the rules and expectations will be," Austenfeld said. "They know
what’s right and wrong, and they’re their own rules." He advises teachers to
have those same kinds of conversations at the beginning of the school year.
"Setting the tone of the class at the very beginning dictates the whole year."
In other words, he adds later, "what you permit, you promote."
Austenfeld, who taught in public schools for six years, has been
executive director of the center for 12 years. He has a Bachelor of Science
degree in education from Emporia State University in Kansas and a master’s
degree in nonprofit leadership and management from Springfield College in
Massachusetts. The center itself is a full-service YMCA that offers summer
camps, retreats and year-round family recreation in addition to the school
He does not have long-term empirical evidence on the academic
effect of Sherman Lake Integrated Education, Austenfeld said, but teachers and
principals tell him they have noticed improved student/teacher relationships,
better test scores and fewer behavior problems since their students visited. The
program has broad appeal, with 40 schools now participating, among them
elementary, middle and high schools, public schools, public school academies and
"The cool thing is, we have kids coming from every environment,"
Austenfeld said. At Sherman Lake, a student teacher would work with between 15
and 20 different groups of students from very different backgrounds over the
course of seven weeks. The student teachers would learn to incorporate character
education into lesson plans and would share ideas and experiences with other
student teachers every day.
"They’ve seen it all," Austenfeld said of counselors who have
worked at Sherman Lake and gone on to be teachers or principals. "I mean
everything from bedwetting to whatever you can imagine. They end up seeing kids
The student teacher program at Sherman Lake would be in addition
to, not in lieu of, student teaching in a more traditional classroom, he pointed
out. "What they get here are all the soft skills about how to present a subject,
and they would transfer those skills to other classes."
Carrie Abbott is a 2006 Olivet graduate who participated in the
Sherman Lake program and is now certified to teach art in Michigan. Originally
from Bad Axe, she said the Sherman Lake program helped her to hone her skills by
teaching the same lessons over and over with different groups of children. She
spent seven weeks there as a student teacher and then returned as a summer
"It was absolutely wonderful," she said. "There are different
students and they need to learn different ways." Right now Abbott is working as
a residence hall director at Olivet and also is the campus director of student
organizations. She incorporates character education into her work with campus
leaders in the same way she would in a classroom, she said, by talking about
respect and caring.
One of her friends from Sherman Lake, who is now a fourth grade
teacher, told Abbott she also is using core values in the classroom. "You have
to be honest," Abbott quoted her friend. "You can’t cheat on tests. You have to
be responsible. You can’t hit anybody."
That’s the kind of story that Austenfeld wants to hear. "It’s
pretty hard to change minds, but it’s easy to shape them," he said. "We’re in
the business of shaping minds."