Though principal Virginia “Ginger” Minshew has seen teaching methods change from her own student days to the modern classroom, one thing has stayed the same: the students.
“Basically, I don’t think kids have changed,” said Minshew, principal of Farmwell Station Middle School for the past six years. As an educator for 23 years, she has seen that the societal issues of peer pressure, fitting in and making choices remain the same for students. However, “The issues they’re dealing with at a much younger age are different. Our world is a very different place. Kids live with the idea of terrorist attacks. That’s very frightening for a child as well as for an adult. It makes some things uncertain.”
Over the years, students have remained inquisitive and still ask questions and explore, but the method of their exploration has changed to become “technology based,” as Minshew said. “We live in a much faster paced world than was there when I was growing up. I think education has had to change with that pace but also continue to be a safe place for kids to grow, explore and learn,” she said.
In Loudoun, each classroom is equipped with four computers, and schools offer a variety of computer classes and include the use of computers in other classes and programs. Students have become more accustomed to interacting with technology and getting an instant response or feedback, said Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent of instruction. "Students that need that much interaction or response are not able to listen to a lecture for 50 minutes," she said. "We need to vary the instructional strategies."
The strategies can include hands-on, visual and auditory ways of presenting information. "Technology has caused us to change and been part of our change in school," Ackerman said.
“Who would have thought 23 years ago when I started this, that we would be connected to worlds outside our community, that kid would be so knowledgeable about technology," Minshew said.
MINSHEW BEGAN her education career as a special education teacher at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, staying with the school system for seven years from 1980-87 to teach at the high school and at Washington Irving Intermediate School. She took a two-year leave of absence to earn a master’s degree in special education in 1983 from George Mason University, later earning her doctorate in administration and supervision in 1990 from the University of Virginia.
In 1987, Minshew was planning to teach at Centreville High School where she was assigned, but the former director of personnel for Loudoun County Public Schools called her about an open assistant principal position at Broad Run High School. Minshew took the position, staying with the school for nine years. In 1997, she helped open Potomac Falls High School and a year later was assigned as principal of Farmwell Station Middle School. That school opened in 1995.
“I never wanted to be anything but a teacher,” Minshew said. “I believe teaching and working in public education is a calling. … It’s a love of the profession, of children and of what we do every day."
Minshew finds being in a school to be "infectious." "I think it’s the kids. I think it’s the teachers. I think it’s the whole atmosphere of growing and learning and change," she said.
Over the years, Minshew observed teaching moving away from pencil-and-paper tasks and lecturing to a wider variety of instructional methods.
Minshew sees students working in collaborative groups to learn to work with others. They are taught critical thinking and problem solving skills, so that they can think through to an answer instead of hearing the information and spitting it back on tests. “It’s been something that has been coming in the last 15 years … as the business world changes. Companies don’t work in isolation anymore,” she said.
In addition, in the past 20 years there has been more research about the brain and how children learn. "That research has guided us to see that kids do learn differently," Ackerman said.
STERLING MIDDLE School principal Ellen Fein has seen collaborative teaching become a part of the classroom within the last 10 years.
"There are very few teachers teaching with a lecture style," said Fein, an educator for the past 29 years, 26 years in Loudoun County. She served as the principal at Sterling Middle School for four years and as assistant principal at the school for 19 years. "I think teachers are more involved with students. There's more hands-on and more collaborative teaching going on in the classroom. ... Kids are engaged in their learning. When kids are engaged in their learning and are active in it, the learning is going to be greater for them. It's a necessary change."
One change is schools being held accountable through standards testing implemented in Virginia in 1995. “I think we ought to be held accountable. The key is not to make it so that’s all you’re about,” Minshew said, adding that the testing points out the subject areas that need additional work. “Loudoun County Schools does a really good job while meeting these standards. We’re providing other experiences for kids.”
Ackerman said before the standards were implemented, Loudoun teachers engaged in curriculum work, working in groups to determine what students should know at each grade level for each subject. "For the standards, we were covering a lot of those things," she said, adding, "It certainly caused us to have to pay attention to something that is an external force outside of our school system that influences some of what we teach."