Craig Mertler is settling into his role as the new dean at the Ross College of Education at Lynn University. Mertler, who started this summer, is filling the position left open for nearly 18 months following the death of Patrick Hartwick, one of the six Lynn students and faculty who perished in Haiti during the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
Mertler, who served as director of the doctoral program in school improvement at the University of West Georgia, understands Lynn’s focus on educational innovation. Mertler’s expertise in applied-classroom and school-based action research was used by educators and administrators to develop real-world solutions in school districts throughout Georgia. He’s intent on bringing a similar passion to his work at Lynn.
Mertler spoke with Boca Raton magazine about higher education and preparing the teachers of tomorrow.
What is the problem with education today?
In this era of high-stakes accountability, most teachers do not enter their first job with the skills necessary to effectively use assessment results—especially those from standardized tests—for revising and improving curriculum and instruction. They often learn those skills on the job. We need to help them develop those skills. With the emphasis that this country has on standardized testing as a result of [programs like] No Child Left Behind, these are now high-stakes tests because schools will not get funding [if scores are low]. One of the things that teachers need to be able to do is to look at test scores, find out where students are deficient, and then do things from a curriculum standpoint to be able to target those areas.
What are some of the main challenges of teaching?
There are all kinds of challenges in schools [that have been around] for decades. Many of these problems [have been enhanced by the poor economy] and this has impacted how well children of the families do in school. Teachers are left to struggle with not only teaching kids the content that they need to master but also being able to help them overcome and deal with the family issues, and issues related to the economy, which impact all of us differently.
As dean of education, what will your main role be?
We have an opportunity at Lynn because of the focus of the university’s innovation and creativity to integrate a higher degree of that innovation into our education programs. One of my responsibilities is going to be to help increase the visibility of the college—both in terms of its outreach to the local school districts, but also in terms of the professional arena. I think that Lynn has a wonderful reputation across this country and beyond our borders, but I’m not sure if the College of Education has that kind of reputation yet. I think with the faculty that we have we can [raise that profile].
[Regarding partnerships] with the local school districts, [it’s an opportunity] for us to learn from them as well. I’m not a believer that those of us in higher education have to tell local schools everything we know. I firmly believe that there are a lot of people in those school districts that can teach us and higher ed a lot about the job of being educators; it’s a two-way street.
What has changed in education and what are the challenges of keeping up with how students learn and teachers teach?
Twenty years ago, there weren’t a lot of techniques used to help those students who have learning disabilities. Now we have such a better understanding of the spectrum of learning disabilities and different types of learning abilities. This puts a lot more responsibility on teachers to help students capitalize on the way they learn, which is different from how a lot of us going back several years were taught to teach students. Teachers are expected to be more flexible and adapt their curriculum and teaching styles to meet the needs of a wider variety of learners. We are getting better, but there is still more room for improvement.
What do you think the role is of education around the world?
We live in a global society. In the future, there are not going to be the kind of geographic boundaries that [dictate how we] function in a society. [Students today think nothing] of communicating by e-mail, text messaging and Facebook, because that’s the world they have been raised in. As an educational community we have to find ways to capitalize on that. Schools [tend to] impose these geographical barriers on students by saying, “We have to get you ready to work in the real world”—but [that real world for students may involve] careers that are not geographically bound.
What tools do students need to become successful educators, and what can you do as dean to provide those tools?
It’s important for students to exclude the idea that there is only one way of teaching. It’s important they adapt to innovative and creative approaches. There is no one right way to teach. There are ways that work better than others, but it also depends on your situation and setting. You have to find what works for you, and that’s not an easy skill to teach future educators. It’s important to let them see what the advantages are for not only themselves as educators but for their students as well.
One of the benefits of being at Lynn is the Institute for Achievement and Learning, which recognizes that students learn differently. But there are ways to adapt.
I’m a big believer that failure is not a bad thing. It’s beneficial for us to adopt the attitude of giving things a try and seeing what happens. We may discover wonderful things.