Dean Finds Answers Through Questions

By Carol Keochekian ’81
Photos by Brian Stethem ’84

Steven Rice left a law career and found found a new career as a teacher.

Growing up with a Lutheran minister father, Joan Griffin was always involved in conversations about philosophy, theology, history and culture. Although the discussions were thought provoking and helped to form her interdisciplinary approach to learning, it wasn’t the dogma or assertions shared that most caught her interest. It was the questions that these sessions stimulated.

So, it’s not surprising, especially in light of the strong Lutheran tradition of questioning, that CLU’s new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences has started her term by interviewing and asking questions of faculty members.

Committed to an interdisciplinary approach in higher education, Griffin has been encouraged by the faculty’s ideas and hopes. “I have found that the faculty here has wonderful energy especially in interdisciplinary endeavors – more so than other places. They have lots of ideas of what they want to do.”

Griffin’s initial challenge is to determine how all these ideas fit into the University’s strategic plan. “Given limited resources,” she states, “you can’t do everything. But the added challenge here is that CLU faculty appear to want to do everything and to do it well.”

By listening and querying, the new dean hopes to find consensus on important questions that affect academics at the University such as: What should a liberal arts education accomplish? How should Lutheran intellectual traditions shape that education? What do we mean by interdisciplinary and what paradigms should give methodological or philosophical coherence to our interdisciplinary programs? How do we determine which new majors we should add to the curriculum?

Interdisciplinary approach

Approaching academic programs with an interdisciplinary perspective seems to be deeply ingrained in the new dean. Fascinated since childhood by literature, history and philosophy and how they intersect, Griffin pursued a master’s and Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literature at Harvard University after earning a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Washington University (St. Louis). Her graduate study allowed her to explore several academic areas and to dip into the fascinations of the medieval world.

“I find the Middle Ages and early Renaissance a very interesting period of history,” she says, “and well suited to interdisciplinary investigation.”
Through such study, the scholar has looked at cultural collisions in the medieval world and how various systems of thought modified one another. While an earlier generation mourned “the fall of Rome,” Griffin found the “dark ages” a dynamic era in which cultural upheaval led to a medieval synthesis. She has found consolation in the past by remembering that historically “good things come out of troubled times.”

Teaching adds up

Lisa Amenta has found a joy in teaching that was missing in her previous accounting career.

After graduating from CLU with a degree in accounting in 1992, Lisa Amenta worked in the field for five years before deciding to become a teacher.

“Working as an accountant was financially rewarding, but not professionally rewarding,” explains Amenta, 37.

She returned to CLU, earning a credential in 1998 and a master’s three years later. Once she had her credential, Amenta began teaching, first at Sunkist Elementary in Port Hueneme, then at Providencia Elementary in Burbank and eventually at Sequoia Middle School in Newbury Park.

The Northridge resident is in her sixth year at Sequoia teaching math and science to sixth and seventh graders. Last year she served on a panel for the California State Textbook Adoption Committee for Mathematics.
She’s glad that the business world toughened her skin a bit even if it didn’t totally prepare her for the criticism she would receive as a teacher.

“Business isn’t personal,” Amenta says. But in the classroom, “the criticism hurts and isn’t easily forgotten.”

She also admits that there are days when she misses working in an office.

“You take your time warming up for the day. You get a cup of coffee, check your e-mail,” Amenta relates. “In teaching, it is like running a marathon that doesn’t have a finish line until June.”

But she loves the race.

“It is hard, but I am never bored,” reflects Amenta, who is expecting her first child in March. “There is always something new to learn.”

From stars to students

Harvey Laidman of Woodland Hills had a long successful career directing television shows, including “The Waltons,” “Magnum P.I.” and ”7th Heaven.” But after he hit 60, he found himself frustrated by changes in the industry. Too full of energy to retire, Laidman considered teaching film but discovered there was little demand.

Then his thoughts turned to science. He had traveled throughout the world in search of astronomical wonders. He had seen Halley’s Comet in Australia, winter solstice in Machu Picchu, Peru, and eclipses in Mazatlan and the Greek Islands.

“Teaching would be a chance to be involved with science every day,” explains Laidman, 65.

After traveling the world in search of astronomical wonders, Harvey Laidman found wonder in the classroom.

Attracted to the small class sizes and accessibility of faculty, Laidman enrolled in CLU’s Graduate Teacher Preparation/Master’s Degree program. His greatest revelation came while observing a science class for children with special needs.

“I really empathized with those kids,” says Laidman, who has a 28-year-old son. “After all those years of working with difficult actors, bullies and ego monsters, reaching these kids would be a reward and a pleasure.”

Many second-career students go into special education, says McCambridge. “They fall in love with it. This is a place where they can really serve.”\

Teachers in Demand

Despite news of shrinking enrollments and school closures in some areas, the demand for teachers remains high in California.

The number of students entering teacher preparation programs has been declining and about one-third of California’s 300,000 teachers are projected to retire within the next 10 years, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

In areas where enrollments are declining and districts are closing schools, cries of a teacher shortage don’t seem to make sense. But populations are shifting, not evaporating, explained Deborah Erickson, Ed.D., Assistant Dean of the School of Education and Interim Chair for the Teacher Preparation Program. Families are leaving Ventura County and other areas of the state that have high property values and moving to less expensive cities. Even in expensive areas, school closures sometimes don’t result in teacher layoffs because of the high number of retirements, Erickson says.

Teacher quality remains an important issue in the shortage. The class-size reduction programs of the mid-1990s resulted in a large number of teachers without full credentials, but the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 put schools under tremendous pressure to hire qualified teachers. Although the number of under-prepared teachers has been reduced significantly, the center still identified about 20,000 in 2004-2005 in California.

The greatest need is for educators qualified to teach math, science, special education and English learners.

“There is always a demand for quality teachers,” Erickson states.

Laidman started student teaching in science and math classes at Los Cerritos Middle School in Thousand Oaks this fall. He is hoping that some of the skills he honed as a director, such as thinking on his feet, will come in handy. He also sees a connection between the way he used language and finesse to extract performances from actors and getting students to put forth their best efforts.

“I will need to be much more attuned to the needs of my students,” Laidman surmises. “After all, they’re not going to be there to help me achieve my artistic vision. I’ll be there to help them see the light.”

Making a difference

Once Rice decided to leave law, education seemed the obvious choice. The son of a teacher, he had taught business law classes at CLU and California State University, Northridge, and enjoyed it.

“After working all day and teaching for three hours, I was ready to do three hours more,” recalls Rice, who has two adult daughters.

Now in his third year of teaching U.S. and world history at Sinoloa Middle School in Simi Valley, Rice still finds the classroom invigorating. Those moments when he can see something happening in his students’ minds drive home the fact that changing careers was the right move.

Although his family took a financial hit when he quit his job to do his student teaching and his new profession pays a lot less than his old one, it’s worth it because he’s found his passion.

While he had great co-workers at his law firm, nobody really cared if he was there or not, says Rice. In his seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, it’s different.

“Here, someone notices,” Rice states. “I make a difference to somebody.’’

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