The University of Northern Iowa’s passion for future educators is evident every day, but especially during Teacher Education Convocation and Celebration which was just held on Wednesday April 6 at the McLeod Center. 

The ceremony recognizes students who have been accepted into the Teacher Education Program, which is a major milestone for students on their way to becoming educators. While the event is usually held in both the fall and spring, it’s been put on hold several times due to the pandemic, making the recent convocation on an even grander scale than normal with the inclusion of those who missed partaking in the event previously. The larger size of approximately 1,300 attendees also necessitated a venue change from the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center for the university’s 59th convocation.

“We do teacher education on a scale that is so much larger than anything else in Iowa,” said Benjamin Forsyth who is the director of educator preparation for the College of Education and chair of the convocation committee. “The size of our program puts us in the top 1% of teacher education programs in the nation, and we do it well. So to celebrate our teachers is a big deal.” 

The magnitude of this year’s event meant invitations were sent to a number of VIP guests including the Director of the Iowa Department of Education Ann Lebo and nine local superintendents. Mike Fisher, the superintendent of Charles City,  was the event’s featured speaker who was originally scheduled to speak at the canceled March 2020 convocation. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst as well as Representative Ashley Hinson all sent representatives from their respective offices. 

There was also extra time dedicated to recognizing the faculty and staff within the College of Education who Forsyth referred to as an “army of specialists.”

“There's a lot of bad press about becoming a teacher and the hard work that it is,” Forsyth said. “Especially in the pandemic, it's been hard. But being a teacher is also fun. It's incredibly rewarding, and it's the best job I can think of doing.”

Rather than having everyone walk across the stage like in years past, students stood with the classmates who shared their specific major to give the audience a visual representation of what areas of teaching the students are going into. It’s a rather impressive visual given that one-fourth of all undergraduate students at UNI are teacher education students.

Forsyth believes that UNI is so successful at producing teachers, including educators in 99% of school districts and across every county in Iowa, for a number of reasons. Part of this is the momentum that UNI has been building since its inception in 1876 as the Iowa State Normal School, meaning it was solely devoted to training teachers. While the university has gone through a number of name changes and program additions over the years, its dedication to teachers has never wavered.

Another crucial component to UNI’s success in teacher education is the sheer amount of field experience it provides for students.

“Our students get a lot of field experience, and they get it early,” Forsyth explained. 

As someone who is getting a taste of field experience right now, sophomore Bailey Leitner can attest to the great lengths UNI goes to get future educators in the classroom.

“I think the program that they have is amazing,” the Dubuque native explained. “I love that we get into the classrooms right away. I think that it's incomparable to any other university.”

Leitner knew she wanted to be a teacher since elementary school. When the time came to pick a college, Leitner said she felt very “comfortable” coming to UNI. In fact, the vast majority of her teachers growing up went to UNI. 

Unfortunately, her convocation was delayed due to the pandemic, but she was finally able to participate on Wednesday and get her traditional convocation pin.

“The keynote speaker kept saying that we’re the ones as teachers that are going to be making a difference,” said Leitner, who is majoring in elementary education with a math K-8 minor. “Some people say that, but they don’t always treat teachers that way. So it’s nice that we had this chance to actually be recognized—just us—and made a big deal out of.” 

Like Leitner, sophomore Noah Fredericksen knew what career path he wanted to take from an early age. For him, that meant choral music education which he is pursuing at UNI. His middle school choir teacher in Denison, Iowa, was especially influential in that decision.

“I thought, ‘Well, if he's inspiring me, he's probably inspiring other students’,” said Fredericksen. “That's something really impactful as a teacher. So I started thinking about how I could do what he does and how I could inspire others.” 

Fredericksen represents a section of students honored at convocation who are part of the College of Humanities, Arts & Sciences. Students from all four colleges at UNI were celebrated at the event.

Not only did Frederickson stand with his fellow future teachers at Wednesday’s convocation, but he also sang the “UNI Alma Mater.” While he said he was nervous, especially since he had to wait until the very end to sing, hearing the speakers got Fredericksen excited about his future career and distracted him from the nerves.

“There are very few moments in the path to your career that you truly think, ‘Okay, this is why I'm doing this’,” said Fredericksen. “Convocation is definitely one of those moments. It was kind of a confirmation that I can do this and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”