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School of Education

In Introductory Course, Assistant Professor Dede Lilly Emphasizes Community Building and Transition to College

Editor’s note: First-year students, prospective students (and some of their parents) wonder and worry how they will handle the academic transition from high school to college. In a series of stories, UDaily speaks with University of Delaware professors who teach courses commonly taken by students during their first year on campus. The series includes professors who teach biology, writing, business, calculus, political science and sociology, and those stories can be read on the How I Teach website. In this story, Assistant Professor Dede Lilly explains her approach to teaching elementary and middle school education.

In her Introduction to Elementary and Middle School Education class at the University of Delaware, Dede Lilly’s main priority is to model for students what she hopes a teacher would do in her own child’s classroom. So she gets to know not only their names, but also their interests. She starts each class with an emotional check-in. And she makes community-building a core tenet of the course structure.

“If you ask me what’s your number one priority as a teacher, it’s the relationships,” said Lilly, who is a field instructor and methods coordinator for the elementary teacher education (ETE) program in the College of Education and Human Development’s School of Education. “That’s what I preach to my students — everything in education comes down to the relationships we build with our students. When we think of the best teachers we had growing up, more often than not, it comes down to the relationship we feel we had with that teacher. And so I really want students to feel like they have that relationship with me.”

The introductory level course is designed to help first-year education majors transition to being college students. At the beginning of the semester, Lilly informs her students about resources on campus, including mental health resources, tutoring opportunities and career services. With the help of a peer mentor, students learn about strategies to overcome procrastination and discuss UD’s academic policies, the grading system and how advising works.

“They should feel like by the end of the class that they understand the differences between being a high school student and a college student,” Lilly said. “It’s really just a course to help them transition into being a college student and to give them all the resources, the information and the emotional support that they need in order to be successful.”

By the end of the semester, students will have an understanding of the education major as well as the sequence of the major.

Elementary education majors have the opportunity to participate in the dual certification program by picking a concentration area: special education, English as a Second Language, middle school science, middle school math, middle school social studies or middle school English. Throughout the semester students hear from faculty members about those topics.

During one class session, first-year students hear from a panel of upperclassmen to get an idea of the different paths they can choose on their educational journey. Students also write a résumé as part of a class exercise.

“One of the things I hope they get out of the class is that they’re starting to build their résumé from this point forward,” Lilly said, adding that students can choose to create a résumé reflecting where they are now in their educational career or where they want to be by the time they graduate. “I’m hoping my class leads them to think about their goals for the four years, the possibilities that are in front of them and what they want to do with those possibilities.”

At the start of the semester, Lilly puts students into small groups so that they start to feel part of a community. Teachers work collaboratively, Lilly said, so it’s important that students learn early on how to work with others.

“Learning is social, and so giving them opportunities to talk, problem solve, share ideas — I think that prepares them for what I hope are the kinds of teachers that they want to be,” she said. “It’s very intentional that I get them working in groups supporting one another and talking to one another. I think that’s a skill that will carry on.”

Many of Lilly’s students have known for their whole lives that they want to be teachers, but for Lilly, that wasn’t the case. She started her undergraduate career at UD as a psychology major and, after realizing it wasn’t for her, transferred into the ETE program. She did her student teaching in the Colonial School District, where she later taught fifth grade for 10 years and hosted UD student-teachers. She began working at UD in 1999 to do field supervision, working with student-teachers.

In addition to teaching the introductory course, Lilly currently teaches courses on classroom management and student teaching. She is also the methods coordinator for the ETE program and supervises student teachers in the field.

“The art of teaching, even at the college level, is just really fulfilling to me,” Lilly said. “I feel really grateful that I get to see our students freshman year and then again junior year, and then again senior year, because to see growth in an individual, and to hear them share descriptions of their learning, of the development they’ve made — I think that’s just one of the most fulfilling things that a person can experience.”

Lilly said part of her role is to cultivate the next generation of teachers in the state of Delaware. The University partners with school districts throughout Delaware to address the teacher shortage crisis in the state as well as a recent drop in student achievement and outcomes that has been caused, in part, by the pandemic.

“It’s important that we’re helping to meet the needs of school districts, the teaching shortage, all the things you hear about in the news of test scores and all of those things that place demands on teachers,” Lilly said. “Our school does a really good job of producing high quality candidates for this position, which is just helping a lot of the problems that persist in education, particularly public education.”

A’Niya Frazier, a sophomore elementary education major who took Lilly’s class in the fall of 2022, said she enjoyed that the class was interactive and engaging.

“She didn’t lecture. She made it really interactive, and she made sure to show that she cared for us and cared about our transition to college,” Frazier said. “The information that she gave is really beneficial for the rest of your time as an education major, and she really took the time to check in on us and make sure we were getting the information and make sure we understood.”

Brianna Best, a sophomore elementary education major, said she wants to become a teacher so she can make an impact on kids and be the person her students can turn to if they need anything — much like Lilly was to her.

“I learned a lot from Dede’s teaching style,” Best said. Indeed, Lilly has her students call her by her first name so her students feel more comfortable approaching her. “I want to be a teacher like that, where my kids feel that I’m approachable and they feel comfortable talking to me and talking in class. Even more important than what she taught in class was how she taught the material, and I’ll use that in my future career.”

Lilly said that being a teacher is one of the most challenging careers a person can have, but it’s also one of the most fulfilling. No day is ever the same, and there are many opportunities to collaborate with others.

“I would tell any student that if they even have a faint voice inside of them saying you might want to do this, I would tell them to do it,” Lilly said. “It’s a wonderful profession. I think it’s one of the most fulfilling careers that you could ever imagine.”

Support for Academic Success

The University of Delaware empowers all Blue Hens with the skills and strategies they need to succeed.

UD students in any major are encouraged to take advantage of a range of peer tutoring services, as well as comprehensive skill-building resources offered by the Office of Academic Enrichment (OAE). Most services are available free of charge. To learn more, visit the OAE website. Students may also utilize the Blue Hen SUCCESS platform to connect with their academic advisor or access additional resources on Advising Central.

For UD’s community of educators, the Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning (CTAL) offers programs, workshops and confidential consultations to support faculty as they develop and achieve their pedagogical goals. UD instructors at every stage of their career are invited to explore online and contact ctal-info@udel.edu.

CEHD’s Center for Excellence and Equity in Education (CEETP) provides support services for students and faculty across 28 education programs throughout the university, and partners with schools and districts throughout the region. CEETP ensures excellence in teacher preparation, supporting students, faculty and clinical educators as students engage in field experiences and student teaching, complete their degrees and meet the requirements for teacher certification. The center also develops and implements initiatives to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in the teaching field, such as CEHD’s Teachers of Tomorrow pipeline program and teacher residency programs.

How I Teach — Series

The How I Teach website provides a collection of the stories in this series.

Read this article on UDaily.

 Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase.