Teachers look like experts to a classroom full of students, whether they are learning the alphabet or parsing particle physics. Failing to grasp a lesson can trigger anxiety and the fear of appearing stupid to others. Students of Ellen Silver-Horrell know she once felt the same way because she tells them she has a learning disability.
“I didn’t learn how to read until the fourth grade. I was the quiet mouse in the back of the classroom,” says Silver-Horrell, who brings 30 years of experience to training future teachers at Governors State University.
Though gifted with a high IQ, Silver-Horrell was labeled an underachiever as a child, she said. “I had that description hanging over me for all of my school career, and I always thought I was dumb.”
Fortunately, Silver-Horrell spotted the silver lining in the cloud and found GSU, where she met her husband while earning a degree in urban teacher education in 1976. “GSU was competency-based and only provided pass-fail grades. That freed me up from my test anxiety because I was a terrible test-taker.
Mingling decades of experience with a dose of humility, Silver-Horrell offers students a valuable perspective, having taught at every level, from early childhood to university lecturer. She also earned certification in early childhood education, special education, and K-9 instruction, launching her trailblazing career that would ultimately bring her back to the classroom at GSU, where she shares her research and best practices.
GSU Newsroom: What made you want to become a teacher?
Silver-Horrell: It’s kind of serendipitous. I come from a family of six children, with just about everyone in my family having some of type of learning disability and difficulties in school. Administrators in our school district, just north of Chicago, wanted to put one of my siblings in an institution. I was motivated to be a good teacher, so I could help my younger siblings sisters learn. I learned how to break down content and skills in small bits tailored for individual learners.
GSU Newsroom: How is teacher preparation different today than when you were in school?
Silver-Horrell: To become a teacher now is so much more involved than it was even 10 years ago. There are national standards and the common core standards. There’s an accreditation body with requirements we have to meet. In retrospect, I feel like we’ve been doing school reform ever since I started teaching.
GSU Newsroom: How did you make the transition to teaching at a university level?
Silver-Horrell: I heard that GSU was partnering with Crete-Monee School District 201-U on setting up a charter school in 2000. I was hired as a master teacher to teach second, third, and fourth grades at the charter. We were taking the Reggio Emilia philosophy of bringing ideas and materials from outside the classroom to provoke and promote student interest, then building curricula upon it designed around those interests. This model is used for early childhood, but our goal was to apply early childhood theory to the learning of older students. Some of the students went on to achieve great things, like attending Julliard School in New York, Harvard, and Dartmouth.
After the charter closed, GSU hired me as a university lecturer. that’s how I found out I love to teach teachers—again, it was serendipity. To date, I’ve taught 23 different courses here in the College of Education, but my heart is always with teaching the teachers of littlest learners.
GSU Newsroom: What’s your teaching style?
Silver-Horrell: I like to use storytelling of real-world classroom experiences to relate theory to pedagogical practices. I like being able to close the door and tell students, “This is what it says you have to do, but this is what I think based on actual classroom experience, theory, and research.”
GSU Newsroom: You have said GSU was ahead of its time when you first attended. Why?
Silver-Horrell: In my earlier academic experience, the factory model of education did not work well for me. When I transferred to GSU, I was so excited. We had cooperative education, competency-based education, university without walls, small, personalized classes, and experiential learning. It allowed me to blossom. If I had not transferred here, I do not think I would have discovered my passion for being an articulate advocate for our children and for being a proud teacher of teachers. That’s why I love GSU: I learned to be innovative here, to be an articulate teacher-leader, to think more flexibly, to deepen my understandings, and to be a joyous learner.