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A new exhibit, 'A Worthy Calling,' tells the story of over a century of teaching teachers at NIU

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Peter Medlin
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A new exhibit at Northern Illinois University’s Blackwell Museum explores NIU’s journey from teacher prep school to sprawling state university through the lens of teacher education.

Patrick Roberts is a professor and faculty director of the Blackwell Museum. He curated the exhibit called, “A Worthy Calling: 125+ Years of Teaching Teachers.” It features a collection of artifacts like textbooks, pictures of students and more.

“We want to chart the journey of NIU through these different phases," said Roberts, "while keeping teacher preparation at the core because that was the founding mission.”

Roberts said the university was on the cutting edge of national education movements like special education in the 1960s. NIU educators brought training to rural teachers in one-room schoolhouses and were at the forefront of a push for teaching by television.

NIU was originally called Northern Illinois State Normal School. In this case, “normal” doesn’t mean ordinary -- it was the name given to schools that trained teachers. In fact, the university’s first president, John Cook, was known in his day as the “Crown Prince of Teacher Education.”

Cook was a pioneer of the Herbartian Method of Instruction, which treated teaching as a science and emphasized forming lesson plans, as opposed to just giving students a series of facts and dates to memorize.

“That kind of surprised me," said Roberts, "how rooted NIU was in a kind of philosophical movement.”

According to Roberts, the collection underscores that children are at the heart of teacher education. It’s a huge responsibility to teach and care for other people’s kids. It’s a lesson he takes away looking at old artifacts like books and photos of students who aspired to be teachers through the years.

The full exhibit at the Blackwell Museum should be complete by Thanksgiving.