From the backcourt to the classroom

Cecilia Lopez

Cecilia Lopez '10, doesn't look like a typical volleyball player.

For one thing, she's 5'1".

For another, she's in a Hallsville, Mo., classroom, teaching third grade. Hallsville is about 13 miles north of Columbia.


The Blue Springs, Mo., native played libero, a relatively new and entirely defensive position, for the Cougars in 2007 and 2008. Unlike her towering teammates, a libero is generally smaller and more agile, roaming the backcourt to dig and make good passes — controlling the tempo of the entire game, in effect.

Just like a good teacher controls a classroom.

Lopez and the Cougars made it all the way to the national tournament in 2007, playing against formidable competition but falling short. The petite Lopez, who then plunged into an accelerated master's degree education program that will see her graduate this May after just one year, says she doesn’t have any regrets.

She knew she wanted to be a teacher as a high school student.

"I had a high school English teacher whose enthusiasm and love for teaching was contagious," a rushed Lopez says via cell phone on her way to evening class. "You could tell she really wanted to be in a classroom. She found interesting and engaging ways to keep us motivated to learn English. And English was not exactly my favorite subject!"

Lopez is now student-teaching reading, writing, social studies, math — everything, really — in a Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies (eMINTS) classroom. The state-funded eMINTS classrooms incorporate at least one computer for every two students, a teacher laptop computer, an interactive whiteboard (SMARTBoard) and many other peripherals to enhance student learning.


Lopez's student teaching is part of a broader Columbia College partnership with the Columbia Public Schools, Hallsville R-IV, Southern Boone County, Sturgeon R-V and Harrisburg R-VIII school districts to provide Columbia College education students authentic experiences in elementary, middle, junior high and high school classrooms, assisting with administrative tasks, working with students and of course teaching. Partner school faculty who host Columbia College field experience students may take a master's-level class at Columbia College free of charge. These partnerships allow Columbia College students to practice their teaching skills in actual classrooms and public school faculty to further their professional growth. It's a win-win situation.

It's good for Lopez's students, too. She describes a teaching ah-ha! moment with a special education student who was struggling with the concept of a million.

"I said, 'When we talk about millions, it’s always seven digits,' but that didn’t work,” she says. "So I had him write seven blank lines on paper. He practiced it a couple of times. Then he got it! It's very rewarding when you reach a child, especially one who's challenged."

A powerful tide

"Cecilia was a student of mine during the spring of 2009," says Marsha Knudsen, Columbia College coordinator of field experience and the head of the partnership program. "At that time she was just beginning to teach lessons to students. The first time I observed Cecilia she taught an excellent science lesson to eighth grade students. Later she reflected on her experience by saying, 'My hands were shaking, my palms were starting to sweat, my throat felt like it was on fire . . . but I put a smile on my face and tried to be the best teacher I could be that day.' She was an awesome teacher that day, and it was because of her preparation and especially her attitude. Cecilia genuinely enjoys her students, and it shows."

Adds Dr. Paul Hanna, Columbia College education chair, "What impresses me the most about Cecilia is her collaboration and enthusiasm. She is truly a team player, working to ensure that others succeed … An incoming tide raises all ships. Cecilia is definitely that powerful tide."

Hanna and Lopez are both partial to social learning, a late 1970s theory that's now practiced in classrooms everywhere. Social learning states that children and adults learn by imitating behavior observed in others.

"I find when students work together, they learn from each other," Lopez says. "They don't just learn by reading and writing but by talking to each other, figuring out how to relate it to themselves, their lives."

Lopez knows she's facing a tough job market when she graduates in a few months, but says she's not worried.

"Columbia College does a really good job of preparing their students to be teachers," she says. "So I'm pretty confident I'll get a good job."