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Sitting at the end of a small half-moon-shaped table in her father’s kindergarten classroom, Hannah McArthur ’25 works with a student to form letters on the page. She shadows her father, a SUNY Potsdam alumnus and special educator at Phoenix Elementary School, as he works with a separate student on the other side of the table. Still an elementary student, McArthur teaches foundational literacy skills, utilizing the same techniques as her father—a hands-on experience foreshadowing her academic path at SUNY Potsdam as she now pursues a degree in childhood / early childhood education.

“Starting in the fifth grade, I would go to his classroom whenever I could to help children with letter formations and reading skills,” she said. “It always makes me so happy to see how far they’ve come when I see them reading full sentences after just a few weeks.”

She continued working with children in her father’s classroom throughout middle and high school, and then during her senior year, she took on a mentorship role with her younger sisters. It was the middle of the global pandemic, and as they were entering preschool and kindergarten, McArthur was there to support them as they acclimated to online learning. Just 16 years old, she already understood the value of the foundational academic and social skills inherent in the kindergarten classroom, that her sisters were not experiencing.

“They had no idea what was going on. I decided that after school we would go through whatever they needed to know that day. I worked with them as much as I could to help them reach that level of understanding. They didn’t have classroom friends; we were all trapped in a bubble. I loved teaching before with the students in the classroom, but that showed me that I can make a difference. The smiles on their faces when they finally understood the letters and words were amazing, and I wanted to keep seeing that forever. I love it, I really do, so that’s why I’m here at SUNY Potsdam,” she said.

McArthur is now pursuing a degree in childhood / early childhood education at the College, in the same teacher education program that her father, Justin McArthur ’00, completed two decades earlier. Her mother, Heather McArthur, and her uncle also attended SUNY Potsdam. With both her family connections and the reputation of the College’s teacher education program, she had long been considering Potsdam. And after attending the College’s Accepted Student Day, she knew she had made the right decision. 

“I love it up here at SUNY Potsdam. No one is in a rush, it’s calm, it’s quiet, and everyone is open and kind. They want to help you. It’s so nice and refreshing.”

Hannah McArthur '25

“I had been thinking about SUNY Potsdam from the second that I decided that teacher education was my route, and then when I stepped on campus, I was like, ‘yeah, this is right, this seems good.’ It was that initial walk onto campus and comfort factor that I didn’t experience with any other school. Everyone seemed so nice and open. I got to talk with students who were also thinking about the education program and hear their thoughts and goals. I made a lot of friends that day that I keep in touch with even now,” she said.

McArthur arrived at SUNY Potsdam with 19 college credits, which is now allowing her to finish her degree in just three and a half years. Now a sophomore, she has already completed a placement at Norwood-Norfolk Elementary School, and this semester she has taken on a leadership role in the BEARS Mentoring Program, where local elementary students are brought to campus every week to meet one-on-one with student teachers like McArthur, to help foster an appreciation for literacy. “We create a lesson plan every week. It’s mainly focused on their literacy, getting them to enjoy reading. Our theme this semester is Hometown Heroes, so we’ll read a book about a doctor one day for example, ask them what they learned from it, and then they have other hands-on activities,” she said.

Led by Ashley Penny ’12 & ‘15, a SUNY Potsdam alumna and special education teacher at Potsdam Central School, the program provides student teachers with essential hands-on experience to prepare for their careers. “She is so sweet. You can tell she loves what she does. She gets it. All our assignments are things that you can implement in the classroom, which has been wonderful,” McArthur said. 

Erica Weems ’23, a second-grade teacher at Massena Central School, has also left an indelible mark on McArthur, and used real-world examples in her  Principles of Education course. “Erica brought up activities that she did in the classroom. Having that input was so helpful. I can without a doubt say that Ashley Penny and Erica Weems have had the biggest impact on me becoming a teacher, because they are current teachers, out there every day with the students,” she said.

This semester McArthur is taking a Writing Fiction for Young Children class with Professor Stephanie DeGhett where she is mastering the finer points of writing stories with a basic vocabulary.  “A lot of children’s books have a moral or lesson to them, so I have been switching my writing style and thinking, ‘Does this make sense for a child’s mind,’ which has been interesting and challenging,” she said.

During the Fall 2024 and Spring 2024 semesters, McArthur will complete two teaching blocks where she will spend two days every week in local elementary school classrooms. And then in the Fall of 2025, she will be fully immersed in the classroom for her student teaching placement, the culmination of years of hard work, and the final step before accepting a job as a classroom teacher. With multiple opportunities for students to receive real-world classroom training, and faculty who have mapped out a detailed plan for success, McArthur will be well-prepared for her career as a classroom teacher.

“The teacher education department here is a force to be reckoned with, that is for sure. We are very connected. There’s a lot of care and support that goes into it. I can go to any person in the department, and they will be there for me, support me, and help me with whatever I need,” she said. “I can tell the professors are all dedicated to helping us. The teacher education department is like a family, and I’ve made some really good friends.” 

As she looks to the future, McArthur plans on beginning her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher in Spring 2026, immediately after completing her degree. Once she takes the reigns as a classroom teacher, she plans on enrolling in the College’s 100 percent online master’s degree program in childhood education

As she transitions from college to career, she wants to be a changemaker and get back to the basics in the classroom, pulling children away from the constant influx of media and excessive screen time. “When I’m home, I make sure that my sisters go outside, or that we are playing a board game, that we are doing something other than using a TV, tablet, or phone,” she said. “I want to go back to the pen and paper. I want to go back to cutting, pasting, and coloring, and take a step back from those computers. They are exposed to technology and electronics at home all the time. In the classroom, it’s not necessary for that age group.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter