A Mentor’s Legacy

Tiffany Woodall is a graduate student at Union University, completing the Master of Urban Education Program. She is a resident at Memphis Teacher Residency (memphistr.org) and teaches third grade at Sherwood Elementary School in Memphis, TN. In the pictures, everyone is wearing hats because it is TCAP spirit week, and this was “Thinking Cap” day. TCAP is the standardized test for the state of Tennessee. Tiffany is wearing the white sweater and Sarah is wearing the orange cardigan.

This blog is a reflection of her time on specific things she’s learned from her mentor over the last eight months. It will be particularly applicable to student teachers finishing their undergraduate or graduate commitments and preparing to teach on their own or to first or second year teachers who have had a mentor.

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Two years ago I googled “teacher residencies” and stumbled upon a website for the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), a program with a mission to cultivate excellent urban educators, restore communities and bring justice to a long-broken education system in the city of Memphis. With a B.A. in journalism and limited teaching experience, I applied. Since May 2014, I’ve studied the cultural foundations of this beautiful city and learned how to become a teacher-leader in my classroom. By the grace of God, I and my cohort of residents have made it to our capstone course. Here I am, in love with Memphis and with urban education, about to finish my year-long residency and earn my Master of Urban Education from Union University.

I’ve spent eight months in my mentor’s third grade classroom. I’ve watched her establish culture, interact with parents, resolve conflicts, and collaborate with a team of six teachers. Soon I’ll be launched into a solo career. As I reflect on my residency and look forward to accepting my first teaching position in a few short months, I’m humbled by how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve yet to grow.

My mentor’s name is Sarah, and this is the legacy she’s left me:

  • Tell them you love them. Sometimes we’re afraid to open up to our students. We’re afraid to show them we’re human. But that’s what we are, and we come with feelings. There are myriad ways to show love, but only one way to say it: I (your teacher who sometimes wants to pull her hair out) love (feel genuine affection toward) you (my student, even on your worst days). Tell them often.
  • At yourself. With your kids. About the chaos of this profession. You will find yourself in situations at which you can choose to laugh or to cry. Choose to laugh.
  • Respect your principal. When there are 30-40 teacher-leaders in one building, there are bound to be disagreements about what’s best and for whom. But when your principal makes a decision, you respect it. You’re allowed to disagree – you have a beautiful mind that may see things differently than others in the profession. But in your disagreement, remember that your principal is operating under gross pressure from a board, who’s operating under gross pressure from the state. Remember that your principal is not perfect, and that her job probably leaves her feeling alone much of the time, on an island by herself in that school full of teacher-leaders.
  • Discipline without emotion. When you fall in love with your students, you become invested in their well-being. There will be a day when your favorite (we all have them) student misbehaves and requires your discipline. Don’t make it an emotional event. Narrate the behavior requiring the discipline, apply the consequence, and move on. Reconnect with that student as quickly as possible to remind them that you’re on the same team. Discipline is a necessary and valuable part of educating children. Leave your emotions out of it.
  • On any given weeknight, after an exhausting day of teaching equivalent fractions to a group of eight-year-olds, you might have to call three parents, complete and file RTI paperwork, submit grades for progress reports, register for an upcoming field trip, adjust lesson plans for the following day because your students don’t understand equivalent fractions, prepare for an IEP meeting, inventory your technology for your librarian, and let your dog out, eat dinner, wash a load of laundry and sleep (hopefully). There are competing demands placed on us every day. Learn to prioritize them. What needs to be done right now? What can I do during my planning period? What can I do next week? You are one person. Take care of yourself.

IMAG1290_1Those are just the highlights, of course. Spending the year with Sarah has given me incredible insight into teaching. She’s given me confidence in going forward, and she’s coached me well as I’ve stretched and grown.

As you wrap up your semester or year, reflect on what’s made you so excited to take a stab at this job on your own. Your mentor is an invaluable resource. He or she has invited you into a sacred space of learning and offered you the opportunity to fail and to grow there. That’s priceless.

As we approach Teacher Appreciation Week May 4−8, take some time to reflect: What legacy has your mentor left you? Then tell your mentor or write a thank you note to let him or her know that the time and effort and emotional energy he or she has invested in you have really helped you.

The De-Professionalization of Teaching: What Does it Mean for Traditional Teacher Education Programs?

Traditionally those who wanted to become teachers enrolled in teacher education programs at a college or university to receive a degree that would allow them to apply for a teaching license in their state.  University and college based teacher education programs are accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) which is authorized by the Department of Education to determine if schools have developed rigorous teacher preparation programs that meet national standards.  This process of accreditation ensured that new teachers would be prepared to educate children and assume the role as a teaching professional.

Today, there are a plethora of alternative certification programs that provide different pathways for those who want to work as a teacher.  In Washington, DC the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) lists 13 organizations that are state-approved educator preparation programs, of those only 8 are colleges and or universities. The other five are non-profit organizations or Local Education Agency’s. In an effort to recruit more teachers, especially in areas where there are national shortages such as special education, math and science, many states are advocating for alternative programs that offer certification to prospective teachers, without requiring a degree in education.  In New York, the Department of Education is now asking for the ability to license teachers without having to go through college or universities. What does this mean for traditional teacher education programs?

One of the well known alternative programs is Teach for America (TFA). TFA recruits recent college graduates to teach in high poverty, inner city schools. They receive five weeks of training before receiving their own class of students.  Teachers from traditional programs take a variety of courses to gain knowledge about child development, teaching, and learning that typically take 4 to 6 semesters, and spend 12 weeks or more as a student teacher working full time alongside a qualified teacher before they are expected to take on their own classroom. The latter is more time consuming, but it also offers more opportunity to become highly qualified.

Teacher shortages are real and we must do something to recruit more highly qualified young people into the field of education. But we must remember that teaching is a profession. It requires skills and knowledge and opportunities to learn from those who have more experience.  When we reduce teaching to something that can be learned in a few short weeks, we devalue and de-professionalize the field of teaching.

Traditional teacher education programs must now compete for students that might be swayed by these new programs offering a paying job as a teacher much sooner than what it takes to complete an undergraduate program. But is teaching a job or a career? Are we professionals or are we low-skilled workers? Do you want the person educating your child to have the knowledge, skills, and preparation needed to be a great teacher, or would you prefer someone who had five weeks of training?

Dr. Denisha Jones is an assistant professor and coordinator of Early Childhood Education at Howard University

The STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Challenge

Recent efforts aimed at better articulating science and mathematics standards have moved teaching and learning in these disciplines forward.  The subject matter remains as interesting and important as ever.  However, the notion of studying science and mathematics because they are inherently interesting is only part of the equation.

What do students do with this knowledge when they face the prospect of having to earn a living?

An answer to this question lies in the letters of “T” and “E” of STEM.  James Pellegrino and Margaret L. Hilton note that “deeper learning” and “transfer” are important goals of education (National Research Council. Education for Life and Work: Delivering Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC. The National Academy Press, 2012). 

Technology and engineering offer real-world opportunities for deeper learning and transferability of cross-cutting concepts of scientific and mathematical ideas, principles and processes.

How to effectively integrate these themes into curricula that engender college and career readiness remains a challenge.

Raymond J. Dagenais, Ed.D. is a Curriculum/Professional Development Specialist at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and a co-leader of the Design Team for the Aurora University based John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School


The Chicago teachers’ strike matters for more than education

The current strike of Chicago’s public school teachers is not just a dispute over better wages and working conditions, but a fight for the survival of public education in the U.S. As access to quality public schools is essential for the working-class, it is apposite that the basic organization of the working-class – the union, is being used in this fight to defend public education.  Thus the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) battle with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) should not just be embraced by advocates of public education but by the entire labor movement as well. Chicago’s teachers, by dusting off the long under utilized lessons of U.S. labor history, are teaching us a valuable lesson on how unions have and can be used to bring about progressive reform and systematic change.

Leave it to teachers to actually learn from the past.  Since the 1950s the labor movement has overwhelmingly relied on two labor/management conflict strategies. One being business unionism where contract disputes are settled at the bargaining table by bureaucrats and lawyers. The other is simply voting for Democratic candidates hoping they will represent the interests of labor. Reliance on these two strategies has resulted not only in decades of retreat but also the near decimation of the labor movement as a whole. Instead of following these dead ends, the CTU has reached back to the numerous examples of social movement unionism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 2010, the insurgent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) took over the leadership of the CTU, transforming the CTU from an appendage of the Daley Machine and into a grass roots union tied to parent and community organizations. A year later when Barack Obama’s right hand man, Rahm Emanuel, was elected mayor of Chicago the CTU knew it had a fight coming its way. Emanuel has been determined to implement the education policies of Obama’s Secretary of Education and former CEO of CPS, Arne Duncan. Duncan’s Race to the Top education policy through the expansion of charter schools and the busting of teacher unions basically boils down to the goal of privatizing public education.

No one becomes a teacher to get rich. As teachers, the members of the CTU have placed the welfare and education of Chicago’s 350,000 public school students above all other demands. Their document The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve makes this abundantly clear.  In response the Illinois state legislature passed legislation making it illegal for the CTU to bargain over any issues other than those related to wages and compensation. This meant that issues such as class size, curriculum, and guaranteeing that all Chicago public schools have the libraries, nurses, social workers, textbooks, air conditioning, and playgrounds needed could no longer be bargained or struck over. With the Emanuel administration not negotiating in good faith and refusing to address the basic social and material needs of Chicago’s students the CTU prepared for a strike. Again the CTU took a lesson from the past. They prepared for a strike not to use as a threat during bargaining, but a strike to win.

The CTU strike has transformed the debate on education reform. It has also shown the labor movement a true example of how to fight back against austerity. Through striking the CTU has dealt a blow not only to the Emanuel administration, but also to the bipartisan assault on public education. This past weekend CPS conceded to the CTU a number of wage and compensation demands, while at the same timing essentially rewriting every article of the basic CTU/CPS contract that has been the model for the past fifty years. In sticking to their democratic rank-and-file principles, and not trusting CPS, the CTU’s House of Delegates (HOD) voted to continue striking in order to give its membership time to go over and discuss the contract proposal. This time is also needed for the CTU membership and its allies to figure how to continue the fight for the non-strikable demands that sparked the conflict with CPS. In response to the HOD vote, Emanuel is seeking an injunction against the CTU to end the strike, stating the strike is a “clear and present danger to public health and safety.”  Coming from someone who refuses to provide nurses, social workers, or air conditioning to a large number of schools this injunction attempt is pure hypocrisy. Until a contract is signed all advocates of public education and the entire labor movement needs to put its support behind the CTU.

Tom Alter is working on his Ph.D. in labor history at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.

From the Classroom to the US DOE: How to Have a Voice at All Levels

From the Classroom to the US DOE: How to Have a Voice at All Levels” is the third Webinar in the advocacy series from KDP’s Public Policy Committee.  It aired live on June 13. You can find the previous two Webinars on the Public Policy site: http://www.kdp.org/aboutkdp/publicpolicy.php.

How do you have a voice? What ways would you like to become more involved in advocacy?

Karen Allen, for the Public Policy Committee