Leading and Supporting Equity in the Classroom

How UW's Teacher Education Programming continually renews itself, teachers, and the profession.

 

It's no secret that being a public-school teacher is an incredibly challenging job.

According to a 2017 study by UW College of Education researchers, Understanding Teacher Retention and Mobility in Washington State, about a quarter of new teachers change schools or leave the profession in the first five years, with this number being higher or lower depending on the school and whether the teacher is a person of color or not. Related, these systemic issues also leave many teachers feeling unsupported or underprepared, not least for the task of creating an equitable educational environment for all their students.

The College’s five Teacher Education Programs (TEP) are working to address those issues. From Elementary to Secondary, Special Education to its certificate and master's programs, TEP offers its enrollees experiences in poverty-impacted schools and mentoring from master teachers along with research-informed, continually evolving instruction. 

It's not a short-term proposition and relies on constant learning by all involved. For example, the barriers faced by students with disabilities and other marginalized identities often intersect. “Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, and we support them in the journey of creating more opportunity-filled and inclusive spaces in their schools and with their students and families,” says Selma Powell, Director for the Special Education Teacher Education Program.

"It helps to think of teacher preparation on a continuum, from program recruitment through graduation and beyond, preparing teachers in the contexts in which they are typically hired, knowing where graduates are hired, tracking retention in the profession, finding ways to support them in practice, and understanding why they might leave," says Dr. Marisa Bier.

Bier is the director of the Seattle Teacher Residency (STR) program, the newest TEP program and a partnership formed in 2012 between the College of Education, Alliance for Education, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Education Association. She appreciates how STR’s Seattle-specific focus and partnership structure allows it to do localized work with mentor teachers and engage its alumni community in ways that inform program improvement. 

In the case of all five of the College of Education’s TEP pathways, its alumni tell the stories best of how they have contributed to TEP and how the programs have helped to prepare and support them in their career journeys. 

A Connected Community of Learners

"We were taught to see our classroom as a community, to see students as their whole selves," says Santasha Dhoot, a 2019 graduate of the Elementary Teaching Program (ELTEP), focused on equity and academic excellence. Her first year in the classroom was also the year the pandemic started. After the classroom went virtual, she led a voting rights unit, starting with the question, "Why is it important to use your voice?" Because of the amount of time the children in her classroom now spent with the adults in their lives, Dhoot's lessons involved more engagement with families. In the current year, back in the school building, she is working to continue contact and engaging families when teaching social justice lessons, building on the experience of remote learning.

"We were taught in ELTEP, there might not be a lot of other people pushing for the same level of equity," says Dhoot. "It can be isolating." The connections she made at UW continue to fortify her. In addition to providing lots of opportunities to teach tough topics in age-appropriate ways, the program's use of caucusing to connect educators with similar identities gave her a cohort that she relies on for support. 

The article, The Water Where We Swim gives an in-depth explanation of caucusing, first introduced in the Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) in 2014. Since then, the use of caucusing in the College’s teacher programs has expanded to ELTEP and beyond and continues to evolve.

In addition to her work with students, Dhoot is also applying her ELTEP educational experiences to lead the teachers in her school in professional development related to identity and as a leader in her teacher’s union to support efforts to recruit and retain more teachers of color. 

"A huge takeaway for me is the importance of knowing yourself and how you show up before you begin to start teaching social justice, so you can protect students and not cause more harm," she says. 

Windows and Mirrors

German Moreno, an STR program graduate works in SPS as a professional growth and educational support consulting teacher (CT). " Windows and mirrors is one of the six Racial Equity Outcomes that drive CTs’ work," he says. "It means that students should see themselves in the classroom, on the walls, in the people they are learning about, in the authors of the books they are reading. They should also see their possibilities and their potential and be able to peek into other students' experiences, recognizing the differences and that they are learning alongside one another." 

The Racial Equity Outcomes are part of an overall understanding about the downward force a racist society and system put on students, families and individuals. They help white teachers take responsibility and counter their power and privilege and help teachers of color challenge and counter internalized white supremacy.  

When Moreno visits classrooms to support teachers, the concept of windows and mirrors is something tangible that he looks for and asks about. His intensive experience with STR prepared him well for his current position. First, he worked with a mentor teacher, having learning-focused conversations, looking at data and patterns and how to change those patterns. After he completed STR and taught for three years, Moreno became a mentor teacher himself. In this role, though, while teaching his own classroom during the pandemic, he felt spread thin. 

"I had to choose between being a good mentor and being a good teacher," he says. Ultimately, his students came first, but he wanted to do more. So, when the SPS opportunity opened, he took it. He knew he would miss the direct relationships with students but already believes he is making a bigger difference in 10 classrooms versus one. He also appreciates that his first mentor teacher also does the same job, and they have weekly meetings to talk and problem-solve about changing inequities in the classroom.

"When we recruit people to STR, they know where they will be expected to get jobs, and they receive context-specific preparation, becoming part of a school community," says Bier. "The continuity is good for schools and teachers. There's also reciprocity around teacher development. We're preparing a novice but, in their mentor, we're nurturing the leadership development of a practicing teacher. It becomes a partnership with the district and the union of bringing high-quality teachers and strengthening the learning community, especially when a number of residents and teachers serving as mentors are all at one school."

It's Not the Content but the Method

"When I first started the program, I had been an assistant teacher and I felt very naively confident in my abilities," says Janaki Nagarajan, a 2019 graduate of the ELTEP program like Dhoot. But as Nagarajan went through the program, she experienced discomfort across many different classes. "I wasn't the only one," she says. "Then one day I realized, oh! I'm actually learning and growing. The curriculum expands what teaching can and should be about."

One of the many lessons she now teaches that arose from this realization focused on names and why they matter, inspired by a professor who did an entire dissertation on the subject. Using the book Your Name is a Song, Nagarajan explored identity with her third-grade students, asking, "How do we celebrate and push back on narratives placed on our names by others, especially at school and when teachers mispronounce our names?" 

Her biggest takeaway from the ELTEP program is the process of not only thinking about the pedagogy of teaching but also the purpose. "It's going against the idea that we are there to serve and save. No. You are there to deeply think about how humans work in groups. We care about one another and help each other. In class meetings, during these moments of social learning and agency, students experience having their voices heard."

Student-Centered

"I already knew what it means to be other in a classroom," says Sha'ron White, a graduate of the College’s Accelerated Certification for Teachers (U-ACT), a program for current teachers that focuses on direct and daily practice in school communities grounded in ambitious, equitable teaching. "What I already had in me, but U-ACT built, is what it means to be student-centered and have a student-centered classroom — to be responsive every year to changes. The Common Core Standards don't change but the content should reflect the students before you."

Now teaching high school language arts on the East Coast, her experiences include being a Teach For America corps member, working in the Federal Way school district and Seattle Public Schools. Committed to supporting the professional development of other teachers, she supported U-ACT's summer engagement work in Federal Way and is an ongoing facilitator in the program's caucusing. While in the Seattle area, she also created a school-wide teacher-development plan. "Where I was teaching, we always had professional development at the beginning of the year, but not throughout the year," she says. To round out their practice, she and other teachers read books, listened to podcasts, and dissected articles focused on racial equity. 

In addition to changing her colleagues, this work also changed White. "I became more aware that white supremacy is present in everyone, not just white people," she says. "It's so pervasive, everyone enacts it. We all have racialized harm in teaching practice."

She also appreciates how caucusing helps people reflect on their identities as teachers. "Even though it's personalized," she says, "when we discuss things about the kids, we find fundamental truths about ourselves. We become cognizant of our power or lack of power and our agency within ourselves and the classroom and what that means long-term in our careers."

Ultimately, what embodies ambitious, equitable teaching for White is sharing how the system is flawed and needs to change. "This idea of centering whiteness or high academic achievement or having kids pass a test to show that they are just as good doesn’t work," says White. "The test and the system weren't made for anyone to win. How can I disrupt the system knowing that the system isn't built for us to win? I may not have power and tools now, but I can give that truth to more people."

In this way, imbedded in and with the support of continually evolving programs like the College of Education’s TEP, some of the teaching profession’s newest members are both leading and persevering in increasing equity in the classroom and beyond. "We’ll make progress by having everybody on board at whatever stage they are at," says Dhoot. "No one will ever be perfect at it, but it's better to do it and reflect and perfect for next time than to not do it at all."