Friday, August 02, 2019

Teaching the teachers: Tackling inequity in the classroom, preparing teachers to teach to all

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This story appears on the Michigan Impact website.

Before Mulick Park Elementary School principal Thomas Standifer II joined the University of Michigan’s TeachingWorks collaboration with Kent County educators, he had a very different approach to teaching.

“I used to think giving students more problems was rigorous teaching,” he said.

But after Standifer and his colleagues at the school in Grand Rapids began monthly meetings and implemented other efforts suggested by TeachingWorks, his approach changed. And so did the teachers and the students.

TeachingWorks was founded seven years ago at U-M to improve the quality of beginning teaching in the U.S. and to build resources for addressing educational inequities. Based on extensive research and development at the School of Education, TeachingWorks supports the development of skillful teaching through direct work on teaching practice with pre-service and in-service teachers. Its focus is the intertwining of high-quality academic instruction and deliberate attention to combating injustice in classrooms.

Standifer said the TeachingWorks partnership made it clear that teaching is more about empowering teachers to empower students. It’s about fostering classroom interaction and about instilling confidence in students. And it’s about understanding social justice and inequity issues that may be hindering learning and teaching.

“My ultimate goal is that we’re all on the same page so that as our kids transfer from grade to grade…it’s a continuous process,” he said.

Like Standifer, teachers across the state with college degrees in hand and varying levels of experience head into classrooms and do what they were prepared to do: teach.

What many teachers discover, however, is that they could use more support, guidance and reinforcement, especially in learning to teach in ways that disrupts cycles of injustice for children of color and children from lower-income communities.

“I feel like, as teachers, we don’t ever watch ourselves in practice,” said Tiffany Ancel, a teacher at Mulick Park Elementary in Grand Rapids. “We talk about practices and strategies and what we should do, but we never have time to reflect and see what we really do.”

Ancel, who participates in TeachingWorks, says the program helps teachers better understand their students’ backgrounds and needs, and how best to encourage student interest and engagement.

Part of TeachingWorks training has teachers recording themselves during classroom instruction so that they can identify strengths and weaknesses and build or adjust.

TeachingWorks founding director Deborah Ball, the William H. Payne Professor of Collegiate Education at U-M, said the program fosters deeper interaction between pupils and teachers.

“It’s about making teacher education much more about the practice of teaching directly, much more about learning the subject matter content in a way that enables you to actually help a child learn,” she said.

“It’s about the population of Michigan. It’s about the young people of Michigan. That is why we’re here as a university.”

To that end, TeachingWorks has partnered with more than 20 schools in Michigan. It has provided hundreds of teachers with educational and enrichment opportunities, and has trained some 230 teachers and teacher educators from around the country.

TeachingWorks brings expertise in the practice of teaching to teacher educators and teacher preparation programs, as well as to teachers and school leaders in school districts. It provides workshops, coaching, curriculum resources, videos of teaching practice, and specific approaches to professional development.

TeachingWorks programs are based around general educational topics; other times it targets specific themes. But always, TeachingWorks seeks to prevent teachers from struggling in classrooms and to prepare them for the mix of needs their students bring to the table.

The TeachingWorks Grand Rapids Mathematics Collaborative in Kent County has teachers rethinking how third- through eighth-graders learn math.

“With TeachingWorks, we’re able to really look at what is the conceptual thinking behind math, and how can we as teachers instruct our students so that they really understand and develop a sense of math as well as a love of math,” said Alex Kuiper, a teacher at Godfrey Elementary in Wyoming.

Doing that means leading discussions that encourage students to voice their ideas and explain their thinking, and in the process, build a classroom of confident children. Teachers at Godfrey and other schools in Kent County get together regularly to support one another in the endeavor to blend a love of math with a love of learning with a love of self.

“Not only were we working on math, but we were learning how to disrupt social injustices in the classroom,” Kuiper said.

The collaboration has given him greater hope that his students will see bright futures ahead.

“I hope they’re able to say, ‘You know, I can do whatever I want when I leave this classroom,’ ” he said.

Deborah Loewenberg Ball is William H. Payne Collegiate Professor; Arthur F. Thurnau Professor

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