By: Nichelle Bowes, Ed.D
I moved to the United States from Guyana when I was 12 years old. From the time that I disembarked the plane at JFK Airport in New York, I knew my life would be different, and it was in many ways.
One of the ways that stood out most was my school experience. In Guyana, I had been surrounded by teachers who shared my experience, many of them Black women who shared my cultural traditions, values, understood my background and held high expectations for me. At my middle and high schools in Brooklyn, my teachers represented a variety of cultures and races, but none of them shared my life experiences, few of them demonstrated care about my achievement, and even fewer bothered to get to know me beyond the classroom. It was a jarring experience. School for me had always been a safe place where I could be my authentic self, and where my teachers not only believed that I could excel, but it was the expectation. Although the experience was different, I continued to live up to the prior standards that had been set for me and I excelled in spite of teachers and counselors who ignored me or questioned my abilities.
My personal experiences are aligned to research which shows that teachers of color tend to have more positive perceptions and higher expectations of students of color. Simultaneously research also shows that high-quality teachers have a greater impact on student achievement. As such, my driving force as the dean of Relay Graduate School of Education’s Newark campus is to not only diversify the teaching workforce but to produce high-quality teachers who understand the importance of educational equity and who prioritize caring about their students. This drive resulted in the creation of a culturally responsive advisement model, which influences everything we’re doing in Newark.
Creating such diversity, in the midst of a teacher shortage can be challenging, but not impossible. One recommended solution is to invest in residencies as a teacher pathway. In our work preparing teachers through residencies, we find it most successful to partner with districts, like Passaic Public Schools where we have provided programs for veteran teachers to support their continued professional growth. Together, we aim to create a pipeline of diverse, veteran teachers who are prepared to serve as high-quality mentors for future novice teachers and teachers in residence: a relay of high-quality, diverse teachers who are committed to educational equity.
Once we build the pathways into teaching, we have to think about how to best support our aspiring and veteran educators to successfully support each of their students. Here are a few of the lessons that we have learned along the way:
- Understanding and being responsible with your power is important. Every single action a teacher takes has the potential to imprint on students. However, teachers aren’t always aware of that power. Teacher educators and school leaders have a responsibility to help teachers, regardless of racial or ethnic backgrounds, to take stock of their bias and privilege. This is important because when bias and privilege are coupled with the power that a teacher wields, it can irreparably damage or completely empower children. We must constantly search our intents and actions and their origins to ensure that we are intentionally creating equitable and inclusive learning environments.
- Be intentional about your support for aspiring and new teachers. When we evaluated the structures that were in place to support our new teachers, we realized that we needed some improvements. We needed to build relationships, demonstrate empathy, advocate for our aspiring teachers. We are now more intentional about maintaining high expectations while empowering our residents. And, we now offer support with both academic and non-academic issues. For instance, Black and Latinx men are sometimes tasked with teaching more of the students who require additional behavioral supports, even when they are novice teachers. This does not benefit the students or the new teacher. As advisors, we can and have engaged with school leadership, to discuss either changing the assignment or ensuring the teacher and students have the support needed to be successful. This helps the students and increases our chances of retaining an effective, diverse new teacher in the profession.
- Understand the individual needs of your aspiring teachers. Aspiring teachers, like any student, have unique needs. We need to support our graduate students as individuals; get to know them and work with them to be successful. One of our amazing aspiring teachers was experiencing several life challenges. While she was able to submit high-quality work, she was not able to meet many of the stated deadlines. We worked with her to create deadlines that allowed her to meet her family’s needs and allowed for a wonderful teacher to complete her training. That teacher is now a model teacher in her building and is advocating on behalf of the English Language Learners that she teaches.
- Help teachers get to know their community. Prioritize helping–new, aspiring and even veteran–teachers get to know and understand the community in which they are teaching. As a part of our effort to prioritize community, we recently took our new aspiring teachers on a historical tour as part of their orientation, brought parents in to talk to teachers about best practices for engaging parents, and require students enrolled in our master’s program to go out into the community, to get know existing community agencies. We want, and should, encourage our teachers to truly get to know what is happening in our school community as well as the neighborhoods they are serving. This is an exercise that’s helpful for teachers at any stage in their career.
Creating meaningful diversity is intentional and ongoing work. We must be active, self-reflective and thoughtful in the pursuit given the potential impacts for our students. At Relay Newark, we recognize that it is noble to think about what our children need, but crucial to their survival to empower our teachers to actively serve them. To that end, we keep service to “our children” top of mind in every interaction with our students, every policy decision, and every practice.
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Nichelle Bowes, Ed.D., is the Dean of Relay Newark. Connect with her on Twitter at @nbowes37.
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