Improving Teacher Education

Improving Teacher Education by Cultivating Relationship Skills

Today’s teachers have the opportunity to connect with and inspire an increasingly diverse group of students. In 2010, CEHD created the Teacher Education Redesign Initiative (TERI) to re-envision our teacher education program to better prepare teachers for the challenges they face in a 21st century classroom. In the seven years since TERI began, we’ve learned a lot – and made some important changes to the way we structure our teacher preparation curriculum. One of these changes is a new emphasis on teaching “dispositions” – a term we use to describe the relational skills that teachers need to connect with their students, families and communities.

The “diversity training” of years past is not sufficient to meet the needs of today’s students. By teaching relational skills, helping teachers understand the impact of their own racial identity on their students, we can help our teacher candidates develop the knowledge, skills and mindsets they need to foster educational equity in their classrooms.

Embedding Educational Equity Skills in the Teacher Education Curriculum

One of the innovations we’ve made while engaging in the TERI redesign work is moving towards embedding what are traditionally called the “foundation courses” throughout our teacher education program. Foundation courses are classes that are not subject matter or discipline specific, dealing with issues like understanding racial identity, working with English language learners, understanding how children and adolescents learn and develop and classroom management.

Typically, these courses were taught early on in teacher education programs, then set aside until the teachers were in their clinical placement (student teaching). We redesigned the curriculum so that candidates have continual access to the information in these courses such as working with English language learners or understanding their own racial identity. These courses stretch across time, with the candidate having learning experiences on these topics throughout their programs, sometimes while they’re in their clinical placement. We didn’t want this to be knowledge that’s given out at the beginning, then just packed up to be used later in the classroom.

Since implementing these changes, we’ve seen impressive results with our teaching candidates. Across the board, they are better prepared to work with English language learners. Every candidate is required to have some instruction about how to design curricula for emerging English speakers – which wasn’t the case when we started. Now, all our candidates have experiences in thinking through and understanding who they are and what they’re bringing into the classroom from a racial and cultural identity perspective because this is important for building strong relationships with students. For example, many of our white teacher candidates have never thought of themselves as having a racial or cultural identity. We help them understand the history of race in our schools and work through tough issues to help them personally reflect on privilege, power and oppression in our society and in schools. Overall, this helps all our candidates better understand how their identity can impact their relationships with students, how they make choices in their instruction and how they interact with families and communities.

Stronger Partnerships

Another area in which we’ve made great strides is cultivating deeper partnerships with local school districts. Under the old model, we’d try to find any placement we could for a candidate and hope that the school would host them during their student teaching. Now, we engage with local districts to foster the development of beginning teachers together. This includes professional development for host teachers to help them learn how to best co-teach with our candidates.

We’ve also found that it’s more effective to place teacher candidates in groups (or “clusters”) at schools. This allows us to place a professional liaison in the school to help coordinate between CEHD and the local district. The partnerships that started with TERI laid the foundation for other impactful programs like the Minneapolis Teacher Residency Program.

Tips for Teachers: How to Build Equity-Based Relationships with Your Students and Community

Our newest development work in TERI is focused on the importance of what we call teaching “dispositions.” This refers to the relational aspects of teaching. Ask anyone about a teacher who made a strong impact on them, and – almost universally – they will talk about the quality of their relationship with that teacher. We’ve put a lot of effort into researching a framework that names the kinds of dispositions that are effective for creating strong, equity-focused relationships in racially diverse settings. Engaging in these dispositions is important for every teacher, no matter the teachers’ own racial identity or the subject matter they teach.

View your students as having assets. Recognize and draw on the assets from your students, families and community to inform your teaching. View your students as a resource, not lacking in language, skill, intelligence or parental support.

Be self-aware. Develop an ongoing critical awareness of who you are as a teacher. Understand and acknowledge how your racial, cultural, linguistic identity and experiences shape your presence and affect your students.

Work hard to communicate. Engage in meaningful conversations and collaborate with your students, families and colleagues. Understand that each individual and group has unique needs and use a variety of forms of communication to help better connect with them.

Be caring. Care for students through meaningful interpersonal relationships that help them truly feel a sense of belonging in school. This includes a willingness to accept different perspectives and experiences, to move outside of our comfort zones, and to work in solidarity with and for all students, their families, and communities.

Keep learning and developing new practices. Engage in ongoing professional learning processes that are ethical, based on multiple forms of evidence and feedback, and extend opportunities for critical reflection. Above all, be open to receiving feedback and take steps to improve.

Be flexible & adaptable. Understand the multiple and complex contexts in which teaching occurs (e.g., classroom, grade level, department, school, community) and strive to be responsive to local situations and needs. This may mean taking risks and making tough choices based on your willingness to serve students’ and communities’ needs.

Innovate. Go beyond the status quo and create enriching and engaging learning environments that support all students of all identities and perspectives.

Be an advocate. Be an agent of systemic change for your students, families, and communities in ways that are responsive to multiple and intersecting inequities.

Misty Sato

About the Author

Misty Sato, Ph.D.

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