Source: The Teacher Educator, 56:2, 171-193
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This qualitative case study provides a deep dive into a teacher education program at Jackson State University, an Historically Black University (i.e. HBCU) located in Mississippi, which is intentionally preparing Black men teacher candidates to successfully support the academic achievement of students in culturally diverse, low-income and underserved schools.
While the teacher education program at Jackson State does not represent the experience of teacher candidates at all HBCUs, it does provide us with some critical insight into how we both diversify the teaching profession and transform and fortify teacher education to be more culturally responsive and sustaining for all candidates.
Some of the questions the authors address are:
Why do programs such as those at Jackson State attract and retain a more diverse student population?
What are the experiences of teacher candidates in the program and how are they different from more traditional teacher education programs (many of which were designed for a primarily White student body)?
What specifically makes Jackson State’s teacher education program culturally relevant and sustaining, and what difference does that make for the professors who teach in it, the teacher candidates who graduate from it, and, perhaps most importantly, the K-12 students who will hopefully benefit from it?
This qualitative study of teacher education at Jackson State University was part of a larger study of teacher education at Minority Serving Institutions funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
Based on a competitive application, which asked Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to present models of success in the teacher education programs and propose concrete strategies for capacity building.
While one the goals of this research was to identify common strategies and models of success across different types of MSIs, the authors also paid close attention to the unique strategies, models of success, and cultures of individual programs and institutional cultures.
Data collection and analysis
In order to gather documents and recruit participants, the authors used stratified purposeful sampling.
Participants represented various stakeholder positions within teacher education.
While they learned a great deal about the teacher education programs from internal documents, the principal method of data gathering was semi-structured interviews.
They viewed their interviews as conversations and presented themselves as participants in a conversation, while encouraging participants to do most of the talking.
They began by asking open-ended questions in order to explore, document, and give expression to participants’ stories of success.
They developed lines of questioning to encourage study participants and researchers alike to recall and narrate and also to interpret social action (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Yin, 2012).
They frequently invited participants to make sense of a story or observation.
Overall, they conducted 22 qualitative interviews with teacher candidates.
They thought it was also important to interview faculty and administrators involved in the teacher education program for purposes of triangulation and so as to gain a deeper understanding of the context of the institutional setting and program.
As such they interviewed five faculty members and three program administrators.
Through this process, they were able to gather broadly comparable data across stakeholder positions (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998) and, at the same time to create spaces in which participants could share their individual experiences and interpretations of their experiences.
In each interview, follow-up questions focused on opportunities for participation across stakeholder groups that contributed to student persistence and learning.
Findings and discussion
Through their interviews with Jackson State teacher candidates, faculty, and administrators the authors were able to identify six foci and “best practices” that they believe can inform all of teacher education.
“You can’t sit behind a desk”: Jackson State’s commitment to the local community
One of the hallmarks of Minority Serving Institutions in general, and HBCUs specifically, is a strong commitment to building partnerships with and prioritizing the betterment of the local community.
The majority of HBCU students are drawn from instate and/or nearby communities and plan to stay and work in those same communities after graduation (Gasman & Conrad, 2017).
As already noted, almost half of Jackson State’s students are local to Mississippi.
All aspects of Jackson State’s Teacher Education program reflect this dedication to working with and improving its local community and public schools, from the hiring of its professors, to candidate recruitment, to service learning mandates, to providing induction support for their graduates, to offering ongoing professional development for in-service teachers.
Part of the impact of recruiting teacher candidates locally is a high interest in working in local schools upon graduation.
This approach appears to be working according to both faculty and candidates.
As one candidate told the authors: “I plan on going back to my old elementary school … .I plan on just giving back, give people what I didn’t have.” Jackson State’s focus on bridging the divide between the university and local school districts creates a stronger pipeline for recruiting and retaining teachers of color (Gist, et al., 2019).
“Let’s see what’s practical”: merging theory with application and real-time classroom practice
Another critically important ethos of Jackson State’s Teacher Education Program is a focus on real-time classroom practice and current issues.
While almost all teacher education programs have a student teaching component, Jackson State tries to expose teacher candidates to real-time public school classrooms as early as their Freshman year.
Depending on the specific program track candidates are in at a minimum they begin with concentrated classroom observations so that candidates are “actually seeing how theory is infused into practice at an early state.”
Candidates confirmed that working in real classrooms was a very different experience than simply learning “about” teaching while sitting in a university classroom, and further that early and repeated exposure was a notable part of their training at Jackson State.
Hand-in-hand with putting teacher candidates in real-time classrooms is providing them with comprehensive support as they are faced with students who have been marginalized and underserved (Gist et al., 2019).
“Teaching outside the book”: the power of culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy
Preparing future teachers to be effective in this context is no easy feat.
One way that Jackson State has risen to this challenge is by infusing culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy across its teacher education program.
This shows up in a number of ways including:
(1) treating other people’s children as your own;
(2) moving beyond rote teaching and learning toward creative and differentiated instruction; and
(3) recognizing that your cultural identity as a teacher can be used as a connecting point with students looking for role models.
Using culturally relevant teaching methods is especially difficult given the high stakes testing policies that are currently so prevalent in American education, even more so in underperforming public schools.
Jackson State recognizes this challenge, and yet remains committed to graduating teachers who can ensure that their students have “truly learned something” and can apply what they have learned as they progress.
“An open door policy”: continuous support paired with high expectations and personal accountability
As Jackson State teacher candidates want to approach their students with a “loving heart” and project the message that teaching is “more than just a paycheck,” Jackson State professors try to model that same ethic of care.
This is common among MSIs and HBCUs, which are frequently described as a “family” or “family unit” providing students with proactive advising, mentoring, and round the clock support.
While this support is often academic in nature, students at HBCUs know that their professors see them as whole people and individuals with unique strengths, goals and life challenges (Gist et al., 2019).
For many African American college students these challenges (which are interrelated) include inadequate pre-college preparation, lack of funding and financial capital, difficulty with high stakes testing, lack of self-confidence, poor understanding about course sequence, and credits needed to graduate, and imposter syndrome (Bristol & Goings, 2019; Gist, 2017; Hollins, 2015; Kohli, 2018).
Jackson State’s Teacher Education Program tries to address these challenges head-on.
Jackson State encourages all students to believe in themselves, and to foster the self-confidence they need to be leaders and advocates for equity inside and outside the classroom (Gist et al., 2019).
“Stand up and speak:” engaging candidates in teacher research and advocacy
Another notable feature of Jackson State’s Teacher Education program is its emphasis on helping candidates to promote long-term systemic change.
For example, candidates begin engaging in research projects as soon as “they hit campus.”
One research assignment asked candidates to do original interviews with African American male elementary school teachers about student achievement in their classrooms.
After completing the research, candidates learn to analyze and write up their findings and are given opportunities to present their findings at conferences and other educational forums.
As one professor explained, the impact of this is not only to give candidates research, writing, and critical thinking skills, but to help them be “competitive” should they decide to go to graduate school.
“A positive mindset”: overcoming common obstacles to graduation and licensure
Any article on teacher education at an HBCU would be remiss if it did not address the elephant in the room: high stakes testing such as the Praxis exam which serves as a gateway for graduation and teacher licensure.
The Praxis is the credentialing exam that determines who can be certified to teach, and also the gatekeeper of graduating with an education degree.
It is important to acknowledge the ways that Jackson State is at least attempting to address this challenge.
Students spoke of how having resources on campus including mentors, targeted classes, integrated technology, Praxis prep computer lab, Praxis vouchers, an academic coach, Renaissance and Plato computer software, literacy specialists, and dedicated faculty and staff members were advantageous to their preparation as future educators.
Interviews with teacher candidates confirmed that these kinds of resources – especially having academic coaches – made a huge difference in their exam taking strategies.
While Jackson State, like many MSIs, still has a long way to go before the majority of candidates pass these exams on the their first try these increasing levels of support are a critical first step.
The field of teacher education is at a crossroads, as researchers, practitioners, and policymakers consider what constitutes a high quality teacher education programs and whether it is even possible to have a high quality program that does not fully address issues of diversity and equity.
The interviews and data collected in this article underscore ways in which HBCUs are forging new models of teacher education where quality and diversity go hand-in-hand.
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