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

July 1, 2019
Contact: Kim North Shine kshine@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—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.

Principal Standifer

Principal Standifer

“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 14 years ago at U-M as a way to address the departure of young teachers from the profession. It was also a way to act on research that showed the need for more intentional guidance to help teachers and students in cities and towns where inequity and social injustice exist.

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.

Thomas Standifer

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.

Tiffany Ancel

Tiffany Ancel

What many teachers discover, however, is that they, too, have something to learn and that they could use more support, guidance and reinforcement. And for those teaching children of color or students in lower-income districts, the need for coaching, feedback and support that lets them foster educational opportunities can be even greater.

“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.

Deborah Ball

Deborah Ball

Deborah Ball

“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 now partners with more than 20 schools in Michigan. It has provided hundreds of teachers with educational and enrichment opportunities, and has trained some 230 educators to work with teachers and school leaders around the state.

Teaching Works brings experts, best practices, practical how-to’s and a wide range of topics to teachers, school administrators and university students studying education. It features workshops, online courses, a journaling club, internet-streamed seminars, an elementary mathematics laboratory, a practice-based teacher education workshop and other programs that offer lessons teachers can take back to their students.

TeachingWorks programs are based around general educational topics; other times it targets specific themes. But always, TeachingWorks seeks to prevent unprepared but enthusiastic teachers from struggling in classrooms.

The TeachingWorks 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.

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

Alex Kuiper

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.

Kuiper and his math students. Image credit: Michigan Impact

Kuiper and his math students. Image credit: Michigan Impact

“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.

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