Strengthening Teacher Preparation: Authentic Partnerships with Districts

Guest blog by Brian Sevier

A couple years ago, when I became Dean of the School of Education (SoE) at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI), I kicked off my first all faculty/staff meeting with this question: If I were to ask our community stakeholders (teachers, principals, superintendents, etc.) to use one word or phrase to describe what our program completers are known for, what they uniquely bring to classrooms as CSUCI-prepared educators, what do you think our stakeholders would say?

As an alum of the CSU myself—I completed my undergraduate degree at CSU Los Angeles—I knew very well the reputation of the CSU. As a system, the CSU offers life-transforming possibilities for students from incredibly diverse racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds and it also prepares the majority of teachers for the schools and classrooms across the state of California. As an educator, “made in the CSU,” I always had a goal of returning to be a part of helping students achieve their professional, personal and education ambitions: what the CSU had done for me!

Coming back to CSUCI as a dean, I also knew a bit about the reputation of the SoE and that, from its beginnings nearly 18 years ago, the school’s single most-defining characteristic was partnership. A relatively new school and university, the faculty and staff of the preparation programs at CSUCI had longstanding connections with school districts and the county office of education which had resulted in the creation of a K8 university preparation charter school, the offerings of professional development workshops, the co-teaching of methods and seminar courses in partner-school locations, and other collaborative projects.

Still, despite the tradition and record of partnership there seemed to be recent drift in this longstanding partnership work, toward compliance and away from deep collaboration. Talking with folks inside and outside the SoE, I got the sense that the sharing of knowledge between the university and partner schools/districts had begun to fade a bit, with connections now centering mostly around administrative matters. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the office responsible for our field work which was basically using a “cold-call” method to find and secure practicum and student teaching placements with school and district sites.

It was in this context that I posed the question about the graduates of our educator preparation programs. I wanted to know more about what the faculty and staff perceived about our current reputation in the community; what they thought our stakeholders believed unique about CSUCI-produced educators.

Collecting and collating the answers to the inquiry turned up a surprising result: from 75 faculty and staff came some 40 unique responses about the specific qualities of our graduates. As a school, we really had no clear consensus about what our partners saw in the newly-minted educators emerging from CSUCI. And, if we did not have any consensus on the traits/capacities/skills our grads were evincing, how could we possibly know whether or not our stakeholders believed we were adequately preparing our candidates for our community, schools and classrooms?

Knowing what our community partners wanted and expected from us as educator preparers was essential for us, as a school, because we had begun exploring a significant transformation to our candidates’ field and practicum (clinical) experiences. Working with the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), this transformation would eliminate traditional student teaching experiences in favor of teaching residencies for all candidates. In the vision statement we crafted with NCTR, we state that, “the connection, collaboration and communication indicative of a true residency-based program embody the core components necessary to establish lasting, honest and generative relationships that will allow CSUCI and community partners to develop together the teaching corps needed for our community’s K12 students.”

The residency model with its emphasis on deep clinical experiences and extensive mentoring has the potential of enhancing greatly the preparedness of the elementary, secondary, bilingual and special education teachers so urgently needed by our local schools. But to ready our preparation work for this next evolution of partnership, however, required a significant and authentic reinvestment in our work with our community constituents; to establish the SoE as a truly community-engaged educator preparation program.

We knew that the first priority in this work was to define preparation success and chart a path for continuous improvement in and as a community of preparers. That is, we had to define with our stakeholders what CSUCI graduates must be known for when they emerge from our programs. We began this work in the spring of 2018, with an invitation for superintendents, human resource directors, principals, mentor teachers, CSUCI alumnae, parents, families and other community members to come together to refocus, refine and restructure CSUCI’s educator preparation practices.

Over the next 12 months, we convened 10 focus groups, three townhalls, five workshops and multiple feedback sessions with our diverse community stakeholders, to work together to define the essential ready-day-one competencies for teachers in our community. In these convenings, stakeholders articulated the need for differentiated instructional practice as essential and non-negotiable; our preparation practices had to intentionally develop every new educator’s ability to understand, respect and draw on (K12) students’ skills, strengths and needs in order to provide for the success of all learners.

Once we had these competencies established, we worked with our stakeholders to articulate the particular skills and actual, tangible examples of what an observer should see the new teacher doing as evidence of successful preparation. We are now working with The Danielson Group to draft and pilot a specific day-one teacher observational tool to help us evaluate our candidates’ progress toward these practices, skills and competencies and to hold us accountable to and with our community of educator preparation partners.

For us, the starting point for creating the teacher residency was a commitment to deep and meaningful relationships with district and community partners. Our co-constructed vision and our co-created preparation tools are helping us to delineate stages of prospective teacher development and to establish feedback processes with our community of preparation partners.         

With all the demands placed on teachers and schools today, as budgets shrink as expectations rise, we believe that educator programs must situate their practice in communities and come together to prepare new educators for the challenges they will face in helping all students succeed. Making educator preparation community-engaged preparation allows all stakeholders to share knowledge and to bridge the separations between theory and practice, universities and schools, professors and principals, practicing teachers and novices. We are just beginning our work together. Now that we know our shared priorities, we are piloting a vision of shared new-teacher mentoring, our next step in this journey.

This post is part of a blog series authored by leaders from seven networks of teacher preparation programs—Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, Center for Transforming Alternative Preparation Pathways (CTAPP), Innovation Center for Educator Preparation (IC4EP), National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), New York City Department of Education, TeachingWorks, and University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation (US PREP)— who are working together to transform the way teachers are prepared. In this series, these leaders talk about who they are and why they want to tell stories about teacher transformation. Read the previous blogs here, and don’t forget to share the series with your colleagues. Feel free to send comments to info@education-first.com and sign up for our email list. We’ll be using #teacherprepmatters to spread the word, and invite you to do the same!

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