Rising to Teach: BU partnership program brings new ideas to Boston schools

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   According to a recent report by the US Department of Education, Massachusetts had teacher shortages in 23 content areas in 2013-14 and 2015-16.  In addition to these teacher shortages, the compositional diversity of teachers working in most urban districts, including Boston, does not reflect the diversity of the students in the classroom.  Precollege programs designed to encourage young people to enter professions like STEM or business have existed for decades.  Among the most notable of these is Educators Rising (EdRising), a national organization that has partnered locally with Boston University to bring new people and new ideas to the field of education.

“We’re a national network all about helping communities start early and grow their own highly skilled, well-prepared teachers,” explains Dan Brown, co-director of EdRising (www.edrising.org). “Currently, 11,600 students and teacher leaders across the country are members and we have 11 state and 2 regional affiliates, including BU. 

  “Aligning higher education with local schools in partnership with a national organization dedicated to cultivating great educators creates the opportunity to systemically encourage and prepare the next generation of great teachers,” suggests Mike Dennehy, director of College Access and Completion for the Boston University School of Education (SED). “I have been inspired by my involvement in the program to date, especially by the experiences and thoughtfulness of the high schoolers participating in the program”, 

Beginning in 2012, SED partnered with EdRising  in a joint effort to bring new people and new ideas to the education field. Prior to this, EdRising did not have any partnerships with institutions of higher education and no partnerships with any schools in New England.

“It was suggested that in order to attract a diverse teacher corps we had to fundamentally change some of the perceptions surrounding the education profession,” suggests Walter Balser, SED doctoral fellow and Coordinator of Pre-College Teacher Education.

According to SED senior and partnership EdRising undergraduate chapter co-founder Griffin Monahan, the idea for the group developed out of what he terms “a perceived need.”

“We believed that the education realm was changing and we should have an outlet to learn, hear, and discuss new topics in education,” Griffin explains, noting that EdRising’s focus involves improving the diversity of the teacher population, learning about alternative careers in education, a d changing negative perceptions surrounding the profession of teaching. “

As the teaching profession is often erroneously perceived as not being the arena for the best and brightest, and also not one for those who wish to make a living, the program strives to put teaching in an appropriately positive light and to attract people who have the proper credentials and passion to teaching.

“Put simply, the teaching profession was (and is) not something that the most talented and motivated high school students seek to enter,” Balser observes, noting that this is especially true of students of color and students in poverty. “Whether it is due to outside pressures or perhaps perceived low pay and status, this is a fact that the entire profession deals with on a daily basis—and one we must confront.”

Brown notes that nearly half of all EdRising participants are students of color and that “almost all are high school students exploring teaching in courses that include student teaching internships.”

In the EdRising program, teachers lead curricular courses with high school juniors and seniors, for which the students receive high school credit and participate in field placement experiences at nearby elementary schools. In turn, the high school teachers take an SED graduate course called Preparing Future Educators with Professor Phil Tate. Dennehy and Balser serve as the campus coordinators for the program. 

When asked why she became involved in EdRising, educator Julie Wright recalls hearing about the program from the headmaster at the private school in NH at which she used to teach before coming to Boston.

“I’ve been teaching for 26 years,” Wright recalls, “and I feel very strongly that as a profession we need to do rework our approach to and the public’s perception of teaching. There have been so many students with which I’ve worked over the years who would be truly amazing teachers; yet, they tend to see teaching as a profession that offers few rewards. Also, having worked in a variety of school settings…I continue to be dismayed by the great number of colleagues who leave the profession after a few years or who see teaching as merely a resume builder on the way to their ‘real’ career.”

Before entering education, Wright had worked in advertising and still recalls the day when she informed her parents of her desire to change fields.

“ My place as the black sheep of the family was definitely cemented on that day,” she admits. “They did not see teaching as an intellectually challenging endeavor, nor did they view it as a ‘real’ profession.”

After they saw all their daughter was doing in the classroom, however, Wright’s parents began to see her and her profession in a new light.

“My parents actually acknowledged that I probably worked harder than my siblings on a day-to-day basis,” she smiles, “and that maybe I needed to take more time off because all I was doing was taking courses over those long summer breaks.”

Though her parents came to appreciate what teachers do on a daily basis (even during their summer “break”), Wright realizes that many other parents and colleagues still do not take such a strong view of teaching.

“Exploring ways in which to alter these negative views of the profession of teaching is just one of the reasons EdRising appealed to me,” she says.

Admitting that the transition to an urban district was challenging, Wright says that she immediately found the work “rewarding” and herself “reinvigorated.”

“I found myself learning so much about issues in education that I hadn’t really had to consider in my previous settings,” she recalls, noting how she was also able and encouraged to form new and meaningful relationships with her new colleagues in Boston, many of whom were ostensibly very different from herself. 

“Our experiences, ages, and backgrounds dramatically differed,” she observes, “but it is exactly these factors that helped each of us grow in our practice and in our work with students.”

Among the programs that Griffin and his cohort have helped organize for students are undergraduate meetings, guest speaker and panel presentations, and a Fall Visit Day during which BPS scholars came to BU to see what college was truly like.

“Our goal in these meetings is to expose as many college students as possible to the variety of careers and pathways that are emerging in education,” Griffin explains, noting how student responses were “overwhelmingly positive as they now recognized education as a potential career that they may pursue.” 

In addition to bringing new people to the profession, EdRising and SED hope to bring new types of people to teaching. That is why they reach out and reach into so many schools in Boston, trying to find not only the best and the brightest, but also the most representative so that future teachers will be better able to relate to their students and their communities. Among the first schools to be involved in the program were East Boston High School and New Mission High School. 

“Approximately 35 students are participating this year,” Dennehy explains. “The goal is to have 10 schools participate next year.”

“I was extremely excited when they let us know...that we would be piloting a program that would help our students in the Boston Public Schools system to consider...a career in education,” says New Mission teacher René Reyes, noting that her EdRising colleagues have gained real-world experience teaching fourth and fifth grade at the Henry Grew Elementary School.

Another ambitious goal that SED looks forward to achieving is hosting the 2016 ER National Conference.

“This will mark the first conference under the EdRising brand,” Brown observes, looking forward to the June 24-7 event, “and it is the first time the conference has been held on a college campus.”

“We’re excited to hold the 2016 EdRising National Conference on the campus of BU,” Brown says. “We expect 1,000 rising educators from across the country to attend.”

With the rapid growth of the program already well underway, the team at SED is already looking for ways to scale it and share it with other schools and communities.

“BU is also seeking to collaborate with other organizations working in the education space,” Balser adds, noting how a degree in education can lead to the classroom or to such other exciting venues as nonprofit work, entrepreneurism, finance, or myriad other options. “At the most basic level SED seeks to build a network of organizations willing to connect with high school students through class presentations, shadowing experiences, or perhaps brief internships. On a deeper level, SED wants these partnerships to inform our own practice as a school of education.”

As EdRising helps infuse new ideas into the field of education and also change perspectives of it, those who participate continue to see the benefits of the program and what it is bringing to their challenging field.

 “I know that I am fortunate to be a teacher and to have the opportunity to continually reflect upon my work with others,” Wright says. “I would love to work with young people to help them see that teaching is an amazing profession!”