When the Georgia Professional Standards Commission assesses education programs on how well they prepare teachers for the classroom, they have three purposes in mind: to provide data to programs to help inform improvement; to hold programs accountable for the quality of the educators they provide; and to provide transparency to the public about the quality of teachers and leaders produced by each program.
In late 2020, Augusta University’s College of Education received a Level 4 score on the 2020 Teacher Preparation Program Effectiveness Measures, indicating that it is fully preparing teachers for the realities of a classroom.
It’s the highest rating possible, and according to Dr. Judi Wilson, dean of the College of Education, the rating is affirmation that the college is moving in the right direction and doing the right work.
“This rating reflects the hard work that faculty, staff, students, alumni and local partners have done over the last year,” she said when the ranking was announced. “It’s like a mirror. If you do the work, that work is reflected in the results.”
Without partnerships, Wilson says, these results wouldn’t be possible.
“Partnerships are a critical piece,” she says. “It’s getting our students out into the field early and often, which allows them to see the reality of what they’re going to experience.”
Experiencing that reality, repeatedly and authentically, she says, ensures that students get out from their protective bubbles and encounter the honest truth of what they’ve signed on for.
“They really know the good, the bad and the ugly early on,” she says. “And I think that is part of what contributed to our success: Our students are not surprised when they enter the classroom.”
While partnerships are central to just about every achievement enjoyed by the College of Education, the solid relationships the college has made over the years with the neighboring school districts have been particularly important in paving the way for student achievement.
The College of Education works with 54 schools in the neighboring school systems of Richmond, Columbia, McDuffie, Burke, Jefferson, Lincoln and Warren counties — schools that reflect the diversity of the Central Savannah River Area.
That’s important, Wilson says, because she wants everyone — students, teacher educators and teacher leaders — to be exposed to the diverse population they are going to serve.
“Our data is showing us that most of our graduates actually stay in this geographic area to seek employment,” she says. “So it’s critical that our partnerships are strong, because as our students are out in the schools, they are actually interviewing for jobs.”
To make those relationships easier, each of those 54 partner schools has a building coordinator — a role Wilson considers almost like adjunct faculty. Building coordinators attend meetings on Augusta University’s campus several times a year and meet with faculty to go over data and talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the program.
“They are really integral partners in planning the curriculum as well as the delivery methods of all our programs,” Wilson says.
In addition to the partner schools, the university has several professional development schools, where instead of coming to the Augusta University campus to be taught by their professors, the professors and students meet in a classroom in the field, adjourn so the students can observe an active classroom, then come back to the room and go over what they’ve observed.
For the last 20 years or so, the college has also partnered with area schools for “field experience” — five weeks during the semester when students are essentially a part of the school they’re assigned to. This is preliminary to a yearlong residency, where they go to their teaching site one day a week so they can get to know their students in advance of their semester of student teaching.
“They get to know that same group of students for an entire year, which really lets them see the kids and how they grow intellectually, socially, physically and emotionally — all of those things,” Wilson says. “It’s a relatively new concept we implemented a few years ago, and it’s been extremely successful at making students actually feel like they’re a part of the instructional team.”
All of this makes the classroom environment more familiar and the teaching students more comfortable with their role.
Though very structured, student learning in the College of Education nevertheless mirrors the constantly changing conditions students are going to encounter in the school environment. Which is important, Wilson says, because educators are constantly adjusting to conditions.
“Educators have to be flexible,” Wilson says. “You can’t change your circumstances, you can’t change the walls of your classroom, you can’t change the instructional materials you’ve been given or the curriculum, but you can make the best of it.”
Associate Dean Dr. Julie Herron couldn’t agree more.
“As educators, our consumers are kids, and if that’s your consumer, you don’t have the luxury not to be flexible,” she says.
Because of that, the College of Education doesn’t just send new teachers off to fend for themselves; it provides continuing support during the induction period, which takes them through the first three years in the classroom.
The support the college provides educators doesn’t only extend to those it creates, however — the college is committed to helping all teachers navigate the difficult and ever-changing waters of teaching.
Now in its 23rd year, the Impacting Student Learning (ISL) conference, which brings local teachers together for support and professional learning opportunities, has grown from 50 teachers in its first year to 800 in 2020. Though the need to go virtual in 2021 temporarily slowed the growth and thwarted the valuable interpersonal benefits that occur when so many like-minded individuals come together, Herron says the virtual arena has done little to damper enthusiasm and has actually produced some upsides.
“By going virtual, we’ve actually had presenters from outside the area and outside the state because we’ve been able to broaden our reach for inviting speakers to come,” she says.
The conference provides opportunities for educators to hear presentations in five strands important to teachers: classroom strategies; differentiation; instructional design and tech tips; motivation and classroom management; and personal growth and self-care.
An important aspect of the conference is the way it lines up with the standards of professional teaching.
“Our conference aligns beautifully to the evaluation tool that principals are using and helps them to be able to direct their teachers to specific sessions that would reflect their individual growth needs,” Wilson says.
It doesn’t have to be a passive experience, either. Local teachers are encouraged to present, which means area educators aren’t simply sharing their hard-won knowledge; they’re also getting an opportunity to demonstrate initiative to their own school leaders.
“This is another way for teachers to show, ̒Look — I’m taking leadership in my field, and this is something I’m doing to give back to my field,’” Herron says.
That said, sometimes it’s just about the inspiration.
“When you hear a teacher who’s passionate, there’s not a better speech,” Herron says. “There’s just not.”
If you’re looking for Dr. Ashley Gess — and as an assistant professor of STEAM education, a lot of people are — you’re likely to find her in Room 366. Not only is that the address of her office in University Hall; it’s also the address of her office on the internet: Room 366 is the name of her STEM- and STEAM-oriented podcast.
“The podcast is about giving teachers information, but it’s also about celebrating them,” she says.
STEM is a design-based educational approach where students use knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math to solve real-world problems. STEAM adds an art component to the mix.
“There is so much noise out there, and I’m saying noise deliberately,” Gess says. “You’ve got people coming out of the woodwork saying ‘I’m an expert on STEM or STEAM,’ but are they really? There’s so much commercialization of STEM and STEAM, and I think teachers are really searching for someone — some program, some resource — that’s real.”
The first 17 episodes primarily profiled teachers; next, Gess is turning toward connecting teachers with community members interested in helping — the entrepreneurs, engineers and artists who dovetail so well with the STEM and STEAM mission.
Since arriving in Augusta five years ago, Gess has spearheaded the university’s STEM and STEAM education initiative — something that has had a ripple effect throughout the community.
“When I came here, there was really no STEM or STEAM education going on to speak of, yet in Atlanta it was going gangbusters,” she says. “Why is that? Because Augusta University needed to take the lead. We needed to lead teachers and students and parents and the community.”
“Because teachers were really petrified of converting their practice into this relevant, interdisciplinary approach,” she says. “They’d never been trained to do it.”
Enter STEAMIFY, a design-based problem-solving competition that gives students in fourth through eighth grades a chance to apply what they’re learning and their teachers a chance to dip their toes into the STEM and STEAM waters without feeling like they’re being thrown into the deep end.
The event, which doubled in size in 2019 and brought 800 students onto the Summerville Campus for what was only its second year, has historically offered a full day of competition. And while it, too, went virtual for the 2020-21 school year, Gess says the pandemic has been a good exercise in practicing what they preach.
“Our STEAMIFY leadership team is looking at it like — ‘OK, we’re asking kids to solve problems; who would we be if we didn’t work to do the same?’”
The upside: “I’ve had people reach out to me from Hong Kong and Italy and the UK, and they’re going, ‘Can we send things in?’” she says. “So I’m anticipating if we give them the opportunity next year, we’ll have international participation.”
In 2019, David Phillips (EdS ’10) took a team of six seventh- graders from Greenbriar Middle School in Evans, Georgia, to Hong Kong to compete in the International Young STEAM Maker Exhibition, where they won second place in the overall STEAM Maker Exhibition.
“In addition to the community members, we’re also having master’s- and doctoral-level STEM and STEAM educators and teachers — students coming back for their master’s or doctorates in STEM and STEAM education — to be the judges,” Gess says. “I think that is huge — they are the teachers who are learning to do this thing, so they need to come together in teams and be those design-based educators. It’s what they’re asking students to do, so we’re closing the loop.”
Closing the loop can mean a lot of things, but one of the ways Wilson likes to think about it is in terms of student recruitment for her college — something that obviously helps the college, but also has important ramifications for the university as a whole, particularly the ambitious 16×30 proposal laid out by President Brooks Keel, which proposes to increase enrollment to 16,000 students by 2030.
Pathway programs, where high school students take classes in areas they’re interested in and come out with a certificate and a greater understanding of their chosen field of interest, are a real help when it comes to exposing high school students to the teaching profession.
“They help the teacher pipeline, and they’re another way that we’re trying to diversify the profession,” Wilson says.
The need for diversity is evidenced by some alarming numbers.
Though ethnic and racial minorities make up more than half of the student population in public schools, only 20% of the teachers are people of color, and only 2% percent are Black males.
Though Dr. Kristy Brown came to Augusta University to write the accreditation review, she brought her passion for representation with her. That passion now helps fuel the college’s Inspiring Men of Color in Teaching Initiative, which hopes to increase the number of Black men in the classroom.
Working in conjunction with the African American Male Initiative, a statewide program designed to increase the number of Black males who complete their postsecondary education, the initiative hosted a “Man Cave Monday” on campus that brought Black male educators, including Marcus Allen, principal of Grovetown Middle School, and Clarence Kendrick, who teaches at Harlem Middle School, to speak about the importance of men of color in teaching.
“It was a special night,” Brown says. “This is a national crisis, in my opinion, and we’re trying to give a voice to teachers of color and diversify our profession.”
A summit for minority male educators was planned for early 2020 but was postponed due to COVID-19.
Brown has also partnered with Dr. Tiffany Townsend, the university’s chief diversity officer, and Augusta University Athletic Director Clint Bryant to support the initiative and to give the need for Black male teachers more exposure.
Although she knows progress will be slow, Brown says education has always been about patience.
“If we first start in middle school, we’re not going to see the fruits of this for a long time, but that’s OK,” she says. “That’s what teachers are about — we’re in it for the long haul.”
And while patience is sometimes difficult when the needs are so big, all say progress is an achievement worth waiting for … as long as they’re always working toward it.
“If we do well, if each of our students benefits, then society benefits,” Wilson says. “But if we do poorly, it’s the opposite. So I feel a real sense of responsibility, a real obligation, to do our job well and to ensure that the teachers we produce are high quality.”
“Doctors and nurses save lives, but teachers shape lives,” she says.