Equality Through Education

It’s one thing to be aware of what constitutes racist beliefs, actions and systems. It’s another thing to take action against them.

“It’s not acceptable anymore to merely be aware that racism exists,” says Alverno alumna Samantha Koehn ’18, managing director of teacher leadership development at Teach For America’s (TFA) Milwaukee chapter. “You have to be actively working to both identify and replace racist policies, practices, behaviors, beliefs, ways of being so that we are able to impact and create a just educational system, particularly for our Black and Brown students.”

Together, Alverno and Teach For America-Milwaukee work toward a shared mission to cultivate the next generation of teachers and education leaders who are committed to working for equity. (As TFA-Milwaukee’s primary certification provider, Alverno educates TFA-Milwaukee corps members during their two years of service. At the conclusion, TFA-Milwaukee teachers will earn licensure and a master’s degree in education.)

To share more about this work, Alverno Magazine asked alumna Natasha Lettner ’09 to speak to Koehn, Ronett Jacobs ’98, Alverno’s TFA program coordinator; and Desiree Pointer Mace, education professor.

Lettner: How do you train teachers to be anti-racist and to build an anti-racist culture in their classrooms, schools, and communities? What are the big picture ideas that educators need to know?

Pointer Mace (above, right): Alverno is about less training and more cultivating. Things are now closer to the surface and more visible in ways that allow us to work on them more explicitly. In my own journey, I try to bring a sense of continuous learning to my work and on myself so that I can create invitational relationships with all of my students. I think that’s where the ideas of preparing teachers and cultivating anti-racist educators start.

Koehn (above, left): What we have been designing at TFA is ‘Cultivate Your Leadership.’ It’s about preparing leaders for optimal growth. We want them to grow as bold, as virtuous, as equity-driven and collective leaders within classrooms and schools in the city.

Jacobs (above, center): The question I ask a teacher I am working with is: What are you building? What is the end goal with your students? After Alverno, I was given a contract with MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] because people who look like me gravitate to kids who look like them. But my call was to the suburbs because this work that you are asking about for me personally meant I had to go where ‘other’ was. To go into the fire, and into the spaces and places intentionally understanding that my calling, because I believe teaching is a calling, is to build a world where everybody can thrive. I believe very deeply that anti-racist building has so much to do with the teacher’s understanding that his or her place is to serve!

How are Alverno and TFA are partnering to do this work?

Jacobs: We decided that there are certain texts that we are requiring of all teacher preparation. We believe it is going to help them to have an asset-based mindset concerning the kids who are in the seats. What we always hear about are the behaviors. We want them to understand that mostly the behaviors and actions you are calling out as unacceptable are literally attributed to something they need to work on as teachers. If you don’t know how to plan lessons well, students tend to be disengaged. Alverno and Teach For America have spent a lot of time figuring out how to build capacity in the teachers who are a part of the TFA teacher preparation program at Alverno.

Koehn: Teach For America recruits promising leaders who are interested in solving the injustices that make up our education systems. We see it as there is a self portion of this, understanding yourself in relation to other people, understanding how you see systems. You can’t do this work alone! You need to build relationships with your students, with their families. You need to build relationships with people who are in our students’ community. We need people to work deeply in collaboration and coalition with the community towards creating a more just system. Ultimately, our end goal is for our leaders in TFA to advance and change the policies, practices, and structures that make up the system.

How is Alverno preparing educators in its master’s and new doctorate program to do this work?

Pointer Mace: At Alverno, we prepare initially licensed teachers at the [Master of Arts] level as well as MA students seeking advanced licensure and doctoral students in K-12 and higher ed settings. In all of those, we use the same conceptual framework of advanced abilities, all of which can be enacted through an anti-racist lens. Those abilities are: conceptualization, communication, coordination, diagnosis, and inclusive interaction. Educators should have a deep knowledge of content and theory. They should be able to express themselves clearly, effectively use resources, have an inquiry stance around their learning, and adhere to professional dispositions.

Jacobs: Alverno is really open to feedback. Those working on the program understand quality is better than quantity. It’s not about how much; it’s about how good we are doing and making sure that the materials that we are reading are representative of everybody.

Koehn: This moment requires so much more from us now. So what are you going to do differently this year? What are you going to do differently next year? Next month? Next week? We need to continuously be reflecting and continuously be responsive to what is happening in ways that allow kids to feel safe and loved.

This article appears in the fall/winter 2020 issue of Alverno Magazine as part of a package highlighting the education professionals who go to work for equality.

We have a lot to learn from these Alverno Strong educators. To continue the conversation, we posed the questions below to various educators. Let’s read and learn. And then, let’s get to work.

How you do facilitate a social justice culture and anti-racist mindset as a school leader?

What have you needed to learn in order to better serve students of color?

What is the power of representation?

As a future educator, what are you hoping to change?

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