Lighting the Fire

As a longtime teacher, Lawahez Suleiman knows the hard work and deep commitment required — the late nights and early mornings grading papers, thinking about students and lesson plans after the closing bell. So she urged her children to take a more lucrative, less emotionally taxing career path.

For daughter Randa Suleiman ’07, that path became dental oral surgery, but it wasn’t long before she decided to trade in her dentistry tools for chalk and an eraser. “I love science,” she explains. “I wanted to work with students and help them see the beauty in science and love it as much as I do, or at least change their mind about it.”

A job teaching middle school science turned into a career as a K-12 teacher and administrator. “Having love, passion and knowledge is one thing,” Suleiman says. “But you need effective teaching methods, too.” That led her to earn a master’s degree in urban education from Alverno and then a doctorate focused on higher education leadership from Cardinal Stritch University. Now she inspires the next generation of teachers as an associate professor of education at Alverno.

“I like to have that feeling of being students’ coach and mentor, and to celebrate success with them,” she says.

To measure that success, Suleiman launched Lighting the Fire, a pilot study that examines the impact of women’s college-educated teachers on their female students.

“I had no research on what happens to our graduates when they’re out in the classroom…do they still carry the things we hope they do?” she says.

The pilot, funded by Alverno’s Research Center for Women and Girls, focused on two recent Alverno graduates who teach math in high-need urban areas. Suleiman observed their teaching and gathered input from their supervisors and students. Because of the time-intensive, case-study approach, she limited her initial focus with the goal of developing an effective research model that other women’s colleges could use to measure the impact of their own education graduates.

While it’s difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample size, Suleiman hopes to expand the study, and her early findings were positive. “I was really impressed,” she says. “Supervisors reported that our graduates were outperforming more experienced teachers, and both wanted our graduates to mentor or coach other teachers.”

Suleiman credits Alverno’s distinctive approach to teaching and learning for giving new teachers a valuable skillset to use in their own classrooms. “We lead by example here,” she says. “We don’t lecture. We don’t take things lightly. We think through everything that we’re doing. We’re focused on skills that can be transferable, and feedback is big. I tell my students all the time: Teaching is not about perfection, it’s about reflection. At any point, if you feel you’ve reached perfection, then it’s time to retire because there is always room to grow. I think having that growth mindset helps them in the field.”

She cites Alverno’s strong partnership with Greenfield Public Schools as another advantage. The partnership gives Alverno’s education students a head start by getting them field experience before they start their full-time student teaching. Students start their fieldwork by spending two half-days a week in a school, eventually working up to three full days a week.

“You can’t have an athlete sit in a classroom as you lecture about basketball and then send them out to play the game, and it’s the same with teaching,” Suleiman says. “This is a profession of doing. With that vision, we wanted our students to spend more time in the classroom to be immersed in that environment.”

This article appears in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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