How to connect teachers with the communities they serve

In most rural and suburban schools, students are taught by teachers who have similar experiences to themselves.

Many of these teachers went to the same or similar schools, live in the same communities, and hail from comparable socio-economic backgrounds.

But that’s not often the case when it comes to inner-city education.

By now,  you’ve heard about the horrendous attrition rates in underserved urban school communities, especially when it comes to those hard-to-keep first-year teachers.

Their reasons for leaving run the gamut from higher-paying job opportunities elsewhere to high levels of stress in urban education environments.

But most experts attribute the annual exodus of new urban school teachers to one unshakeable reality: most of them simply are not physically or emotionally invested in the communities they serve.

While children of color account for more than half of the students in America’s public schools, just 18 percent of public K12 teachers are people of color, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. This contrast is especially stark in urban schools where poor students of color are often served by first-time teachers, many of whom are predominantly young, white, and from middle- or higher-class backgrounds.

This difference in background, and culture, often creates a dissonance that is difficult to bridge.

Change in the Windy City
In Chicago, one program is working to change that trend.

The Step Up program offers teaching students from Illinois State University the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the communities they hope to serve as teachers upon graduation.

The program pairs 21 aspiring teacher fellows with host families in four of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. For four weeks, these fellows assist in classroom environments in those communities, volunteer with community service organizations, and take classes and seminars on culture and teaching approaches in that area.

The ultimate goal is to put some teeth into the “cultural competence” requirements embedded in many university teaching programs, and to instill in aspiring teachers a commitment to the communities they serve.

The idea is to teach fellows “not to have the savior mentality,” one host dad, Tony Velazco, said in a recent Education Week and PBS News\Hour report (watch below). “They’re not coming in to save people. They’re coming in to be part of the community and they really have to know where the kids are coming from in order to teach them better. To reach them. To inspire them.”

For more about the Step Up program, check out this full video report from Ed Week and the PBS NewsHour:

So, what’s the next step?
Start with a question: Will this approach and others like it help more teachers take jobs and stay longer in urban schools?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Step Up reports that more than 80 percent of fellows are still in the classroom beyond the five-year mark.

If you’re having trouble with teacher-community engagement, getting your teachers in a full-immersion program might not be feasible. But you can encourage engagement through on-going dialogues between teachers and the students and families they serve.

How do you actively promote teacher-community engagement in your schools or district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to help your teachers develop a deeper sense of engagement and connection with your school community? Here’s one way to get the ball rolling.

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