Preparing Teachers Now and For the Future: UTeach Networked Improvement in Action

Kimberly Hughes
Director, UTeach Institute

Schooling, at all levels, is never returning to “normal.” The current pandemic, unfolding alongside recent racial violence, has not just forced a major shift in how instruction is delivered. It has also shone a bright light on the degree to which persistent educational inequities disadvantage poor students and students of color and brought increased attention to how institutional racism undergirds and perpetuates these inequities.

The challenges educators currently face cannot be overstated. They include not only the problem of how to effectively provide instruction remotely, but also how to authentically assess learning; address issues of access to technology and connectivity; provide for the social and emotional needs of learners in increasingly stressful and traumatic times; and expand implementation of culturally responsive, anti-bias, and anti-racist curriculum and teaching strategies.

The current crisis also presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to transform teaching and learning.

The focus of the UTeach community is on preparing and supporting teachers. We are a national network of 45 partner universities and the more than 6,000 secondary STEM teachers they have produced. As we have done for the past 12 years, we recently came together to share best practices and address shared challenges related to STEM teaching and learning. Except this year, everything was different. Rather than meet in person at our annual UTeach STEM Educators Conference, we met virtually and shifted our focus to how UTeach has and will adapt to address the challenges associated with increasingly complex learning environments and persistent inequities.

We also, for the first time, combined our higher education and K-12 audiences for a single event. The exchange of ideas and perspectives among university faculty and staff and in-service teachers greatly enriched our discussions and introduced a palpable energy to the convening. I was personally blown away by the creativity, ingenuity, and dedication clearly on display as we collectively tackled challenges related to designing and delivering high-quality remote learning and support for all students.

This virtual summit also provided one of the first opportunities to introduce the broader UTeach community to a new initiative, HBCUTeach, designed to combine the unique strengths of HBCUs with the proven approach of the UTeach model to strengthen and diversify the STEM teacher workforce. Colleagues from eleven HBCU partners joined the summit to learn more about UTeach and to contribute their expertise and perspective, especially as we work to strengthen instruction around diversity, equity, inclusion, and racial justice across UTeach programs.

This recent convening is just the latest example of UTeach networked improvement in action. Leading up to the virtual summit, working groups had already formed to take up a variety of challenges, including recruiting and supporting students during COVID and adapting UTeach field courses and experiences for the times. UTeach program co-directors have met regularly to discuss issues related to sustaining and adapting UTeach programs and to discuss how to highlight and address issues of racial justice and persistent educational inequities. Following the summit, more working groups are forming, including one that will formulate recommendations for better addressing issues of equity and racial justice across UTeach programs.

Margaret Wheatley, who has written extensively on leadership in times of turmoil, says, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about” (Turning to One Another). The current challenges we face have served to remind us of our core community values, which very quickly surfaced as we coalesced around problems to solve and issues to address.

The questions we are currently grappling with as a community include:

  • How do we strengthen and sustain a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels of UTeach programming?
  • How do we strengthen instruction around racial justice issues and intentionally prepare anti-bias and anti-racist teachers?
  • How do we design and implement engaging, collaborative, and inquiry-based instructional strategies remotely?
  • How do we support the social and emotional needs of learners remotely?
  • How do we provide high-quality field observation and teaching experiences remotely?
  • How do we equip future teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively design and implement high-quality remote, flexible, and blended learning environments that meet the needs of all students?

We are experiencing a seismic shift in education, a major disruption to the status quo. At the same time, we are keenly aware of the opportunity to innovate, learn lessons, and to collaborate to improve the preparation of teachers. High-quality educator development and support has never been more consequential. As a UTeach community, we have a renewed vision, we are hopeful, we are energized, and we are rolling up our sleeves.

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