The push for strong teachers in schools has become a nationwide trend and Pittsburgh is no exception. The Pittsburgh Public School District recently launched its Empowering Effective Teachers plan to ensure a strong teaching and learning environment in every school.
However, the task of creating, identifying and rewarding highly effective teachers can be difficult when many scholars do not agree on a plan of action. In an effort to address this and many other issues in education, Duquesne University hosted the Third Annual Duquesne Educational Leadership Symposium May 25-27.
“Education is currently under attack. Schools of education are closing; urban schools are closing,” said Arnetha Ball, Ph.D. “Too many decisions are being made without us being at the table. What will you do to take our rightful place as agents of change rather than objects of change?”
Ball, the acting chair of Duquesne’s Department of Instruction and Leadership in Education, served as the conference’s keynote speaker. Her task was to frame the conversation around this year’s focus: Helping City Kids Achieve and Urban Schools Succeed.
“By 2020, over 50 percent of U.S. students will be students of color. Unprecedented migration to cities is changing the face of the world,” Ball said. “How will we address the need to educate these students and how will we train teachers?”
During a series of several discussions and conversations, the participants looked at how educational leaders can be better prepared and equipped to deal with students who are marginalized, underrepresented and underprivileged. The goal was to establish a nexus of scholarship, practice and policy that will improve how all students are taught and how all educational leaders are prepared.
“Over 1 million students who enter 9th grade in the fall fail to graduate with their peers four years later,” Ball said. “We all agree there is an opportunity gap, but we don’t agree on how to address it. We generally agree that we need highly qualified teachers in our schools, but not on how to define “high quality.”
The conference participants represented a variety of colleges from across the country, but in every city the stories were the same—urban schools with low achievement. Most of them work as professors in colleges and universities where they prepare the next generation of teachers and school administrators.
“It’s not a ghetto problem, not just a Pittsburgh problem. Whatever is in your sphere of influence to do than do it because we can not afford to lose another generation of students,” Ball said. “Many of our districts are slow to learn and much slower to change. We must get in the habit of defining what success looks like for our schools and our children.”
Throughout the conference, one key focus was how best to prepare and train teachers to be effective in urban environments where there are more challenges. Many agreed there should be preparation from a social justice perspective, examining a teacher’s belief system in terms of race and culture.
“It has to do with changing the thinking of the teachers. Teachers must see things in a new way. They have a role to play in the future of these students,” said Launcelot Brown, Ph.D., associate professor and director of research courses, Duquesne University. “It’s an awakening that whatever I do I have to be fair and honest. All children can learn and all children want to learn. Teachers have the responsibility of providing that environment.”
The rippling effect of strong teachers can be felt at all levels of the school, with many teachers going on to take on the role of principal or becoming administrators in other areas.
“Principals are being called to lead curriculum discussions, not just be managers. They’ll be better able to talk about these experiences,” said Mark Gooden, Ph.D., director of the University of Texas at Austin Principalship Program. “Teachers have a greater effect on students but they need a strong leader.”