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Practice Makes Progress

TeachingWorks was founded on the idea that great teachers aren’t born, but made. In January 2022, this pioneering organization housed at the SOE will celebrate its 10th anniversary. The concept itself, however, began years before.

TeachingWorks team members with students inside Michigan Stadium during the 2017 Summer Mathematics Camp

“TeachingWorks grew out of what had been an unusually deep period of collective work in the SOE,” explains TeachingWorks founder, director, and former SOE dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball. “Almost all the faculty in both elementary and secondary teacher education were working together in a variety of ways to change the program. We were driven by the fact that teacher candidates weren't being sufficiently prepared to do the work that they would face as teachers—including their ability to understand the content well enough to connect with kids, and their ability to think about issues of what we would have referred to as ‘equity’ in those days. I think the way we would have named the problem at that point was that beginning teaching is often weak because teacher education in general doesn't prepare people well to begin teaching—and that systemic problem disproportionately lands on Black and brown children, who are far more likely to be taught by beginners.”

To tackle this problem, faculty members at the SOE worked together for several years to identify a small set of instructional practices crucial for beginning and early career teachers to be able to do well. Called high-leverage practices, these instructional practices are those that teachers carry out constantly—such as building relationships, explaining and modeling content, and eliciting and interpreting students’ thinking—and are fundamental to helping students develop socially, emotionally, and academically.

“The idea of TeachingWorks developed out of this work,” Ball says, “because we saw that if we really wanted it to affect the quality of beginning teaching in this country, we would have to take the things we'd been learning here and begin to build a way to increase capacity in the broader field of teacher preparation and contribute to the field beyond our own programs and the teachers we prepare.”

“We had a whole committee that was looking at high-leverage practices and thinking really carefully about the work that teacher educators need to do to prepare beginning teachers,” says Nicole Garcia, TeachingWorks Associate Director. “We've tried to think really carefully about how we help others to see that this work on practices isn't just a checklist of things that people need to do—that there are critical decisions teachers make that are really impacting the experiences children have in classrooms.”

Since its inception, TeachingWorks has partnered with teacher preparation programs and school districts across the country, bringing its unique approaches and resources to support the improvement of teachers’ professional education. Today, the work is centered in four primary strands: partnerships with teacher preparation providers, partnerships with K-12 schools and districts, special programs and events designed to build and connect networks of educators, and efforts to shape the public discourse around public education.

“Where we would like to see our work go,” Garcia says, “is a more systemic approach. So we're able to work with the teacher preparation institutions that are serving the districts that we're supporting, so we've got a broader set of impacts. Right now, that work ends up being slightly separated—we have a lot of work in teacher prep that's happening in these pockets where we don't have the same set of K-12 work happening. Part of that has to do with how things get funded. We are increasingly focusing our partnerships in areas where we can be in either arena—in K-12 or in teacher prep—and where we know that the K-12 schools are serving children of color. So that we can expand that work, expand our reach, and get the greatest impact that we can.”

In supporting teacher educators, TeachingWorks is designing and implementing practice-based teacher education that offers curriculum resources for teacher educators while providing in-person and virtual training programs. Through partnerships with K-12 schools and districts, TeachingWorks supports practicing teachers in developing their teaching and learning high-leverage practices. This work includes mentoring and helping teachers to develop their skills in building relationships with students, applying criticality around subject matter, and disrupting everyday practices that reproduce patterns of injustice.

The notion of disrupting injustice has always been a key focus of TeachingWorks. By using its platform to shape public discourse, the team at TeachingWorks is constantly scrutinizing the language used to describe peoples, communities, identities, and systemic patterns of oppression. This work also takes the form of advancing teacher education and support that integrates teaching practice, content knowledge, and the imperative to acknowledge and disrupt patterns of injustice.

“If you hear words like equity and diversity and inclusion and you put 50 people in a room,” notes Amber Willis, Mathematics Research and Design Specialist, “they will all have different definitions and levels of understanding of what those things are. We still walk into spaces, and people still say ‘well, you are racist for talking about whiteness’ or ‘these are leftist ideas’—they bring all these politics into it. We're saying that students of color, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with disabilities, students who are English language learners, all these different groups of students who are often marginalized in our school system, they have the human right to have a good education. It is no longer the last bullet point on a PowerPoint. We start from there, that students deserve to have rights; that racism is real and exists. That's our starting point.”

“I think one of the things that's different about the work that we do,” Garcia explains, “is there are lots of people in organizations who talk about racial justice—who talk about antiracist teaching—in really general ways. And when we work on antiracist teaching practice it's intertwined with teaching practice itself, with content knowledge for teaching. Because honestly, you can be as antiracist as you want, but if you don't understand your content you're not supporting your children in learning. And if you don't have the skills to carry out practice, you can have all the commitments you want to antiracism and still not be supportive of the children in your classroom.”

“Underprepared teachers can cause harm of a variety of kinds,” Ball says. “We're getting much more explicit about how we see whiteness and white supremacy, including the dominance of middle class white English permeating teacher education.”

After 10 years of growth, TeachingWorks has become well known for its significant contributions to the field, the impact it’s had on understanding and advancing practice-based teacher education, and for being a strong voice for equity in education. Alyssa Brandon, TeachingWorks’ Communications Coordinator contemplates the future: “I think 10 years from now, I want us to be an exemplar and model for what it means to be a nonprofit higher education-based organization. I want to see us positioned in a way where we’re in community with other organizations who are tackling different points of this issue, creating a better possibility for public education for children in this country and that we're working together collaboratively to take that up in a meaningful, genuine, authentic way.”

TeachingWorks team members with teacher educators from throughout the California State University system during the 2019 CSU Content Methods Laboratory Classes in Fullerton, California

"I hope to see TeachingWorks become the very best provider of professional learning for teacher educators in the United States,” says TeachingWorks Deputy Director Francesca Forzani, “helping to transform teacher preparation into a consistently effective intervention on teaching practice. Our ultimate goal is to help build a more just society, and ensuring strong and equitable classroom instruction in pursuit of that goal has never been more important."

“What I would love to see,” adds Monique Cherry-McDaniel, Director of Secondary English Language Arts, “is that we are more widely known than we are now; that we're able to cultivate and maintain these long partnerships, these deep partnerships, and truly see transformation at the programmatic level with the partners that we're working with.”

“I could see in 10 years that TeachingWorks’ work will expand exponentially,” Willis says, “not only in the states that we're currently working with, but across the country—and setting standards for teacher preparation and heavily influencing that work nationally. I could see that we would not only continue to work with the big public and private universities, but also expand more into minority serving institutions, these smaller liberal arts colleges, where they're producing high numbers of teachers of color, and impacting that work as well.”

Expanding on this idea, Garcia said, “I would like to see system-wide work happening, where we have partnerships with universities, where we have partnerships with the large school districts, who are serving children of color, who are hiring teachers from those universities and we have a support system in place, and mentor teachers who are serving that role. I know that that’s going to take an incredible amount of work and strategy to get there, so even though it sounds like kind of a low bar, I know that that’s difficult work because all of these systems are currently independent of one another.”

“It’s a space where we’ve got our arms around the different components of teaching,” Darrius Robinson, Research and Design Specialist who currently co-teaches the Elementary Math Lab with Ball says. “I think there's a unique opportunity in that we’ve got our hands in that whole pipeline, from multiple different perspectives, to really start to build—to really connect—all those things together and think about how it works as a system. I think TeachingWorks is uniquely positioned to make some of those connections more visible and at the same time more nuanced.”

Deborah Loewenberg Ball

Charles Wilkes, II, a Mathematics Research Specialist, adds: “Another piece is being very explicit about how the work we’re doing connects to issues of race, of social justice, of disrupting whiteness and anti-blackness. I think just being more explicit and more unapologetic is the evolution that I see, and really naming it.”

“One of the things we bring that’s unique is how we work on practice,” Ball says. “Many organizations don't get down to the level of the actual relational work between a child and a teacher, and I feel like that is really where the rubber meets the road. I hope that we will continue to be able to be very clear that larger structural and systemic changes can still be traced all the way down to the level of beginning teachers and what they actually do with children. I think our nuance and our sensitivity to practice is special and important, and I hope that we can continue to advance that.”

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