BRATTLEBORO — The faculty members of a local teacher training program hope to lower the cost barrier for people of color to become educators.
The Spark Education Teacher Institute, a one-year teacher certification program based in Brattleboro, focuses on social justice training and student-centered learning.
The organization is holding a fundraiser throughout September with monies raised used to provide scholarships to people of color.
The goal is to raise at least $28,000, or enough for two scholarships.
According to program co-director Mikaela Simms, the social justice aspects of the teacher certification program make the course unique.
“It's a deep analysis of what school is right now and what we want it to be, and really center[s] the learner at all times,” said Simms, who is also the diversity coordinator at Brattleboro Union High School.
“That's ourselves as learners and the students in the classroom as learners,” Simms said, meaning that teachers who participate in the program join their students to “co-investigate” their classroom community and learning environment constantly.
“Education is always changing,” Simms added. “We ourselves are always learning and so we [educators] really model how we want the classroom to be.”
This constant investigation is core to the Spark program, she said.
Challenge becomes opportunity
The scholarship program is a new offering from Spark. Simms said the organization has “been on a mission” to recruit more teachers of color for schools across the country for a long time.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, presented a new opportunity.
According to Simms, the upheaval created by the pandemic means that more people will likely shift careers or that new college graduates will seek a program like Spark.
“So here is the perfect time to recruit people of color to become teachers, and we wanted to eliminate the cost barrier for them,” she said.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 79 percent of teachers are white. Consequently, historically marginalized students often don't see themselves reflected by the adults in their school communities, Simms said.
“So, what can we do to shift things so students are seeing themselves reflected - not just in the classroom, but as administrators?” Simms said.
Enter the fundraiser.
Simms was not sure why a disproportionately high number of teachers are white. One of her hypotheses: the profession pays less than what many college students have in student loans. So when college students choose professions, they choose the ones that pay enough to cover these loans, which means that they have to abandon any aspirations for teaching.
“When you think about the intersection of class and race, the last thing you want is a job that isn't going to pay well - and that's the reputation that teaching has,” Simms said.
Ongoing support for a difficult job
Teaching is a hard job, Simms said, and supporting present and future teachers of color shouldn't stop at offering scholarships. Simms is collaborating with another educator to create a mentorship program by and for teachers of color.
A lot of schools have a mentorship programs, but the mentors are not always people of color, she said.
The Spark program is trying to give educators tools to engage with an educational system as it exists to help them make changes they want to see and transform the world they want to build.
Over the past year, Brattleboro area schools have focused on recruiting and retaining more teachers of color. Simms said she hopped the Spark program will work in partnership with existing efforts.
She added that the pedagogy the Spark program uses is crucial to attracting more teachers of color. The program not only provides useful teaching tools for educators, but it also serves as “fertile ground for teachers of color to thrive.”
“You can't just invite a bunch of people to a place and have business as usual,” she said. “We ourselves need to make sure that we are in a position to receive those teachers and to really create community with those teachers.”
“I think that social justice education helps with that, because we have to analyze ourselves in order to unlearn and remember who we want to be as individual and as educators too,” she continued.
In education, the assumption is that classrooms are already welcoming and inclusive to all people, but that's not always the case, said Simms.
She added that often schools answer the question of how to create welcoming classrooms with diversity and social justice trainings.
But these short training programs don't always “change the face of the school,” Simms said. Instead, communities need to find multiple ways to create a welcoming environment for all.
“If we really want to see education change, we need a whole multiplicity of people engaged in educating our youth,” she said.
The important thing for Simms is that the Spark program represents one of the first times in her life that program was “really about learning.”
“It's not about checking boxes, it's not about getting through, it's not about trying to figure out what the teacher wants, it really simply is about your own learning and preparing you to be in the classroom and to be in the world,” she said.
The program, she said, provides “a constant questioning and a profound curiosity, which really is the best tool of the teacher to really want to know not just about the world but the students in front of you.”
Simms said the scholarships will help people of color enter the education field, but added that the money raised will also support people who can be that one caring adult so many marginalized students need to see but don't.
“That is part of the optimism and the investment that we have in the education system,” Simms said. “It's full of opportunities. It can be so many things, and we're hoping to attract more people of color to come and stay in Vermont and to just join the teaching field in general.”