Today, teachers are expected to be multifaceted in their ability to teach across the disciplines to a diverse group of students. To help meet that need, the University of New Mexico’s College of Education (COE) has developed a new project, titled Supporting Transformation Action in Reciprocity Together (START), that’s designed to increase the number of effective teachers in early childhood, elementary and secondary schools by providing rural, and tribal cultural field experiences and integrating coursework to support development of cultural competency for students studying to become professional educators.

“This collaboration is about forming a partnership with rural and tribal communities that involves the community and seeks ways to strengthen school, university and community partnerships,” said Professor and PNM Endowed Chair Vi Florez.

The project, sponsored by Kellogg Foundation through a one-year, $1 million grant, includes the formation of three Transformational Action Groups, or TAGS, which are comprised of COE faculty from across disciplines designed to transform teaching practices internally, and to collaboratively design and implement activities in existing courses that integrate expertise within and across COE programs. 

“We will explore transformational change pertaining to curriculum and practices with the three Transformative Action Groups (TAGS) comprised of College of Education faculty from across all departments in the College,” Florez said. “This opportunity provides faculty with time to reflect on curricular needs for teacher preparation and professional courses, contributing to the transformation of curriculum.”

Each TAG will collaboratively design and implement activities that integrate areas of expertise within and across programs. The important aspect to the project is the focus on building relationships with struggling rural and tribal schools to improve instruction. The TAGs are based and designed on three objectives that guide the collaboration.

The TAGs include:

  • transformation of teacher and other professional education courses through collaboration with experts in other areas
  • leveraging that transformation to assist a struggling school to improve instruction to their students
  • by designing integrated field experiences that support the development of cultural competency

“The TAGs will address early childhood, elementary and secondary areas of licensure,” said Florez. “We decided to create TAGs in those three areas. Each TAG will evaluate local, formal and informal settings to identify new field placement sites that can provide a strong setting for cultural field experiences. In order to be effective educators, it is important for students and faculty to understand the various cultures of New Mexico and the challenges communities/families face. ”

A key component of the TAGS involves multiple areas of expertise within the COE (e.g., nutrition, health, exercise science, special education, educational leadership, counseling, family studies, art education, bilingual, English as a second language and educational psychology), and graduate students from different disciplines representing different communities. Faculty involvement includes experts in fields outside of teacher education who volunteered to participate in one of the TAGs. Approximately 15-17 UNM faculty are working in each of the three TAGs.

“Having expertise of faculty from various disciplines enriches the professional development opportunities for the cooperating teachers, plus it adds a new dimension to community outreach activities at the various school sites,” Florez said.

The project also involves developing partnerships with three rural schools in the three separate school districts: A BIE Tribal School in San Felipe Pueblo (early childhood), Bernalillo Public Schools (secondary), and Albuquerque Public Schools (elementary).   

The major components common to all of the schools includes four areas: capturing the learning of the student themselves by placing them in the schools; observing them, supervising them and examining the coursework to capture the learning of the student; capturing the learning of the cooperating teacher with upfront preparation with those teachers, teaching them how to mentor well, helping to identify areas of stress and preparation; capturing the learning of the faculty including takeaways, lessons learned working in the schools and working out in the community and observing; and finally, the community itself including the needs of the community via  asset maps in relationship and needs assessment within the communities.

“Placing students in rural communities for a portion of their experiences provides faculty an opportunity to go to rural communities and observe communities to better understand the children and families teachers serve,” Florez said. “Each of the school sites provide a unique and rich experience for the cohort of students placed for field experiences, plus the cooperating teachers assisting with the supervision and mentoring of the students will have advanced professional development opportunities.”

At the early childhood site, the objective was to look at tribal communities so two sites, San Felipe including the Headstart and the elementary school, were selected. The COE will place students at those schools who will work with cooperating teachers looking at UNM’s courses, while transforming some other courses.

At Pajarito, there’s a need for strong afterschool programs, a need for ESL courses for parents, parenting skills and other different things so the project will find out and assess the needs of the community. Bernalillo High School is an example where Native American students from five pueblos feed into the school highlighting the cultural and diversity challenges.

“What’s significant about this project is that it helps us look internally at what it is we are teaching our students,” Florez said. “It’s looking at our own analysis and revision of our own course syllabi and sharing expertise across disciplines, programs and departments through different discussions and meetings that we have.

“The interactions internally and externally will help us reflect on our own work and practices that will cause us to examine how we prepare future teacher candidates to be highly effective classroom teachers for all students, especially with second language learners, bilingual students, special education students, plus knowing how to handle the challenges facing public education in today’s society.”

Florez said the UNM COE also wants to build sustainability into the initiative and has been invited to resubmit a new grant proposal that looks at a three-to-five year commitment in relationship to this work.

“If it’s going to involve internal transformation in relationship to our curriculum and redesign of some of our teacher education program, then we need more time,” Florez said. “We also want to build a sustainability component for it. Hopefully, as we go through this project, we will gather data and information that informs us on what we are doing and/or need to do in the future as we prepare educators.”