One of the Poorest Places in the U.S. Is Pioneering Teacher Ed


Sumter County, Alabama, ranks in the ten lowest counties for average household income in the U.S. It’s a region of the American South with a long history of economic struggle, going back to the cotton plantations that sprang up in the nineteenth century. This region running East to West across the state is known as the Black Belt, named after the wide belt of fertile black topsoil.

Today, many poor rural Alabamians are educating and being educated in the region’s rural schools. Education is seen as an antidote to poverty and a ticket to a better life. But even now, there’s a shortage of qualified teachers in Alabama.

Addressing the Challenge

More education requires more qualified educators. That’s the challenge facing the faculty of the University of West Alabama (UWA), a historic university located in Sumter County.

UWA’s been prepping teachers since its founding as a teacher education institution in 1835. Today, the university offers 47 different graduate programs in addition to its undergraduate teacher education program.

UWA started as a teacher's college 1835. Now they offer 47 different graduate programs. Click To Tweet

An early adopter of online education, UWA has offered online teacher education degrees for over 15 years, enrolling almost 3,000 graduate students in their online program last year alone. In fact, UWA admits more teacher education candidates each year than any other school in Alabama.

Dr. Jan G. Miller, Dean of the College of Education

Dr. Jan G. Miller, Dean of the College of Education at UWA, personifies the university’s resolve to produce excellent, fully prepared teachers and educators ready to make meaningful changes in Alabama’s schools, despite challenges.

And UWA is attacking these bold goals in a big way.

In 2016 UWA was awarded a $3.3 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Education under the title Rethinking Rural Teacher Education Programs.

Under Dean Miller’s leadership, UWA has developed programs to deliver special training in elementary education, early childhood education, and special education. These endorsements give UWA graduates an edge in the competitive hiring market and additional skills to apply in the districts they serve.

To combat a lack of teachers staying in rural Alabama, UWA launched its Black Belt Teacher Corps, a scholarship program coordinated by Susan Hester. The program gives scholarships to students that agree to teach in the Black Belt region for a minimum of 3 years. UWA also developed Alt-A programs to fast-track non-traditional students who already have Bachelor degrees through their Masters of Education program.

It’s not always an easy job, but UWA is producing large numbers of highly qualified educators.

It’s common for UWA students to be the first generation in their family to make it to college. Frequently from at-risk schools, bad situations, or unfortunate circumstances, these students arrive at college with great desire but very little preparation for the rigors of college.

Dr. Miller describes the heart she sees in the incoming student ranks: “We see a lot of people who know from a very early age that they really want to be a teacher. Often someone in their family was a teacher and they look up to them and that makes them want to be a teacher. We also see good students who have grown up in bad situations or circumstances; they’ve seen problems and the really truly want to make a difference.”

It’s still no small challenge to bridge the gap between underprepared students and increasingly rigorous CAEP accreditation standards for new teachers. In 2018 Alabama will be adopting EdTPA standards for teacher certification, which only increases the level of preparedness required of new graduates.

But despite these challenges, UWA is thriving and consistently laying down a track record of superior performance. How?

What’s their secret?

In addition to remarkable faculty, UWA is leveraging technology like GoReact to empower teachers and make time for high-impact activities.

UWA has been looking for ways to better prepare their students for EdTPA certification. One of the oft-repeated fears from students is the video submission portion of the certification assessment. Dr. Miller said, “Now, we’re starting earlier in the process with videos and breaking them down, so our students are super prepared.”

By using GoReact to record students frequently throughout their program, students get familiar with delivering lessons on camera. Stage fright and nervous butterflies are long gone by the time they record their EdTPA submission. By then they are well-practiced, have received copious feedback on their delivery, and have a huge advantage over peers who start recording themselves only when it’s time to submit their edTPA application.

What other challenges does UWA face?

The logistics of travel for observing student-teaching interns is a big issue at UWA, as it is for many universities across the country.

UWA has student interns placed in schools all over the state of Alabama. Enrollment in the program continues to increase and travel expenses are on the rise, but the budget for observations hasn’t kept up. Budget notwithstanding, every single student intern must receive observations.

For each observation, a supervisor must travel to the cooperating school—sometimes as far as four and a half hours away—then spend two to three hours on site. The program must pay for transportation, meals, and the supervisor’s time. One year, UWA’s overruns for travel alone amounted to over $30,000.

They needed to make a change. A big one.

Piloting GoReact

The College of Education started looking for a way to prepare interns for certification and lower travel costs in the program. They needed a remote solution to record lessons, help interns reflect, and spare the supervisors hours of driving.

That’s when they discovered GoReact, a web-based video software for capturing recordings of students and giving time-coded feedback on their performance. It sounded like a perfect fit, but there were still questions. Would a high-tech solution prove too complex for some of the older faculty?

Dr. Miller authorized a pilot to see if GoReact truly was the needed solution to their travel issues and, more importantly, if her instructors would actually use it.

The result? According to Dr. Miller, “GoReact was so easy. Our clinical supervisors, many of whom are retired teachers who tend to be scared of technology, are now some of our biggest cheerleaders.”

UWA has cut their travel expenses drastically by using GoReact. Plus, each student is being observed more frequently and getting more constructive feedback for each observation.

As soon as they realized how simple GoReact was, they’ve never gone back to taking handwritten notes. They love how much more feedback they can give their interns with no extra time required.

Sara Reynolds, Coordinator of Clinical Experiences

One of these instructors was Sara Reynolds, Coordinator of Clinical Experiences at UWA. “I take all the students and place them in various schools. I do field experience as well as interns. I also do school counseling and instructional leadership.”

When asked about the reception from students, Reynolds said, “They’ve all enjoyed it. They were a little intimidated at first. But I would say, ‘I’ve done it. I promise you, just give it one try.’ And after that it was not a big deal for them at all. Some of the supervisors are hesitant like the students were, but once they’ve gotten into it, they’ve realized this is going to make their supervising easier and more effective.”

Before GoReact, UWA students didn’t have a mechanism for recording a lesson and reflecting on it. The interns can now watch themselves teach and reflect on their performance right from the beginning of their program.

Reynolds reported, “Students were a little bit nervous about seeing themselves at first. They thought I might judge them harshly or something, and just weren’t sure about it. But once they got over that first recording, everything was great; super easy for them to use.”

After that initial recording, UWA’s interns claimed this was the first video experience that made them feel comfortable. Clinical supervisors also found that the feedback they shared in GoReact became a springboard for more learning and more discussions. Their GoReact comments almost always came up later in conversations and emails with interns because they were internalizing the feedback.

Reynolds said, “Many interns are four hours away or more, but now they can send me videos of specific things they need me to see. Sometimes they just record the whole lesson. It’s great because I can refine the video, stop the video, and have them watch the feedback any time. I say, just send me a GoReact video so I can see what’s going on with you this week. It’s non-threatening, easy to use, and very user friendly.”

Susan Hester, Black Belt Teacher Corps Coordinator at UWA

Another faculty member is Susan Hester, the Black Belt Teacher Corps Coordinator at UWA. Hester came to UWA after 30 years in the Mississippi public education system and serves a key role in the UWA program. “I like that GoReact is easy for anyone to use and it can be used immediately. There’s no complicated training; it’s simple, quick, and does what it’s intended to do. It’s a great product, and it’s really addressed a need within our university.”

After the successful pilot, UWA now uses GoReact for graduate and undergraduate teacher education, instructional leadership, school counseling, library media, and more. Adding to the overall ease of adoption, GoReact integrates with most campus learning management systems (LMS), including Blackboard used at UWA.

Improved Observation Quality

That wasn’t all. Another challenge UWA faced was providing all interns with the constructive feedback they needed.

The clipboard and paper rubric approach—a staple of teacher education programs for years—wasn’t providing the timely formative feedback student interns need when honing their craft. A recent Harvard publication supports what Dr. Miller knew from experience: to be done right, observations needed to be conducted through video.

Dr. Miller said, “What you see on paper and what you see in action can be completely different things. Teachers get better when they know better. The only way that they are going to know better is to see video evidence of what they are doing.”

Again, GoReact was the perfect choice. Aside from allowing remote observations, GoReact also allowed UWA faculty to dramatically improve the quality of observations, all in less time.

Dr. Miller commented, “Some clinical supervisors observe five teachers in a day without even leaving their office or home—and they’re giving ten times more constructive feedback on their observations. GoReact’s time-coded comments have allowed teachers to give better feedback than ever.”

Harvard research supports that student teaching observations need to be conducted through video. Click To Tweet

Supervisors also have the option of leaving video replies on interns’ videos. They can actually turn the camera around and model a teaching technique back to the student. According to Dr. Miller, “This is the kind of feedback that you can’t even put on paper.”

GoReact has also helped UWA solve several problems they’ve experienced with technology in the past:

Internet Issues

The UWA team was concerned that spotty Wi-Fi might cause issues for students. According to Dr. Miller, “Because we’re so rural, we don’t have high-speed Internet everywhere we go. But with GoReact, you don’t really have to be online—you can just record form your device and submit the video when you get back online.”

Sara Reynolds said, “Some schools don’t have Wi-Fi. Or some schools don’t share the password with the interns. So, they just record it on their phone; and then later when they get to Wi-Fi, they can upload it. That means it can still be used in these rural places where you don’t have good bandwidth.”

LMS Concerns

GoReact has a seamless integration to most university LMS systems. At UWA, they currently use Blackboard Learn. After some initial concern about integration with Blackboard, faculty have caught on that GoReact works right in the environment they’re use to.

No Bulky Expensive Equipment

Instead of expensive, complicated recording equipment, the interns now use their own smartphones and laptops to record. Even non-tech savvy supervisors have no trouble using GoReact in the program. Hester said, “The fact that you can use the app on your phone and you don’t need big bulky equipment to record and upload, it’s just a fantastic solution.”

The Future and Beyond

The team at UWA are creatively pioneering new solutions in teacher education to meet the challenges of our changing education landscape. And it shows.

When asked about their next round of initiatives with GoReact, responses included developing new rubrics within GoReact, teaching classroom management skills, building a library of exemplary videos from UWA students, implementation in the nursing education program, and more.

Hester said, “We’re really enjoying it. I’m just excited to see really how far we can take it. Opening the boundaries to other states and being able to serve more students than we have right now.” This opens up top-notch education resources to anyone serious about a career in education.

More than anything, the UWA faculty are thrilled to see how GoReact is helping them serve teaching interns every day. One story in particular stood out to Dr. Miller: “We have a story that happened just yesterday. This person serves in the military, and he’s going to be gone overseas. We can continue working with him while he’s deployed because of GoReact. He’ll be able to go into a classroom, do all the things he wanted to do, and still serve our country. How awesome is that?”

When asked how she would sum up her experience with GoReact, Dr. Miller said, “It’s a tool that helps us improve the quality of teacher education.”

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