What Teacher Prep Programs Can Learn About Equity From Teaching in the Least Diverse State in the U.S.

How do you prepare teacher candidates to address issues of equity when they’re learning to teach in Maine—the least diverse state in the U.S.

"Especially around issues of equity, the attention in research and in practice teacher prep has been focused on urban areas. I think we're getting more attention turned to rural areas." —Dr. Rebecca Buchanan #TeacherPrep Click To Tweet

According to Dr. Rebecca Buchanan, Assistant Professor at the University of Maine, it can be done. In fact, she believes much can be gleaned by paying attention to issues of equity in rural areas. 

So here are a few things all teacher prep programs can learn from Dr. Buchanan’s experiences. 

Addressing Equity in Rural Teacher Prep Programs 

Moving from California to Maine, Dr. Buchanan understands why many people don’t initially recognize the equity and diversity issues in rural communities like her own: 

“When I was in California, that demographic imperative seemed really obvious to teacher candidates, right? They know they’re going to go into classrooms with students of color, with English language learners, and they want to be prepared. And it seems less obvious for some of our students, especially if they are from rural parts of Maine.”

To prepare her rural teacher candidates, she employs a two-pronged approach:

  1. Ensure candidates have the right tools.
  2. Help candidates develop the right mindset about diversity and equity.

The first point makes logical sense and we could explore this more. But I want to draw more attention to the second point.

Acknowledge Diversity Is Everywhere

It’s easy to see your own community as fairly homogenous. 

I’m guilty of it. I heard words like “homogenous” used by professors around the country to describe their university campuses and school districts in my interviews for the Teacher Education Podcast. And Dr. Paul Gorksi hears the same sentiments as he works with school districts all over the country on issues of equity. 

Buying into this idea myself, I asked Dr. Gorski for advice for teacher prep programs serving more “homogenous areas.” He promptly pushed back on my underlying assumption:

“These instructors still go into schools that have diversity. Maybe it’s across gender identity. Maybe it’s across sexual orientation. And usually, there is racial diversity in the district too. What they’re saying is ‘we only have five percent of students of color.'”

—Dr. Paul Gorski

This is the crux of Dr. Buchanan’s second point. Dr. Gorski and Dr. Buchanan do not see communities as homogenous. Diversity exists everywhere—even in the least racially diverse state in the U.S.

Developing the Right Mindset About Diversity 

To help students see and acknowledge the diversity around them, Dr. Buchanan has another handy, two-pronged approach:

  1. Unpack “culture.”
  2. Explore diversity.

Unpack Culture

“I don’t have a culture. Everybody else does.” That’s what many of Dr. Buchanan’s teacher candidates think when they enter her class at the beginning of the semester. “We try to get them to see that’s not the case.”

The aha moment for her students often comes when they realize that—for many of them—it’s hard to see their culture “because it matches the dominant culture in society. The one that has the most power. So therefore it gets coded as normal or as not existing.” 

Everyone has a culture.

Let’s unpack what yours is.

Dr. Rebecca Buchanan

Explore Diversity

Along with the unpacking culture exercise, Dr. Buchanan’s candidates explore diversity in their readings and in-person opportunities in class. They visit a local mosque and bring in international students at the University of Maine studying English, and a campus organization that works with young people from refugee families. 

(There really is diversity everywhere—even in Maine.)

And when students have this mindset, it helps them recognize the complex equity issues that exist in their classrooms. While it may not look or be like a classroom in California, diversity and issues of equity still exist. 

Addressing Issues of Equity for Rural Teacher Candidates 

There are even issues of equity for teacher candidates themselves in rural areas. I absolutely love the hub metaphor Dr. Buchanan used to illustrate this point: “A university is a fantastic hub of knowledge, but historically to access it, you had to come here.” 

This means in a rural state like Maine, their university knowledge hub usually is only accessible to those living in the area, with means to commute, or means to move near the campus. That excludes many teacher candidates and placement opportunities. 

By creating an online master’s program, The University of Maine increased its accessibility: “We attract teachers from all over the state and often out of the state,” said Buchanan. 

“How do we make sure that we give our teacher candidates access to rural placements so they have those kinds of experiences, but also give them adequate support that they need?” —Dr. Rebecca Buchanan #equityintheclassroom Click To Tweet

Embracing online technology also creates more opportunities for placements. Dr. Buchanan posed this question: “How do we make sure that we give our candidates access to rural placements so they have those kinds of experiences, but also give them adequate support that they might need from university staff like supervisors?” 

Her answer will sound familiar to professors working during the pandemic: “We use both our learning management system and tools like Zoom and Google Classroom to create collaborative learning opportunities and connect these teachers, even though they’re far away from each other.” 

Improving Online Courses After the Pandemic

Whether the pandemic ends soon or later, why does this point need to be brought up? 

While many professors are excited to return to campus and minimize their time teaching online, online learning must continue to play a role in teacher prep programs. Online and hybrid courses make teacher prep programs accessible to candidates living outside their campus or with unorthodox schedules.

So again, here’s another tip from a rural teacher prep program’s lead. Even after the pandemic, teacher prep programs must continue to make their teacher prep program more accessible with online learning opportunities. 

What can teacher prep programs learn about equity from teaching in the least diverse state in the U.S.? Quite a bit. Check it out. #equityintheclassroom Click To Tweet

Finally Acknowledging Equity Issues in Rural Communities

The idea that issues of equity must be acknowledged and better addressed in rural areas and teacher prep programs is personal and pressing for Dr. Buchanan. She grew up in a rural part of Alabama, and she doesn’t see her experience growing up or her students’ experiences in Maine adequately represented. 

“In a lot of ways, especially around issues of equity, the attention in research and in practice for the last 30 years or so has been focused on urban areas,” she observes. “I think we are getting more attention turned toward rural areas,” she admits, “but it was one the reasons that drew me here to Maine.”

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