Preparing Teachers for the Challenges of Urban Education
By Claire L. Burgess
Donna Jones, a recent graduate of UAB's Urban Teacher Enhancement Program, at Birmingham's Robinson Elementary School
In many urban schools, the biggest dropout risk is at the head of the class. Faced with crowded classrooms, inadequate funding, and a host of other challenges, teachers in these schools are often tempted to quit the profession entirely or transfer to a suburban school at the first opportunity. According to 2005 data from the Alabama Department of Education, approximately 25 percent of new teachers in high-poverty school districts in the Birmingham area leave their positions within their first three years.
Deborah Voltz, Ed.D., knows what those teachers are going through. She taught at a high-needs elementary school in Birmingham for five years before joining the UAB School of Education. But she also is convinced that helping urban students take their first steps to a better life is one of the most rewarding roles any teacher can play. “I feel like I was able to make a real difference, and that was important to me,” Voltz says. “Yes, there were challenges. But there would be challenges anywhere.”
Desire for a Difference
Voltz is the director of UAB’s Center for Urban Education and leader of its “signature activity,” the Urban Teacher Enhancement Program (UTEP). The program provides budding educators with specialized training and mentoring to help them thrive among the unique challenges of urban schools. Recruits are often recent college graduates, people interested in changing careers, or paraprofessionals already employed in urban schools. What they share is a desire to make a difference—and the inherent traits necessary to succeed, says Voltz. “Our interviews are tailored around [education researcher] Martin Haberman’s studies on star teachers in urban schools,” she explains. “We look for characteristics like perseverance, optimism, and a belief in children’s ability to excel.”
UTEP students go through the traditional teacher-education program “just like everybody else,” explains Voltz. Along the way, however, their coursework is enhanced with research-proven techniques and hard-earned wisdom from veteran teachers.
Students in the UTEP program learn the teaching strategies that are most effective with groups of culturally diverse children, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. They explore the importance of collaboration—not only how to build relationships with administrators and other teachers “but also how to work with parents as part of the education team, and to work with social services to reach out to help the whole child,” says Voltz. Students also gain insight into the sociocultural backgrounds of the children and families they’ll be working with, as well as the communities where they will teach.
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Throughout their time in UTEP, Voltz adds, students also focus on one of the most important qualities a teacher can possess: an affirming attitude. “That’s the belief in children’s ability to excel, the inclination to build on students’ strengths and to value the culture that they bring,” she says.
UTEP classes are co-taught by UAB faculty and master teachers from the program’s partner school districts, who “are able to give up-to-the-minute examples of whatever it is we’re talking about,” says Voltz. When it comes time to put this information into practice in student-teaching experiences, UTEP students are assigned to one of 11 Birmingham city schools in which teachers participate in ongoing professional development courses led by the National Alliance for Effective Urban Education. After graduation, UTEP students continue to be mentored by master teachers who know exactly what they’re going through, Voltz adds.
Since it was launched in 2005, UTEP has graduated close to 50 teachers who are now successfully teaching in urban schools, many of them in the Birmingham area. That is a point of pride for Voltz, a Birmingham native who attended West End High School. “This is my home,” she says. “I have a vested interest in the welfare of this area and its youth, and I am very passionate about it.”