Students’ passion for teaching, learning and leading earns them recognition and opportunities
By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing
Public school teachers of the 21st century face perplexing issues, from curricula that fail to fit all students, to diverse classrooms of students with different learning styles, to standardized tests that drive lesson plans.
Texas State’s doctoral program in school improvement addresses these issues — and more.
“Students and faculty of the school improvement program work within such challenges to build the assets and strength of schools, communities and their citizens,” says Dr. Miguel Guajardo of the College of Education.
Doctoral students in the program focus on becoming educational leaders and agents of change. Three of those students — Israel Aguilar, Genise Henry and Mónica M. Valadez — are receiving extra support after being named Jackson scholars for 2010-2011.
The Barbara L. Jackson Scholars Network, part of the University Council for Educational Administration, provides mentors for graduate students of color who are studying in UCEA-member institutions’ doctoral programs in educational leadership.
“The fellowship partners you with a scholar from another university in the United States, someone who has similar research interests,” Aguilar says. “The mentor serves as someone you can bounce ideas off of, someone who can provide a different perspective, different options.”
Dr. Sarah Nelson of Texas State’s College of Education, herself a Jackson scholar mentor, says having three students chosen for the program is exceptional. “Most universities are awarded only one Jackson scholar,” she says. “To have three from a single university is quite an honor and speaks not only to the caliber of our students but also to the strong reputation our PhD program has in the field of educational leadership.”
Aguilar, Henry and Valadez are sharing a unique experience as Barbara Jackson scholars. Most important, they share a commitment to education and a determination to play a role in seeing that all students succeed.
Israel Aguilar recognized the need for change as soon as he left his native Rio Grande Valley to teach in Austin in 2007.
“When I was teaching in Brownsville all my students looked like me,” he says. “When I came to Austin I realized there was a whole other world. There were a lot of students who didn’t look like me. And that was fine, but I didn’t necessarily know how to meet their needs. I was unprepared for multicultural issues.”
Faculty turnover at the school — which Aguilar describes as a difficult school in a tough neighborhood — also concerned him. “When I started there, I was amazed at how many teachers the school had,” he says. “But I discovered that they needed to start with a lot of teachers because so many of them left during the school year. I firmly believe it was not associated with the children. The children come around — they did with me. I think the administration held teachers to a very unfair standard of accountability.”
Aguilar says the school insisted on 100 percent passing on the standardized tests. “We had about two months to prepare,” he says. “Some of the students didn’t know English and the test is in English. I would stay after class and stay during lunch to tutor kids and get them up to what at the time was the standard. I would leave burned out every single day. But I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do my best because I want to see what my potential is as a teacher.’”
A desire to move education forward led Aguilar to enroll in Texas State’s doctoral program in school improvement. One of his goals is to influence policy and planning to reflect the values and traditions of all types of learners.
“There are so many intersections of differences among students,” he says. “In schools we think about the most common ones — race, class, gender. But then there are other ones, like sexuality, language, ability. Our schools are becoming more and more diverse, and we need to remember that we’re dealing with humans, with children, with their experiences. ”
Another goal of Aguilar’s is for schools to be able to look beyond the standardized testing.
“We can take care of the requirements but still keep our dignity, still keep our humanity,” he says. “I think that what happens a lot of times is that administrators are so intimidated that they forget about that. They say we need to do what gets measured. So what gets measured gets done. And since emotions and friendships and creativity don’t get measured, they don’t get done. I hope to somehow change that idea that students who don’t pass the standardized tests are failures.”
Genise Henry says her best experience as a teacher was being part of the community and learning that success is not defined by passing a test.
“I would go to my students’ baseball games and other activities so that they knew I cared about them on a totally different level than caring that they did their homework each night,” Henry says of her experience teaching both elementary and secondary students. “I wanted them to know, ‘I care that you are a full child, I care about you as a person.’”
Henry says such connections are essential to making education more accessible and meaningful to all students. “I want to work toward ensuring that underserved populations of students are served in the best way we possibly can,” she says. “I’m looking at leadership and social justice. I’ve gone through the superintendency certification, so I’m really interested in looking at many different levels of school leadership.”
Henry met Guajardo and Nelson when they were recruiting for the doctoral program in school improvement. She decided that taking the next step in her education would help her bring about changes.
“I’m going to focus my research on African-American women and spirituality,” she says, “because I think that spirituality is what has grounded me and brought me to this point in my own education.”
She talks about what she calls her “10-year plan.”
“I’ll go back into school leadership as a principal, possibly take the reins as a superintendent, and then into a professorship,” she says. “You touch a lot of lives that way. The professors in this program have shown me how you can be part of everything in education, be a part of it all.
“We have to be connected,” she continues. “Everything needs to be connected from early childhood to higher education to the community to the families. If everything is connected we can really build upon everyone’s knowledge, everyone’s expertise, everyone’s resources and have a better educational system.”
Being selected as a Jackson scholar led Henry to an unexpected connection.
“I needed one more member for my dissertation committee and Dr. Nelson suggested a professor in Missouri,” Henry says. “That professor’s research is similar to the research I want to do.”
Weeks later, after finding out she had been selected as a Jackson scholar, Henry found out that her mentor was that same professor in Missouri.
“I got goose bumps,” Henry says. And it reinforced her belief in the importance of connections.
“In schools, when you don’t feel that real connection to life, to humanness, it’s a challenge,” she says. “But when you do have that connection it pays off in so many ways.”
Mónica M. Valadez didn’t start out as a teacher. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine art and went to work in commercial art. That wasn’t for her, it turns out, so she got a job in a daycare center.
“And I fell in love with the toddlers,” Valadez says. “One of my good friends there said, ‘You like working with kids so much, why don’t you apply at AISD?’ Which I did. I got a TA position working with students in the computer lab.”
There Valadez met Sarah Nelson, who at the time was the IT supervisor with the Austin Independent School District. With the encouragement of Nelson and several teachers, she earned her teaching certificate and began teaching at an Austin elementary school, where she often was reminded of her own childhood.
Valadez and her family emigrated from Mexico when she was 4 years old. Her father, a boot maker, was hired by a company in Moulton, a small town southeast of Austin. “We faced a lot of discrimination growing up in the school system there,” she says.
Years later, as a teacher, she discovered many things hadn’t changed at all. “The students and their families reminded me a lot of us and what we went through as a family in trying to negotiate and survive this educational system,” she says.
Valadez saw other problems, as well. “After I had been there for a while I realized that things at the school were very stagnant,” she says. “We didn’t seem to be advancing. I didn’t know what to do about it; so I would seek out people and say, ‘Let’s have a conversation. What is it they’re trying to do here to educate kids, and why isn’t it happening?’”
Like Henry, Valadez met Guajardo and Nelson when they were recruiting for the doctoral program in school improvement. She earned her master’s degree at Texas State and is focusing her doctoral research on the critical lenses of educators and educational leaders. “Dr. Guajardo has been a catalyst in creating spaces for my participation in education and community leadership at state and national levels,” Valadez says.
“Education is not just about the four walls where I come to work and teach my subject or provide leadership for a group of teachers,” she says. “It has to extend beyond that school building. I’m looking at critical lenses that help promote a greater scope of education. So that everyone knows education is more than just educating for math, science and reading. Education is being able to change society to improve how every population lives.”