Marrying High Expectations and Compassion Through a Culturally Responsive Lens
Teaching is an ever-evolving practice and profession. When I was a student in elementary school, rote memorization was how we learned math. Fast forward to 2022 and my children are learning math concepts that build upon one another year over year. The best practices in teaching have changed; this is an evolution that’s constantly happening. As a result, we know more about how children learn and, at Relay, we continually use that knowledge to inform the curriculum in our teacher training program.
Four years ago, we began updating the curriculum for our teacher preparation programs. We were incredibly intentional about how we updated the curriculum because, after 11 years of success in training outstanding teachers for all students, we had come to be known for a certain level of excellence. There were now thousands of teachers known as Relay graduates and our reputation preceded us. Through intensive conversations, focus groups, surveys, data mining, thorough research, and careful collaboration, we are beginning to implement the lessons learned since 2018 through our curriculum this year.
The student experience -- both the aspiring teachers we work with directly and the K-12 students they teach -- is central to how we think about teaching. We’re preparing teachers to effectively build relationships and help each student be seen, valued and supported in the classroom. That’s reflected in our refreshed curriculum that is more content rich, culturally responsive, and flexible. Let’s dive a little deeper into what that means and how it improves our approach.
Going deeper with content knowledge
Having a content-rich curriculum means that Relay students specialize in a specific grade level and content area (like English Language Arts, math, etc). All faculty are subject matter experts, and lead courses on the content they themselves have taught in the classroom. This gives Relay students an opportunity to go beyond general teaching and supports them in helping their future students gain a true conceptual understanding of content. This moves teaching practices away from the rote memorization of yesteryear to the internalization of a skill and concept beyond the day of the test. Highly effective teaching builds onto the concepts that children are learning year after year and that’s the kind of teaching we are supporting.
Anchoring our work in supporting the individual
The next update to our curriculum is the integration of culturally responsive teaching. This pedagogy formerly functioned as a unit of learning in our current curriculum. Now, it is enmeshed throughout every course. That means whether an aspiring teacher is in a math class or learning theory, we intentionally consider the children in our classroom and their diverse backgrounds as assets that should be celebrated, affirmed, and included in learning materials. We empower teachers to prioritize trust and connection with the students in their classroom.
Culturally responsive teaching embraces questions like:
- What is the student experience?
- What cultural assets do students bring into the classroom?
- What additional support will students need to master each concept?
These are essential in creating a safe and affirming classroom environment for students from diverse backgrounds. We need to prepare teachers to bring this approach into their classrooms. And we at Relay need to do the same as we prepare teachers.
Culturally responsive teaching is inherently asset-based—it celebrates diversity in the classroom and focuses on the K-12 student experience. Relay teachers will now be accountable for demonstrating cultural proficiency in lesson plans, engaging with students, building classroom libraries, creating classroom policies and systems, and more. Our expectation is that this will promote intentionality for Relay-prepared teachers and empower them to advocate for culturally responsive practices once they become a teacher of record.
Providing flexibility to support today’s professionals
A content rich and culturally responsive teaching curriculum melds together with flexibility to round out our approach. Relay’s revised curriculum was designed for greater flexibility across program structures and offerings that meet the demands of a diverse and ever-changing regulatory landscape across multiple states. Relay lessons take place largely online with opportunities to learn in-person alongside a mentor teacher in the classroom. Now, making up courses will be easier. Additionally, Relay students can now take courses outside of their grade level and content area program. If they’re an elementary teacher who is interested in taking additional courses about diverse learners, they can do so with our flex course option.
Maintaining our unique dedication to practice
While strengthening our curriculum is exciting, many things will remain. The quality and consistency of our teacher training program is still exceptional. High-quality instruction will be delivered to Relay students from our excellent and experienced professors. Our practice-focused approach to teacher prep and how students are held accountable remains the same. After all, it is what makes us unique and allows us to fulfill our mission of ensuring students have access to high-quality teachers.
Learning happens when students feel connected, valued, and celebrated by a trusted teacher who has created a safe environment for them to express themselves.
Even though we began developing this curriculum four years ago, during the pandemic we became more acutely aware of how much connection and empathy are necessary components in any classroom and school community. While the pandemic highlighted the need for more culturally responsive teaching in schools, our journey to this point is very measured and intentional. Classrooms are becoming more diverse— we know that those cultural differences are assets that can and should be incorporated into learning.
Marrying high expectations and compassion through a culturally responsive lens is the key to academic success for PK-12 students and we’re mirroring that practice in our refreshed approach. We are setting Relay students up for success in their future classrooms as teachers by keeping high expectations for all and allowing for flexibility and opportunities to explore and share their interests beyond their grade level or content area focus. The more highly effective, diverse teachers we prepare, the closer we will get to fulfilling our mission of building a more just world where every student has access to outstanding educators.