What Does it Mean to Truly Support Teachers?

September 14, 2022
Teacher Preparation
Culturally Responsive Teaching
Brittni Johnson
Relay staff

Several years ago when I was just starting my Relay Master of Arts in Teaching program, I had an experience that would change the trajectory of my career.  

At that time, I was a new college graduate in the throes of a family tragedy. This caused me to fall behind in my Relay coursework. Then I fell ill and missed a class, which was unusual for me. Instead of focusing on my missing coursework, my advisor reached out and simply asked: “How are you?”  

While worrying about how to navigate my grief, the program, and life after college, I was met with compassion, intensive support, and sound advising. My student advisor saw me and honored my needs—even if they needed to be met with resources outside of the program. 

My advisor collaborated with me on a plan to catch up in my coursework while fulfilling the requirements of my job and certification. Every week I had a set time during her office hours to catch up on my work, with access to support if needed. This is a small accommodation, but it felt like a grand gesture that  allowed me to finish the program with confidence, support, and new skills for how to support my students.

My experience with the holistic approach to student advising took place in 2013 under the leadership of Dr. Nichelle Bowes, who designed how Relay supported teachers as the Assistant Dean of Students in Newark. Now we’re using that work as a foundation for how we support all Relay students.  

The importance of holistic, culturally responsive advising 

The foundation of our approach to preparing and supporting students is to center their humanity and keep their unique needs at the forefront. We ask our students questions like… 

  • How are you (really...)?
  • What supports do you need outside of the institution? 
  • Is the support we’re providing working for you? 
  • Is this the right position or program for you? 

We’re not just looking at the data to see how students are doing. We check in with them frequently about how they're progressing, and strategize solutions with them as they face challenges. This approach is particularly rooted in culturally responsive advising, which is designed to meet the needs of students from traditionally marginalized communities, who historically may not have felt welcomed or cared for at institutions of higher education.

In order to support this model, we've shifted how we staff our Student Advising team. As in many other institutions of higher education, we previously asked faculty members to serve as advisors, adding another job onto their plates as academic experts, curriculum writers, and course facilitators. Now we’re hiring dedicated student advisors who receive specialized, ongoing training in advising.

Each student advisor has a caseload of 90-170 students, less than half of the median caseload of 300 students reported in a NACADA survey of institutions of higher education. Students check in with advisors at least five times a term, and advisors offer additional office hours multiple times per week.

These advisors act as a point of contact to a team of experts from across Relay who specialize in licensure requirements, academics, financial aid, admissions and enrollment. This forms a “relay” of support around each student to keep them moving towards their goal every day.

This approach is backed by research. Students, whether in graduate school or in grades K-12, thrive when they are valued as individuals. And of course, culturally responsive, inclusive, and human-centered advising is a way to model for our teachers how they can support their PK-12 students. 

Balancing intentionality, power, and responsibility  

Being intentional about our supports for aspiring teachers starts before and goes beyond their time at Relay. It begins with how the Student Affairs and Student Services teams talk to prospective students. It is the holistic, individualized academic and non-academic support we provide to current students with things like wellness resources. It’s in the content we create for students in specific regions or based on common challenges. It is the way we engage with our aspiring and current teachers and help them get to know their new school community.  

The teachers we support are held to high expectations for good reason. They will carry a huge amount of power in their classrooms and in the lives of students. In being intentional with supporting our students, centering their power in the training program, we are modeling how to be responsible with influence. The goal is for Relay students to eventually center the power of their own students and create a supportive classroom environment so that children can excel academically. 

This vision for student advising was developed to ensure that all students receive the support they need -- just as I received when I was a student at Relay. Who I was and what I was going through made me who I am AND made me a great teacher. I feel privileged in being able to bring that level of intentionality and support to future teachers.

Brittni Johnson

Brittni Johnson is the Director of Student Affairs, Student Advisement and Success at Relay Graduate School of Education. She has served in many roles at Relay, including Student Ombudsman, Kappa Delta Pi Chapter Counselor, and Assistant Professor of Practice for Relay DC and Relay Newark. Before joining as faculty, Brittni taught beautiful bright-eyed first graders at Uncommon Schools - North Star Academy through Teach for America, and received her Master of Arts in Teaching through Relay. Brittni has dedicated her work to identifying the best ways to support teachers/leaders while considering mental health and well being, and is passionate about growing into a better leader to support them and their PK-12 students.