By Dr. Stacey Ludwig Johnson, Acting Senior Vice President of Western Governors University (WGU) and Executive Dean of the School of Education
Without a doubt, our nation’s entire education ecosystem has been upended with pandemic-driven challenges and change. The most startling example has been a massive teacher shortage that has affected communities across the country: according to recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics, 44 percent of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies.
Despite such challenges, educational institutions can learn from the past while building for the future. For example, 25 years ago, Western Governors University became an early pioneer of competency-based education and ignited its “student obsession” – mapping relevant skills to ensure that a student’s investment of time and resources provides the most effective and efficient path to academic success. In tandem with setting up the building blocks of this supportive mission, leaders in education across the country partnered together to conduct research into the teaching and learning worlds, unearthing applicable standards by finding that both teachers and students perform at a higher level when held to higher expectations.
Solutions and discoveries such as these still ring true today. As we collectively work to innovate at scale, teaching colleges can be on the right track to producing the next generation of dedicated educators by finding the power between two commanding concepts: high standards and high support. Below are some ways that WGU’s School of Education has elevated this dynamic duo.
At WGU, we have always strived to change lives for the better by creating pathways to opportunity. During the pandemic, we witnessed so many of our demonstration teaching (student teacher) students nationwide experience a range of hardships, including financial burdens related to tuition, food, housing, health care, and childcare.
To help boost students economically during student teaching, WGU sprang into action and sought and received funding from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) II & III. 3,300 of our eligible student teachers received $3,000 emergency aid grants, with nearly $10 million distributed in total.
Our students are a vital part of not only our collegiate community but also the communities that they serve as educators. Students doing demonstration teaching commit to their classrooms and forego their previous ‘day jobs’ (or night jobs, or both) during these weeks, and need to feel empowered so they stay in the profession that they love. We encourage all education colleges to be proactive in seeking similar solutions – at the federal, regional, and local levels – that connect students to the support they need and deserve during challenging times. We’ll continue to seek support for students while they have these student teaching experiences.
When the pandemic left our students scrambling to adjust to a different world – juggling studies, in-person and remote work, families, household illnesses, stress, and more, it was incumbent upon us to make listening a priority.
And listening well includes acting on what the data is telling us. Our Environmental Barriers Program (EVB) tracks and categorizes specific challenges our education students have faced throughout the pandemic and other major events. Since March 2020, more than 27,000 of our impacted Teachers College students have been identified by faculty and/or self-identified as needing support due to a variety of barriers and stressors. The EVB protocol is enriched with data analytics across 16 hashtag categories, such as “illness” and “overtime,” that allow us to identify trends (such as the severity of impact, types of barriers/hardships students face, and geo-specific hotspots hit by hurricanes, fires and more), and quickly respond to help students stay on track with their education.
Sophisticated tools such as EVB represent a best practice internally any college could adopt, reflecting a high standard when it comes to proactively supporting students when they need it the most.
There is nothing one-size-fits-all about WGU – each student is valued and treated as an individual with unique needs and career aspirations. We believe that effective leadership is crucial in order to deliver exceptional education, and one support infrastructure that WGU has implemented and scaled is our Community of Care – an unparalleled model of 360-degree wrap-around student support where, from Day One, students have a caring team guiding them at each step of their journeys.
These are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned over the past two decades that other education colleges may want to think about and learn from for their students. Our mission to open pathways to opportunity and remove barriers to education for all students is unwavering, and providing a combination of faculty, staff, and student services support ensures each student has the necessary support they need to succeed.
When it comes to changing trajectories and reimagining education, we have no shortage of options: new curricula, technologies, pedagogies, and programs abound. And when it comes to teaching, we believe that it has always been and always will be a noble and worthwhile profession. Great teachers have always been learning-centered, and they seek excellence in their work. As we teach them, they can go on and teach us in the practices and discoveries they adopt as they become education leaders.
With the powerful duo of high standards and high support, education colleges everywhere can unlock an amazing amount of potential to help students fulfill their dreams of being educators that have a positive impact on the lives of others.