One of the pillars of the NYU Steinhardt Teacher Residency is to help new educators establish a connection to the community in which they teach. Ayanna Taylor, clinical assistant professor of English education, and Heather Woodley, clinical assistant professor of TESOL, bilingual education, and foreign language education, are faculty members of the residency program. Both professors are leading advocates and practitioners of culturally-responsive, community-oriented education.
Learn how Professor Taylor and Professor Woodley got into this work, why they are so passionate about it, and how they structured the teacher residency so NYU Steinhardt’s resident interns become knowledgeable and invested in building community within their schools.
Q: You both bring a passion and commitment to building community in K-12 education. What experiences led you to focus on this work?
Professor Woodley: It starts with my experience as an NYC public school teacher in the Bronx: my strongest teaching came out of community and family connections, so I’ve seen the impact it can make as a teacher. I also think about my own school experiences growing up and how my parents were either empowered or disempowered, and how that impacted me as a student. And then there’s the third layer of now being a public school parent. I’m thinking about how I can be involved in my son’s schooling, things I’d like to see happen as a parent, and how to identify ways to help teachers create space for families.
Professor Taylor: I started my career in Paterson, NJ. There was a huge immigrant population, in addition to a large African American population. Having to figure out how to communicate with all of those parents – in multiple languages and cultures – was so very important. For the immigrant families especially, there was a lot of confidence in the school system and in the teachers. I felt a huge sense of responsibility because of that.
Q: And what about your focus on serving emergent bilinguals – tell us more about why this is a priority for you?
Professor Woodley: When we think about emergent bilinguals – students who are becoming bilingual – we have a lot of different types of students and growing populations. We have refugees and asylum seekers, immigrant youth, and students who were born in the U.S. whose native language is not English – there’s a misnomer that every student who is bilingual is an immigrant. We have communities who function and thrive in languages other than English. We know that supporting students in their home language helps their overall academic trajectory. If we want students to feel comfortable in school, we need to say that “this is a place for you, and your language, and your culture.”
Professor Taylor: As teachers we have the responsibility to teach all students. Students won’t learn in a classroom unless they feel cared for and supported. And part of that work is acknowledging who they are, and acknowledging there’s differences in how we communicate in our cultures. At a base level, being able to communicate with your parents and students in their own language – or having someone mediate – is critical for students to feel valued in the classroom.
Q: You’re both involved with the Families for Radical Education & Empowerment organization. What are your goals?
Professor Woodley: I created the organization with a handful of goals in mind; one is about parent and family advocacy. It’s this idea of helping parents and families know their rights. We aim to help families understand when and how to speak up if they feel that things go on in schools that are unjust. We’re looking at things like didactic homework policies as well as free school lunches that are unhealthy and harmful to students’ attention and learning. Additionally, we provide tools to create social justice-based, anti-racist, anti-bias, and inclusive education in the classroom and at home. We provide book lists, organize community outings, and help families and communities form partnerships.
Professor Taylor: A lot of parents don’t know their rights, and not just legal rights, but rights to walk into a school building and ask questions about their children. Or the right to ask a teacher for [background on] a test and what lessons were taught before the test was given. I wanted to get involved with Professor Woodley’s organization because I found myself doing this type of advocacy on my own.
Q: Professor Taylor, tell us more about this advocacy work. You coach on a variety of leadership issues including culturally responsive education. How do you approach this work?
Professor Taylor: I do a lot of work with school leaders, mostly in urban areas. There’s an assumption that school leaders in urban areas have a grasp of culturally responsive teaching because there are more leaders of color in urban school districts. What we notice is that there is disproportionality everywhere, even when you have leaders of color. During school walkthroughs with school leaders, we discuss what we see related to potential biases with who is getting corrected more. For example, the boys may get less attention, or maybe they get a lot of attention but it’s negative attention. I also help school leaders look at the curriculum and if every student has an opportunity to see themselves in that content.
Q: How do you bring all of this passion and expertise into the NYU Steinhardt Teacher Residency?
Professor Woodley: Look at the structure of the program itself. We built this program from the ground up, and we (the faculty) all agreed on starting with the ideas of building community and understanding identity. In the very first module in the program, we work with our resident interns to examine questions like, who are our students? Who are their communities? Who are their families? And we discuss how to bring this into the classroom in a positive way. We kick things off by eliminating any deficit models of thinking and the savior model of teaching. We even deconstruct the urban drama in film and the idea of communities getting “saved.”
Professor Taylor: By module three, it’s clear to our resident interns that we focus on students. While we have content-specific modules, the first three modules center on this idea that we are teachers of students; not teachers of science, math, or language arts. We also focus on marrying theory and practice. We don’t just suggest resident interns get to know their communities. Instead, we provide specific examples of what this looks like in practice. In Professor Woodley’s module, resident interns do a community walk and they make connections between community and instruction. And in my module, while it could be labeled “classroom management” it is about building positive classroom culture and how that connects to our students’ lives and experiences. In all of these lessons, there’s a consistent theme of family and community.
Q: Why is building community and empowering families a key pillar of the Teacher Residency?
Professor Taylor: It’s the foundation of anything you want to be successful at – this idea of building relationships. I don’t think one can be a successful teacher without having that mindset.
Professor Woodley: Experience and research backs this up. Everything points to this idea as a key lever for all of the other academic things that follow. We look at our work as teachers and teacher educators through the lens of activism and social justice. It’s not just about making change in the building we’re working in; it’s supporting people outside the building – to both validate where they come from and their knowledge base. There’s expertise that our families and communities bring that is too often ignored or considered less than. We aim to incorporate this in our classrooms.
Q: You’re creating a new generation of teachers who deeply understand how to build pathways to community. What gets you most excited as you look to the future of the Teacher Residency?
Professor Woodley: I’m really excited that the people I’m working with are genuinely invested in being teachers and that they go into classrooms prepared. I don’t get the sense that these are people who will do this work for two years and then go on to another career. It feels like we’re really supporting teachers for the long run, which will ideally support students.
Professor Taylor: What I’m always focused on is our larger social justice mission. Our expansion just means that we’re impacting more and more communities across the country. We have this cohort of like-minded social justice teachers that we’ve trained all over the country. And that’s pretty exciting.
Interested in making an impact in communities across the country? Learn how you can launch a career as an educator through NYU Steinhardt’s Teacher Residency.