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Partnerships and possibilities highlight Future Educators Conference

Partnerships and possibilities highlight Future Educators Conference

A pandemic initially expected to affect schools for a few weeks had dragged on for months. The circumstances were challenging the patience and resilience of students and teachers alike and impeding District 214’s usual practice of placing students in work-based learning experiences.

Against that backdrop, Director of Academic Programs and Pathways Megan Knight and Barbara Kain, the incoming Supervisor for Teaching and Learning, gathered at the drawing board, looking to create an elevated and unique learning experience for students in District 214’s Education Career Pathway.

What they designed and executed - with invaluable contributions from teachers and the District’s higher education partners - was a resoundingly successful Future Educators Conference. The virtual event in late January drew almost 300 students for one or more of 19 available sessions and earned plaudits from students and educators alike.

“This was a professional conference for students; that was our starting point,” Kain said.

And stage a professional conference they did - from pre-conference planning and communication, through thematic structure and the caliber and variety of both presenters and the sessions offered. Students could choose from among a variety of sessions, all linked to one of three strands: Innovation, Social Emotional Learning and Social Justice.

The relevance of that focus was not lost on Ricky Castro, who was honored as the 2017 Illinois Teacher of the Year and is a CTE and Spanish teacher at Elk Grove High School. “It’s about creating an equitable mindset, about understanding what that is and what it looks like in the classroom,” said Castro, who presented on equitable classroom management. “Part of being a teacher is understanding that we model and promote equity in our management practices and our grading and in the manner we approach the relationships within our classroom. That’s essential, especially in today’s society, because the voices and the narratives and the way we do things has to support democracy and has to support a vision of the future that embraces everybody.”

Joining seventeen District 214 teachers as presenters in support of that vision were educators from National Louis and Eastern Illinois universities, both of whom are partners with the District in offering dual credit courses to students working toward careers in teaching. National Louis University offers dual credit courses for students seeking careers in early childhood education; Eastern Illinois University does the same for students pursuing secondary education roles. 

“The idea that our students can walk out with four transcripted courses as part of an Education program is invaluable,” said Tim Kosiek, an Education Pathways instructor at Buffalo Grove High School.

Associate Superintendent Dr. Lazaro Lopez highlights the importance of higher education’s engagement with the pathway. “We’ve partnered with (National Louis and Eastern Illinois) because of the incredible value proposition they offer to our students.” Lopez added, “We want to ensure students in the Education Pathway are on a higher education pathway with the best likelihood of completion and ultimately, a job in our community.”

These opportunities include not only early college credit but also scholarships, including those from Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, a program that offers, in addition to financial assistance, an array of support services as future teachers transition from high school to postsecondary work. Two Golden Apple Scholars spoke at the conference about the opportunities created by their scholarships.

The conference also featured a celebratory signing ceremony in which students recited a pledge symbolizing their commitment to becoming educators. Beyond the emblematic value of the pledge, students’ entry into District 214’s Educator Prep Scholars Program carries a long-term benefit: Students who complete college coursework and earn certification in Education are guaranteed student teaching placements and job interviews with District 214 or partner elementary districts when jobs are open in a student’s area of certification.

This guarantee represents one tactic in 214’s broader strategy of bringing District 214 graduates back home to teach when the time comes. “The more we can grow our own in this profession and have them come back to us, the better,” Knight said. “They know the area because they were children of the community themselves. I think there is tremendous power there.”

Particularly, Kain and Knight agree, in encouraging racial and ethnic minorities to teach in their home communities. “We know we need to increase diversity both on the student side (of the Education Pathway) and teacher side. We know we need to bring these students back and we wanted to make sure kids saw themselves among our conference presenters,” Kain said, explaining the importance of including presenters who represented diverse demographics as well as teachers who are at varying stages of their career.

All of these themes were on display during the conference, which also was notable because of its Covid-19 pandemic context. In addition to giving students a professional learning opportunity in the absence of more traditional work-based learning experiences, the conference provided a lesson for students in the importance of flexibility and innovation.

“One thing I took away (from the conference) is that a teacher always needs a back-up plan,” said Buffalo Grove student Lauren O’Doherty, who plans to major in Elementary Education and minor in Spanish at Illinois State University. “One session was ‘Fundamentals of Teaching in the 21st Century,’ and the presenter stressed that teachers should always have a back-up plan if something goes wrong. Being prepared and organized and creative is part of teaching.”

In addition, presenters focused, throughout sessions on Social Emotional Learning, on the importance of simply caring about students. “What I really appreciated were students interacting with new teachers and hearing about sound practice from teachers across the District, from different content areas, which in itself was a new lens to hear it through,” Kosiek said. “There was this underlying theme in all of it, and that was “Know your students; value your students, care for your students.’ ”

In the end, District 214 Education instructors created the Future Educators Conference to both introduce students to learning experiences in teaching and to create opportunities for students who can and will make a difference for future generations, in much the same way that today’s teachers benefitted from similar guidance.

“I became a teacher because of a teacher who taught me to think about the world differently,” Knight said. “Teachers change lives.”