October 7, 2019

Students are under more pressure than ever before with the potential threat of school shootings, family stresses, a fractured national political environment, and the day-to-day demands of academics and extra-curricular activities.

Growing awareness of the need for school and community mental health resources compelled the UI College of Education to create a new Social Emotional Learning (SEL) track within its Teacher Leader Certificate. The certificate is a requirement of all Teacher Education Program (TEP) students and sets the College of Education TEP apart from many others in the nation.

“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or worried about what’s going on at home,” says Elizabeth Johnson, one of the almost 40 TEP students in the first SEL cohort. “Kids are expected to be at school all day and learn, but that can’t happen if they don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel comfortable.”

Johnson, of Deerfield, Illinois, is majoring in elementary education with endorsements in reading and English as a Second Language (ESL), and is completing the Social Emotional Learning track. She was a direct admit to the College of Education and is a College of Education Dean’s Scholar.

Elizabeth Johnson smiles
Elizabeth Johnson

“That’s really where SEL comes in at the most basic level: creating relationships with students so they feel safe and loved and they can tell you ‘I have this going on at home’ and you, as a teacher, can say ‘You know what, I’m here for you. I’m going to help you through that,’” says Johnson.

Johnson is excited about being able to connect her experience with her ESL endorsement to her work with SEL.

“We’re talking about students who might be immigrants, or refugees, or students who are born in the United States and their parents don’t speak English at home and thinking about those students as diverse learners and really meeting them where they’re at,” says Johnson. “Personally, I didn’t come from an area where there were many students who didn’t speak English, but knowing that even in places like Iowa City there are kids in my classroom who speak up to 10 different languages in the total classroom. And you really have to realize that and celebrate that and help use those strengths to help them learn.”

As part of the SEL track, Johnson spends 40 volunteer hours working with social workers or student family advocates in schools.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from working with my student family advocate is to view families as resilient, they care about their kids and love them with all their hearts. It’s our jobs as teachers to say ‘How can I help them help their child?’” says Johnson. “Because we see them all day every day, sometimes we notice things that parents might not see, and as teachers it’s our job to form that relationship not only with the students, but with the parents so we can work as a whole unit.”

Launched in Fall 2018 to help better prepare future teachers to navigate our complex world,  the SEL track was developed with the Iowa City Community School District based on curriculum used by school counselors across the nation.

Kari Vogelgesang, clinical assistant professor and director of professional development for the Baker Teacher Leader Center, developed these tracks to provide future teachers with powerful new tools to help develop the next generation of resilient, confident, emotionally well-adjusted students.

Kari Vogelgesang smiles in an office
Kari Vogelgesang

“Our cooperating administrators and teachers are telling us that they need these new skills,” says Vogelgesang “We’re providing the opportunity for students so they can be more prepared.”

Teacher Education Program students complete their certificate through the Baker Teacher Leader Center and choose from either traditional, special education, English language learners, or SEL tracks. The traditional track focuses on assessment, technology, diversity, and community engagement.

Students participate in a minimum of six workshops with faculty members or field experts and complete 40 volunteer hours tailored to the track in addition to their required coursework. In addition to the volunteer hours, the Teacher Education Program includes field experience hours in school settings well above and beyond state licensure requirements.

In the future, Vogelgesang plans to add global education, STEM, and research-focused tracks.

“The Baker Teacher Leader Center’s goal is to produce the most prepared teacher that we can possibly produce and we want to help support teachers once they are in the field. We want to be there throughout the life of their career, helping them advance and helping them feel supported and cared for,” says Vogelgesang. “We are trying to make sure that teachers have the appropriate tools they need in order to be successful in their career.”

Vogelgesang notes the Teacher Leader Certificate allows nimbleness in providing instruction that doesn’t require lengthy, state-approved curriculum changes, and this required certificate is one of the few such programs in the nation.

The TLC tracks get students into the habit of continual learning and thinking critically about how to apply that learning to their teaching. Students also learn how to track volunteer and professional development hours, which helps prepare them for licensure renewal requirements in the future.

“The tracks give students opportunities outside of the classroom and traditional field experiences to make sure that they are a good fit for teaching,” says Vogelgesang. “If teachers are ready for all the different obstacles and difficulties that come with teaching, they will stay in the profession longer.”

After graduation, Johnson is considering staying in Iowa to teach or teaching English abroad.

“I think a lot of times depending on our background and our privileges that we have it can really change how we approach students and what we assume about them when they’re having issues,” says Johnson. “Kids go through scary stuff sometimes and a lot of students in my classroom will go through things that I could not even dream of going through. And that’s just the reality I try and let it inspire me to do more for the kids that will be in my classroom.”

Vogelgesang says the College of Education prepares students to thrive and be successful when they enter their own classrooms.

“Hawkeye Teachers are the type of teachers who are leaders in the classroom and in the district in which they’re employed. Hawkeye teachers strive to go above and beyond the status quo,” says Vogelgesang. “And that makes me so unbelievably proud.”

Read more from the 2018-2019 Annual Report.