A license to teach in the state of Arkansas. Placement within a district in need of teachers. One-on-one coaching. Quarterly professional development days, filled with information, reflection, and community. Access to dedicated instructors and staff, experts in teacher preparation and veterans of classrooms themselves. There’s a lot of value to joining the Arkansas Teacher Corps (ATC), which explains why the longstanding statewide program is thriving across the Natural State. Recently, RSC tagged along with ATC, an Arkansas Delta regional hub partner, for one of these professional development days.
The Arkansas Teacher Corps is a post-baccalaureate licensure program for emerging teachers across Arkansas, although most are in the rural agricultural Delta region. The three-year program, which is housed in the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, is composed of over 80% rural educators. Additionally, their 267 teachers have held positions at nearly 100 schools across 40 districts. Reflecting the diverse communities from which they come from, 80% are teachers of color, and occupy all ages of the age-spectrum. The ATC program fills a critical role in addressing a significant teacher shortage in Arkansas, which is concentrated primarily in the southern and eastern parts of the state.
Brandon Lucius, Executive Director of the Arkansas Teacher Corps, is a former high school biology teacher. As Executive Director, he now oversees a team of coaching professionals who guide fellows through the three-year program. Fellows receive weekly personalized coaching, skill-building within a subject matter cohort, and learn socially through a peer-to-peer network. These all-corps events are highlighted by quarterly ‘All Corps Saturday’ professional development events. Unfortunately due to an unusually prolonged winter storm the most recent workshop was moved to virtual, as fellows live in all parts of the state and many rural roads were impassable. Nevertheless, the transition to virtual learning and digital engagement highlighted the spirit, passion, and dedication of the 60+ fellows and ATC staff.
The themes and focuses of the days are always unique, with the goal both to train complete education professionals, and to support the individuals within each cohort. The days are “a time for everyone in the corps to come together to learn. They are planned specifically with fellows’ needs in mind and differentiated according to what we're seeing in the classroom, usually around planning, instruction, classroom culture, and generally just emotional intelligence and resilience” explains Brandon. The events build community, strengthen solidarity, and combat potential professional isolation.
“The learning environment is very relaxed. It's a very informal and collaborative space. Fellows are definitely challenged to look at themselves in their practice critically, but in a safe way where they can explore and really think about things differently”
As Brandon’s teaching background enables an empathetic and experienced perspective from leadership, similarly the majority of his coaching team are part of the 104 graduates of the program. For content-specific programming, a deep bench of partner instructors are able to provide detailed training in areas like science education, literacy, art, CTE, and ELL.
All Corps Saturdays are a chance to focus on both content areas and for the group to come together and support one another. ATC coaches create a safe space, highlighted by a succinct shared meeting norm: “what is said here stays here; what is learned here leaves here.”
While we all know that the opening moments of zoom calls can sometimes feel robotic or impersonal, that was far from the case for this cohort of fellows and ATC staff. An opening ice-breaker asked fellows to share celebrations of themselves and/or their students, and the love and support teachers showed each other underlined that this was a close-knit community. Teachers proudly celebrated their students achieving high passing test scores, the completion of a rainwater collection project, finally reaching behavior management expectations, among many others. Looking inwardly, teachers noted that they had made it through a week without water (due to complications from that week’s winter storm), had led their school’s Martin Luther King Day programming, and successfully practiced self-care.
On this particular All Corps Saturday, ‘Challenging Conversations’ was the topic of choice for the opening Transformational Teaching session. Split into three breakout rooms, Arkansas Teacher Corps fellows shared recent or upcoming difficult conversations in their lives. Through shared reflection in an inclusive and supportive environment, fellows build relationships and trust. To Brandon, this is central to the mission of ATC: these days are “fellows coming together, sharing with each other, and seeing that they're not alone in the challenges that they're facing in their school. They lean on each other to share resources, to problem solve, or just to get encouragement. That way, they can go back to school and not feel like they're on an island or that they're doing the work in isolation.”
Following the first session, fellows dove into one of three skill-building sessions: scaffolding, leadership, and time management. While RSC Hub lead Brandon Lucius led the leadership session, RSC joined in on Teacher Development Director Kendra Ide’s session on scaffolding. Scaffolding learning through the prism of literacy, fellows shared strategies and identified additional techniques for helping students learn to read. One fellow shared his own experience with a new student who spoke almost no english, and reflected on how he sought to encourage her by sharing his own nascent journey learning spanish. Others considered that they used a few of the strategies listed, and were excited to try new ones.
“I think the beauty of these days and bringing everyone together is that it's really revitalizing. There are lots of specific skills and strategies that we see fellows take away. And that's one thing that we actually track pretty closely on our end of day surveys is [that they] have one concrete strategy they can use on Monday.”
As morning turned to afternoon, the ATC instruction model continued to make space for uplifting the knowledge gleaned from those who had grown through the program. RSC sat in for the science education section, which examined the potential for A.I. to assist with science labs. This session was led by an ATC graduate, which for Brandon is a core feature of the program: “for a lot of our third years who are more advanced, we really try to work with them to build their leadership.
If they already know the content, then we work with them to be able to lead a content session, or to lead a breakout choice session on some skill that they're doing really well in their classroom. So it's not just ATC staff as the experts, but fellows are actually learning from each other, and in some cases, can better articulate their challenges and solutions because they've been in that same position.”
As the day wrapped up with small-group reflections and closing announcements, it was clear that this professional development workshop mattered. For fellows, this was twofold: they experienced peer support, encouraged others, and reflected on their own skills, perspectives, and experiences. The diverse cohorts received technical training on their content area from experienced professionals who, importantly, understood the particular context that they teach in. Additionally, and crucially, fellows were empowered to share their successes and skills with an earnest and inclusive audience, giving color to the age-old axiom that the best way to learn is to teach.
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