By Peter Kelley
Morva McDonald was “completely and utterly surprised” to be named recipient of the 2011 S. Sterling Munro Public Service Teaching Award — but her colleagues likely were not.
That’s because they know that McDonald, associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, has been getting significant, even national attention lately for helping steer the college toward stronger, more fruitful relationships with partnering community organizations.
McDonald is associate director of the college’s Elementary Teacher Education Program, and director of the Ackerley Partner School Network, a partnership between the college and the Ginger & Barry Ackerley Foundation that helps support new teachers at high-needs schools.
“Each of us has worked closely with Professor McDonald over the past seven years,” education professors Charles Peck, Sheila Valencia and Elham Kazemi wrote in a combined letter supporting McDonald’s nomination. “During this time she has developed a highly innovative program for placing students in our Teacher Education Program in community-based organizations located in culturally diverse, poverty-impacted neighborhoods in the Seattle area. “This program is highly responsive to the pressing need to prepare new teachers to understand the resources and needs of these communities, particularly as these contribute to childrens’ success at school.”
Students now entering the college’s Teacher Education Program begin by spending six to 10 hours a week interning at one of 10 partnering community based, nonprofit organizations — places like El Centro De La Raza, art organizations and Boys and Girls Clubs — while attending their first courses full time.
Such connections are in keeping with McDonald’s professional view that young people learn in many settings, in and outside of the classroom, and that while community partner organizations gain from student volunteering, they also have much to give back, to students and the college.
“As a teacher, educator and researcher of teacher education, a central question in my work is how to prepare teachers to be successful in hard-to-staff schools with children who have been the most disadvantaged by the educational system,” McDonald wrote in a statement about her teaching philosophy. She wrote that she helps UW education faculty, K12 teachers and principals and community organization leaders “to draw on their collective expertise about how to improve educational outcomes — broadly conceived — for children in the Puget Sound area.”
McDonald has personal experience in hard-to-staff schools dating back to her days as a fourth-grade teacher in San Francisco’s Malcolm X Academy, where a startling 98 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunches and lived in nearly public housing. “There’s nothing like failure to motivate somebody,” she said. “And when you’re standing in front of a class and they are struggling to learn and you are struggling to teach, the typical response is to blame the kids, which is not very productive.” She realized she was hampered “by my lack of understanding of their lives beyond school — in their communities, neighborhoods and families.”
She told of how trying to help one struggling student prompted her to re-examine her own methods. “It forced me to think differently about who he was, and to look for where he was confident — and sometimes you don’t see that in the context of a classroom.”
While McDonald’s colleagues enthusiastically support her work and this award, she has kind words for them, too. “While a year ago, under the strain of budgetary limits, faculty could easily have decided not to continue this work they decided rather to re-commit to the partnership” because of its value to their own learning and to that of the college’s teacher education candidates.
McDonald wrote, “I believe the work we are doing with partner organizations in the professional preparation of teachers has the potential to change not only the experience of our preservice teachers but to provide important guides to other teacher education programs across the country focused on how best to prepare teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools.”
At the heart of it all is her view of community-based instruction. “Every moment is something that a teacher should be thinking about — what does it offer you as a student? How do you make it a learning opportunity for your kids?”
McDonald added, “If the basic assumption is that kids are smart, you’ve got to figure out where it is they display their smartness — and that’s sometimes not in your room.”
Then again, sometimes it is, but at unexpected moments: “Even snack time can be a teaching moment,” she said.
College of Education, University of Washington
Box 353600 Seattle, WA 98195-3600