Dianna Murray, a 15-year-old West High student, hopes to be a teacher to “inspire children to get better.”
Up until last year, Dianna Murray had never had a teacher who looked like her.
The Madison school district’s teachers are about 88% white. The student body, on the other hand, is only about 44% white.
“White teachers don’t seem like they know how to handle people of color,” says Murray, a 15-year-old West High School student. “They have low expectations and low standards [for minority students]. They don’t push them to be their best.”
Murray says there’s only one culture in her school: white culture.
“It just doesn’t work,” she says.
But thanks to a new teacher training program in the Madison schools, Murray has a chance to be part of a solution. She’s one of 11 students selected for the first class of an initiative called Tomorrow’s Educators for Equity in Madison, or TEEM, which is designed to increase diversity among teachers in Madison schools by training current students who could one day teach in the district.
Similar teacher training programs, known as “Grow Your Own” initiatives, are in place throughout the country. Last year, Madison launched “Forward Madison” in partnership with the UW-Madison School of Education with the goal of training and retaining staff through mentoring and professional development. TEEM is an offshoot of this project.
“Diversity is a real challenge in Madison,” Madison school superintendent Jennifer Cheatham says. “We have a strong group of teachers that I definitely believe in, but they are majority white, female teachers.”
Cheatham says that white staff are able to “teach all students well,” but believes that increasing diversity would help provide role models for students of color and help foster “deep, meaningful relationships that help challenged students.”
The first TEEM cohort includes four students from West, three from La Follette and two each from East and Memorial high schools. To be eligible, students must be freshmen at a Madison high school who come from “diverse backgrounds.” There’s an emphasis on students of color, but low-income students are also considered. Students must have at least a 2.75 grade-point average in math, science, social studies, English and world languages. Fifteen students applied to be part of this year’s TEEM program.
“I was part of the selection committee, and I can tell you, there were times when my UW partners and I got very emotional,” says Rodney Thomas, special assistant to the superintendent. “I honestly could say [that] this cohort brings an affinity and a passion to want to be educators.”
The TEEM students this week started a three-week summer training session at UW-Madison put on by the PEOPLE Program for low-income and minority students. In the fall, TEEM sophomores will explore the impact of teaching in the classroom and the community, Thomas says.
The second year focuses on the Madison school’s “Great Teaching Matters” framework, which emphasizes culturally responsive practices. In the third year, when the students are seniors, they will shadow a teacher to observe educational practices in a classroom setting and will cap the year by teaching a lesson on their own.
From there, the TEEM scholars will apply to college and continue to receive support from the school district as well as UW-Madison. College scholarship money is a goal, but has not yet been finalized. The hope is the students will eventually become Madison teachers.
“We’ll definitely form a tight bond,” Murray says of her cohorts. “We’re gonna become close and do some pretty amazing things together. We’re going to change the way [the Madison district] does things.”
Murray’s mother is an educator, working toward a doctorate at UW-Madison with hopes of becoming a professor. Murray remembers having her as a substitute teacher and says her mother inspired her to pursue an education career.
“I’ve always wanted to, in some way, inspire children to get better,” Murray says. “Teaching is one of the best ways to do it.”
The Forward Madison project is supported for three years by CUNA Mutual and UW-Madison, but this year former Madison teacher Jan O’Neill and her husband, Hank Kuehling, pledged additional funding to the “Grow Our Own” program as well as the TEEM scholars.
“There are so many people in our community who care so deeply and who really know that education is the key,” says O’Neill. “It’s a wonderful way to start to address equity issues in our community.”
O’Neill says she was motivated to donate the money — an inheritance from her mother-in-law — after learning about racial disparities in Madison via the Race to Equity report. But with nearly 400 minority teachers needed to bring the district’s teacher demographic in line with the students, O’Neill knows that more funding is needed to sustain the diversity programs.
That’s why she’s encouraging community members and local nonprofits to commit to supporting ongoing diversity initiatives within the school district.
“We’re going to have to build this out, and it’s going to take a long time,” O’Neill says. “We as a community should step up to that challenge.”