First Teacher Scholars Academy cohort to earn degrees

· 5 min read

First Teacher Scholars Academy cohort to earn degrees

Morgan Twiss, a senior in the Teacher Scholars Academy, works with a second-grader at Elliott Elementary, where she is student-teaching.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Morgan Twiss, a senior in the Teacher Scholars Academy, works with a second-grader at Elliott Elementary, where she is student-teaching.

Like most of the United States, Nebraska is experiencing a teacher shortage as its student body grows and diversifies. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln aims to be part of the solution.

Each year, the university graduates more new teachers than any university or college in the state. In commencement exercises May 20, degrees will be conferred to 203 new teachers, and among them are the members of the first cohort of the Teacher Scholars Academy.

The Teacher Scholars Academy in the College of Education and Human Sciences was established in 2018 through a financial gift with a goal to address the teacher shortage with highly-trained, community-oriented transformative educators who have the abilities to help all children learn and thrive.

The first cohort of 40 students arrived on campus in fall 2019. Students were selected for the program based on their academic achievement, resume, and a video essay. The academy employs a learning community model, community service, special classes and seminars to develop diverse educators prepared to be leaders in education and their communities.

Braden Foreman-Black, coordinator of TSA, said the academy focuses on diversity, equity, building community, mentorship and mental health.

“We are really focused on building community, including peer mentors, because we know that for teachers, having a strong community of other professionals in the field of education results in a higher retention rate,” he said. “We’re teaching people how to really build that community and to really trust each other to have courageous conversations and advocate for students. Our goal is to set them up to be experts in the field when they’re starting out teaching.

“And we have a focus on mental health — what it means to take care of ourselves so we can take care of and advocate for others.”

The graduating cohort began their academic careers living in the same residence hall, and taking some similar classes, including a seminar specific to the academy.

“That really lays a foundation of community for the group,” Foreman-Black said. “I’ve heard from faculty that as they continue through their classes, discussions they’re having in class about topics and issues are much deeper and more beneficial because they’ve developed those relationships with each other.”

Morgan Twiss works with second-graders at Elliott Elementary.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Twiss works with second-graders at Elliott Elementary, where she student-taught this spring, and will be a teacher in the fall.

For Morgan Twiss, who will graduate with the inaugural cohort May 20, the learning community in the academy helped her grow both personally and professionally.

“Even now, I’m still roommates with the same person from freshman year,” Twiss said. “We’re friends, but we’ll also bounce ideas off each other about how to approach school and classroom situations. I think teachers grow through collaborating and having a growth mindset, and it almost feels like having another colleague with a fresh perspective.”

The academy was formed to help address the state’s teacher shortage. Current data from the Nebraska Department of Education shows that during the 2021-22 school year, 208 teaching positions across the state of Nebraska were left unfilled, compared to just eight in 2010-11. The academy boasts a 94% retention rate for students going through the program, and most graduates will enter Nebraska P-12 classrooms in the fall.

“I think that’s noteworthy, especially because this class, as freshmen, were really impacted by COVID-19,” Foreman-Black said. “They were only in their second semester when we shut down that spring, and they still found a way to communicate with and lean on each other. That shows how strong that sense of community we’re building is.”

Of the 122 currently enrolled in the academy across four cohorts, 104 Nebraska communities are represented, including many rural communities. Foreman-Black said the academy has also increased the number of first-generation students in its first four years.

“That’s been a contributor to our success — adding future teachers that reflect the demographics of the state,” he said. “We have ethnic and socio-economic diversity in our cohorts, which adds representation to the table for those richer discussions about the future of education.”

Another strong component of the program is community service. All students spend time volunteering at locations such as Lincoln Lighthouse, the Bay, and other after-school and youth programs throughout their time in the academy. In the last two years, academy students have given 2,767 hours in service.

“We ask them to kind of identify what they want to learn from a community service project,” Foreman-Black said. “And after-school programs like Lincoln Lighthouse give our students an experience outside of a classroom, and what teaching looks like in an alternative suspension program and working with restorative practices.”

Foreman-Black said the academy offerings and curricula are continuously updated, based on feedback from students, faculty and educators, as well as trends that arise. For example, a classroom behavior management component was added when local public school administrators suggested it.

“We’ll also do some analysis and assessment with our graduates in the future, reflecting on their experiences in the program and in the classroom to see how the program made an impact in its first for years, and to inform us on how to proceed in the future,” he said.

The College of Education and Human Sciences is currently raising funds to continue to offer scholarships to the students enrolled in the Teacher Scholars Academy. The initial funding provided scholarships for four cohorts, and Foreman-Black said the goal is to establish and endowment for funding the program permanently.

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