By Ryan Yuenger
One southwest Michigan educator has been selected for a leadership position in a group dedicated to improving education for all Michigan students, especially the most vulnerable.
Jennifer Swisher-Carroll, an English and Writing teacher at Edwardsburg High School, was the only southwest Michigan teacher named to the Michigan Teacher Leadership Collaborative by The Education Trust-Midwest and Teach Plus.
The collaborative, a group of 20 teachers chosen from across the state, allows select educators share their expertise around equity-focused instructional practices, deepen their knowledge of education policy and gain a voice in decisions that affect historically underserved students and the teaching profession.
“There is no more important time for educators to make their mark on education policy and on the systems that make the greatest difference for the success of students, especially low-income students and students of color,” said Ben Locke, Teach Plus Michigan Executive Director. “Teach Plus is excited to partner with The Education Trust-Midwest to grow and empower teacher leadership and voice across Michigan, and to place educators at the forefront of solutions and change that will shape the future in our state.”
Swisher-Carroll is passionate about teaching writing, and has previously served as president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English. After being named to the collective, she took the time to explain what equity in education means, what she can do as part of this select group and why English is so important in the digital age:
How did you get involved with / introduced to the Michigan Teacher Leadership Collaborative?
I was actively searching for ways to expand my impact as an educator and serve as an educational leader beyond the classroom. I have been in the classroom for 17 years, but I feel as if I still have so much to learn. I’m a bit of a geek, as I love valuable professional development, so I was searching for a way to learn and stretch myself. I love new challenges, so I wanted to find something that would force me out of my comfort zone. I found MTLC, co-convened by The Education Trust-Midwest and Teach Plus, through this search. There was an application and interview process that I was invited to be part of last spring, and I was thrilled to be named as a member of the cohort a few weeks later.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this select group?
Being an educator is an incredibly rewarding profession, but it is also one fraught with challenges. Each historical moment offers unique obstacles, and the moment we are experiencing is no different. Being a part of this group is a commitment to stepping up to face the challenges that face not only my district, but the state as a whole. I believe that the existence of a group like this is evidence that educators are not passive and are willing to face obstacles head-on. We are in classrooms with students every day, and we understand the complexities and difficulties that our students face. We understand the problems and want to be a part of the solutions. I look forward to using my voice and influence to help strengthen the educational supports and learning environments that will help all students in Michigan grow and learn.
How does being a part of this group help you in your classroom?
It offers me new lenses and perspectives. Michigan is such a diverse state, and while educators and students across the state have much in common, we are very different, too. Through my interaction with others, I’m broadening my understanding of what students experience across the state. As a part of this cohort, I’m working with educators who are currently in classrooms all over the state, and we are learning from each other and sharing pedagogical practices, and this is knowledge I can apply immediately to my own students in my classroom.
What does equity in education mean to you and how do you apply that in the classroom?
Equity is not about everyone having the same materials, supports, or experiences. Equity is about ensuring that each student has what they need to be successful, learn, and grow. There are many examples of how equity is applied in the classroom, but I’ll give you just one example from mine. I’m an English Language Arts teacher, and writing is at the core of my curriculum and classroom practice. Each student arrives on the first day as a completely unique writer. My goal for my students is not to make them the same, or to make them “equal.” My goal is to meet each writer where they are and move them forward. This looks different for each student, and I strive to provide the necessary tools and support for each writer to move forward in their own way. It’s not about a “one size fits all” approach. It’s about recognizing each student as an individual and providing what is needed for that student to grow.
How important is teaching the fundamentals of written communication and creative expression in the digital age?
Communication of any kind, written or otherwise, is about listening, taking in information, thinking and processing, and responding. It’s also about understanding your audience and responding appropriately and clearly. It is vital that students understand how to express themselves clearly and with confidence in order to be successful in whatever they choose to do or become once they leave the classroom.
What is the greatest challenge you face in teaching English to high school students?
My challenges as an English teacher in Southwest Michigan are not that different from what other teachers are experiencing locally and across the state. One issue that impacts the education of students (in my classroom and in others’) is some of the divisiveness and conflict that exists among the stakeholders of education. I truly believe that teachers, administrators, parents, and policy makers only want the best for students. However, disagreements over how best to improve education can create conflict. I believe that it’s important that we listen to each other and assume best intentions, but first and foremost: we must work together to find common ground in order to support the diverse needs of our students. This is one of the things I’m most looking forward to in regards to my work with the MTLC. I will be able to work with other teacher leaders and engage with a range of stakeholders to develop and advocate for equity-driven policy solutions for students in Michigan.