Building Allies Through Community Engagement

You all know about the significance of “telling your story.” As an advocacy and public-relations strategy, teacher educators should regularly communicate with media outlets and policy makers to promote their programs’ strengths such as innovative practices, state-of-the art technologies employed by faculty, the qualities of matriculating candidates, and the impact program completers are making in PK-12 schools.

Indeed, AACTE has long encouraged members—collectively, through state chapters, and individually—to build outreach efforts through advocacy and communication strategies. Today I want to remind you of the importance of also engaging members of your local community in these efforts. I’m not talking about your service work here; this is about strengthening the relevance and perceived value of your institution and program within the community.

Community engagement is a tactic aimed at building an extended base of colleagues and informed allies who can advocate on behalf of your institution, programs, and candidates. For programs seeking ways to address the challenges facing them, community engagement is an important vehicle for sharing success stories and building public relationships that enrich programs and the experiences of candidates. After all, the local schools often represent the consumer base for your program completers, and strong relationships will enhance the clinical experiences for your candidates.

Given the current political agenda and with teacher education critics scrutinizing preparation programs from every angle, SCDEs are often on the defensive. If you wait until your work is under fire to reach out in the community, you appear less credible—even desperate—and seldom win allies. Rather than waiting for a crisis or a specific reason to communicate, proactively engaging the community lets you build positive relationships while addressing mutually recognized challenges. Involve stakeholders, community leaders from education and noneducation organizations, in a deliberate dialogue about PK-12 education reform, and develop collaborative solutions for improvement. Cast your net broadly to maximize the opportunity to develop new (and strengthen existing) partnerships, not only with schools but with a variety of business, civic, educational, and charitable organization leaders.

Here are just a few community-engagement strategies being employed by some of our profession’s leaders:

  • “I convene a Superintendent’s Circle five times each academic year involving all superintendents within a 60-mile radius of our campus. I also invite our five department chairs and associate deans. We hold a several-hour meeting over lunch to discuss common issues, provide superintendents a stress-free environment to discuss common problems, and seek ways the university can assist them.”—Rick Ginsberg, University of Kansas
  • “The Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools (CORAS), in partnership with the Ohio University Patton College of Education, is an organization composed of 136 school districts, institutions of higher learning, and other educational agencies in the 35-county region of Ohio designated as Appalachia. The mission of CORAS is to advocate for and support the public schools of Appalachia Ohio in the continuous improvement of educational opportunities available to all the region’s children.”—Renée Middleton, Ohio University
  • “Most of the schools in our community are part of our Partnership Network and we hold regular meetings where principals, teachers, and museum personnel come together for professional development and to discuss implementation improvements. Within our Network, our students and faculty participate in immersive learning projects—solving real-world problems with real-world solutions. One such example of an AACTE award-winning immersive learning program is the ‘Schools Within the Context of Community’ project.”—John Jacobson, Ball State University (IN)

Especially considering the aggressive public-relations campaigns of organizations such as the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), Teach For America, and others—which target not only the media and policy makers but also community organizations with negative messages about higher education-based educator preparation—our programs must cultivate their own networks of support. If we take the path of least resistance and fail to engage on professional issues and education policies, we leave our critics unchallenged in constructing and publicizing a narrative that suits their own purposes. Why suffer the consequences of disengagement when you have so much to offer?

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Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE