Cal Teach gives campus students skills to support equity in classrooms

Molly Duggan/Courtesy

eleste Gonzalez, a campus junior with a difficult socioeconomic background, understands the importance of having a good teacher.

“I wouldn’t be here at (UC Berkeley) if it weren’t for my teacher,” Gonzalez said. “For me, it was really difficult to get to college just because I was a first generation student. No one in my family had ever gotten a STEM degree.”

Gonzalez became a part of Cal Teach, a program for STEM students looking to delve into a career in education, because of the diverse community — made up of 65 percent underrepresented students –– and the potential to create change. She plans on going to graduate school for a diversity and equity master’s degree, with the goal of helping underprivileged students.

“There are not many minority students in the STEM field, especially women … and Cal Teach had a little bit more diversity,” Gonzalez said. “It really portrayed that community and comfort and encouragement to keep going in STEM because there are students out there that will need the support as well.”

The program includes a field component, through which campus students go to elementary, middle and high schools and work with students to gain practical experience working in urban settings. Students work with a multitude of districts, including the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco school districts, in addition to others in Albany and Richmond.

Elisa Stone, director of Cal Teach, was previously a biology teacher at Berkeley High School and had mentored some Cal Teach students. Cal Teach was created to help combat issues facing K-12 education and specifically focuses on math and science education because, according to Stone, California needs math and science teachers.

According to Stone, the program started 10 years ago and had just 16 students in its first semester. This past year, the program has 524 student enrollments and anticipates giving out 27 credentials. It expects to have more than 200 teachers credentialed by 2020.

Cal Teach students’ careers don’t end when they get their teaching credentials — they go on to become teachers. Seventy-five percent of Cal Teach grads go on to teach in urban schools. Additionally, 95 percent of Cal Teach teachers stay in classroom teaching, in contrast to the nation’s lower teaching retention rate.

The Cal Teach minor requires its students to take a course called “Classroom Interactions: Focus on Equity in Urban Schools,” which supplies its students with strategies that can be used in teaching to overcome inequalities in the classroom.

“We deal with racism, with homophobia, with gender disparities, with socioeconomic disparities,” Stone said. “There is an equity thread throughout all of our courses: Our teachers are interested in this and motivated by this.”

Daniel Golub, current professor of the “Classroom Interactions” course, became involved with Cal Teach because he wanted to help teachers-in-training be prepared to do their jobs.

Having completed a traditional teaching program with a master’s education, Golub said that he nonetheless felt very unprepared to manage a whole class.

By using his own experiences as a teacher, readings of studies and articles and the facilitation of discussion, Golub now teaches a class that bridges the gap between theory and practice.

“(The course) opens up a conversation on some of the theory in the readings and how they’ve seen that manifest itself in the field placement,” Golub said.

When Golub first started as a middle school math and science teacher, he faced a situation in which he found himself unsure of how to react.

“I remember being surprised. I was a middle school math and science teacher and some students started to use the ‘n-word’ in class and calling each other that,” Golub said. “And I was also taken aback because they weren’t African American students.”

Golub uses this experience and other similar ones in his classroom to open up a dialogue about the different kinds of challenges students might face as teachers so that they can plan for and create a course of action for these kinds of situations.

“One of the studies that we talk about, is that teachers — very well meaning and well-intentioned — will speak to African American students differently than to other students,” Golub said. “Unintentionally … they are holding those students to lower standards.”

Gonzalez pointed to application of the theory she learns as the best part of her experience. Her favorite experience in teaching was at Oakland International High School.

“I remember one time I was working with (a student) and I told him, ‘It’s OK if you’re not fast at doing math right now or don’t have the skills. You’ll be able to build upon them, and then you can go to college,’ Gonzalez said. “He opened his eyes really wide and was like, ‘College? I can go to college?’”

She reassured him that he is fully capable as long as he is willing to put in the work.

“(I told him), ‘Yeah, you can go to college. You just have to work hard: I see that you have the perseverance and desire to go to college — it’s possible to go,’ ” Gonzalez said. “He just looked at me and sat there amazed with what I told him.”

Relevant to this topic, the Graduate School of Education is hosting an event titled “Author Meets Critics – The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” on April 25.

Contact Clara De Martel and Avni Singhal at [email protected].