Q&A with Dr. Andrea Kent

Dr. Andrea Kent is the dean of the University of South Alabama’s College of Education and Professional Studies, which is the largest teacher-preparation program on the Gulf Coast. The College enrolls about 2,100 students across 15 academic programs at five degree levels, ranging from the baccalaureate to the doctoral degree. Dr. Kent was a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Deans for Impact’s Impact Academy.

What was your first role working in education?

I began my career in education as a third-grade teacher. I always knew I was going to go into education. I finished college in three and a half years because I knew when I started what I wanted to do. But about 10 weeks after college graduation, I was like, “What am I doing? Do I really want to be an educator?”

But once I started teaching, I loved it. I knew that education was my career. My experience as a teacher and literacy coach was always at low socioeconomic-type schools, and sometimes you felt like, I am it for this child. I knew the difference I was making in their lives by not only helping them with their academics – which could change their lives – but also because I really cared about them.

What was the turning point for your switch from K-12 to higher education?

To be honest, I never considered higher education. I always thought I would land in curriculum at the central office. Higher ed never even crossed my mind. That was a twist. But when I was a literacy coach, a lot of the work I did was with teachers, and then through a grant, I worked with pre-service teachers. Once I started working with adults, I could see that my impact was exponential. If I could touch the life of a teacher, who is then going to touch the lives of 20 students times 20 years, that’s more than I could ever do as a classroom teacher. That helped me wrap my head around why I could be passionate about working in higher education, too.

What is one pivotal moment in your career in educator preparation that left a positive impact on you or others?

In my first couple of years at the University of South Alabama, I was teaching reading courses to about 150 undergraduate students a year. And in those first couple years, I would have a handful of students who I knew had really caught the passion for the difference they could make through teaching, and specifically through reading instruction. If you can’t read, there’s just not much else you can do; it impacts the quality of your life. Seeing those pre-service teachers understand that, and then understand that they could make a difference in the lives of children — I knew that I was in the right place.

About 85 percent of the teachers in the local districts graduate from University of South Alabama, so many of the pre-service teachers I’ve taught have stayed local. Just this summer, I had a former student who was named an assistant principal in the local district. She messaged me, and told me she wouldn’t be where she was if it wasn’t for me. I’m just so proud of her and the many other teachers who have their beginning at USA. I often get to work with them as undergraduate and graduate students, and then in a new capacity as educators in schools. It is so exciting to see the impact they are making every day!

Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?

There are two things I often say. First, being good is not enough; we want to be great. Second, if we ever think we are great, then we need to close our door. I truly believe that we can always continue to improve. Every child deserves a great teacher. That’s the kind of graduates who I hope we graduate, but I also know we can always do better. I think Deans for Impact shares that philosophy. I share the passion that Deans for Impact has for improving teacher preparation to ultimately improve the lives of the children in our communities.

To me, you have to put the politics aside when you’re talking about teacher prep, because it really is about doing what’s best for children. It really is about being transparent and using data to improve. Making a shift from using data for compliance to using it to support a culture of inquiry is really powerful. I brought that conversation, about shifting from compliance to inquiry, from Impact Academy back to the University of South Alabama College of Education and Professional Services and said, “We want to be a college that truly acts on and lives out a culture of inquiry.”

What most excites you about the opportunity to transform the field of educator preparation in the years ahead?

I think the most exciting piece for me is that we have an opportunity to make a difference in education policy throughout the country. Not just where I live, but across the county in a lot of different institutions. It’s exciting to say I’m a member of a group active in making a difference in education.

But it’s also more than that for me. It’s also very local and personal. I feel like we have an opportunity to make an impact on the lives of children immediately, and there’s nothing like knowing you’re changing the education landscape for the better of children who are in school right this minute, today. That’s exciting for me. Every teacher we graduate who is a great teacher can make a difference in children’s lives, not just today, but for the rest of their lives. Teachers hold that power in their hands, so if we can ignite that passion in them, we have the potential to transform many things.

I went to elementary, middle and high school in Mobile public schools, and my graduate degrees are from the University of South Alabama. Like me, our students graduate and stay – we recognize that they are us. It is so powerful and extremely personal.

What is one surprising thing that everyone should know about the program you lead?

Eighty-five percent of the teachers in the greater Mobile area have at least one degree or certification from South. We also prepare most of the school leaders in our area. In addition to a master’s program, we have a doctorate in education leadership that’s relatively new, so we are also preparing superintendents and curriculum specialists to lead the schools and systems that are full of teachers who graduated from our programs. So that’s kind of a neat thing.

Andi Kent

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