Q&A with Dr. Anthony Graham

Anthony Graham is the dean of the College of Education at North Carolina A&T State University, which is the country’s largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU). The College enrolls about 1,250 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs and has about 50 full-time tenure-track faculty. Dr. Graham was a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Deans for Impact’s Impact Academy.

What was your first role working in education?

I kind of fell into education. I was actually a computer-science major as an undergraduate, but I was academically suspended; I was not performing well. My adviser said: it appears that you love computer science, but computer science doesn’t love you.

He challenged me to articulate what I loved to do, what I could do every day of my life, not get paid a dime but still do it. I’ve always loved reading, I’ve always loved writing. He suggested that I think about becoming a high school English teacher, which was a sharp deviation from what I intended to do as a career.

How has the experience of being academically suspended in college influenced you?

Everything I do connects back to that experience. Being in classrooms but not feeling as though I was included in the conversation or that I was even acknowledged in the classroom; people teaching in a way that didn’t connect or resonate with me. I’m always thinking through inclusivity, diversity: Are we reaching every student in the classroom? Are we preparing classroom teachers to do that? And if we aren’t, what do we need to do to make that happen?

How did you make the switch from teaching high school to working in higher education?

The very first day of my teaching experience, there was a young man, a 10th grader. He walked into my classroom and asked if I was the new teacher. I said yes, and he said, “Why do you want to teach all the dumb kids like me?”

Here’s a young, black male who perceives himself in a negative way, and I started that very day thinking, “Could I be doing more?” I actually started thinking on my very first day of teaching: Is this the best place for me to touch as many lives as possible, or is there another route?

That first student, I had a conversation with him right then and there about why he perceived himself that way. I challenged him to perform, to not perceive himself that way. He ended up going to Wake Forest University, but he entered my classroom as a struggling learner.

What are some of the highlights of your time in higher education?

The highlights and the challenge go hand in hand. Being at a minority-serving institution, we have a number of students come to us and say, “Teaching is my calling.” We then work with those students to get them into the profession, so they can practice in an area they envision as a calling. That’s been a highlight, but it’s also been a challenge.

Unfortunately, a number of our incoming students are not passing the Praxis Core. You could bring in 100 brand-new students who are interested in teaching, but only one-third will pass the Praxis entrance exam. You have two-thirds who can’t pass. That’s been a challenge, trying to find ways to get the two-thirds into the program so we can actualize their calling.

We’ve embedded support services in the very first academic term that students arrive on campus, so they’re getting a whole lot of assistance. We’re seeing some success, but it’s still not at the 100 percent that I want. I want better; I want more.

Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?

Having a cohort of peers who have been deans for a number of years, who can really provide support for me, not only as a dean, but as a leader, as an educator, you can’t beat that. That’s critically important for me in terms of my growth and development.

Another reason is the organization’s commitment to elevating the teaching profession through our preparation process. If you’re in this business and just doing the routine status quo, you’re in the wrong business. If 100 percent of our K-12 students aren’t proficient, we’re not doing a good enough job. There’s always room for improvement.

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

I think it it’s the commitment to challenging the status quo. Committing to researching and digging in to see what are we doing well, but even more importantly committing to trying things differently and using the research lens to really explore and examine them, that’s exciting. I don’t know how as an educational researcher you don’t get excited.

I don’t want to put the blame on accreditation, but I think when you have an accountability culture, you automatically begin to think: How can I comply to ensure that I’m checking the boxes to give them what they want? Rather than thinking: how can research and accountability coexist? You still can comply but while pushing the envelope. The research lens and the accountability lens, they tend to be at odds for some reason, rather than coexisting. We have to help people figure out how to do both of them concurrently.

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

Within the last 18-24 months, we’ve brought in about $10 million in grants, which we’re using to innovate within our college by doing things such as teacher-residency programs and STEM scholar programs.

Those programs have changed the depth of the partnership with local districts. We’ve also had good partnerships, but we’re beginning to dig a little bit more. Up until the last couple years, it’s always been a one-way partnership: here’s what we want to do in your district. Now we have them coming to us, learning more about what we’re doing and how they’re an integral part of that work. The relationship has become much more of a mutual relationship.

Anthony Graham

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