Something has to change: a conversation with Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy

When Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy started her first teaching job right out of college, she assumed she was ready for the realities of the classroom. After all, she had recently completed a teacher-preparation program, passed the required state test and received her teaching license.

Her very first teaching position was a kindergarten class, and the school was experiencing a major demographic shift. Of the 26 students in her class, 15 did not speak English. But not a single professor in her preparation program had ever talked about how to teach English-language learners or even just students from different cultural backgrounds.

“I felt totally unprepared,” said Holcomb-McCoy, now dean of the School of Education at American University and a 2017 Impact Academy fellow. “That was my first ‘Aha!’ moment: Something has to change in teacher-preparation.”

In many ways, Holcomb-McCoy can trace the path of her career back to that first experience in that kindergarten class – not only her realization that she didn’t know how to meet the needs of diverse learners, but the inspiration she felt watching the school’s counselor work with those same children. The counselor came to Holcomb-McCoy’s classroom every week, and was able to connect with the students and their parents in a way that Holcomb-McCoy didn’t feel able to in that first year.

“I made it through the year, and it was a successful year, but I wanted to know more,” she said. So she left teaching and went on to get a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in counseling and counseling education, and has spent her career studying the effects that race and culture have on educational disparity.

Holcomb-McCoy is carrying that focus into her Impact Academy fellowship, which began in July. Over the fellowship year, she will explore how to use data to inform changes to her school’s curriculum. These changes will help teacher-candidates become culturally responsive practitioners who are aware of environmental and systemic factors that affect learning.

“I know what it feels like to be in a classroom and to be unprepared,” said Holcomb-McCoy. “I don’t want that to happen to other teachers. I want our students to leave with the set of skills and knowledge they need for day one … We can retain more teachers if we give them the skills to stay and to feel like they’re doing a good job.”

The focus of Holcomb-McCoy’s fellowship work is particularly relevant – and essential – at this moment, with recent events in Charlottesville still a fresh wound.

On the first day of school this August, Holcomb-McCoy asked a principal at a Washington D.C. high school whether any students or teachers had brought up in their classes what had happened in Charlottesville. He’d heard that some students wanted to talk about it, but the teachers didn’t feel prepared to have those conversations.

Race can be – and often is – an uncomfortable and fraught topic. So “you talk around it until something happens, and it blows up,” said Holcomb-McCoy. “This is what happened at my first school when the demographics changed. It’s the same thing 20 years later. We’re still struggling with how to talk about these issues openly and how to create an environment that’s welcoming to all.”

Over the next year, Holcomb-McCoy plans to lead her faculty in a deep-dive into the school’s curriculum on cultural responsiveness. Her aim is to revise the curriculum and add new metrics and assessments to help the school more accurately gauge whether it’s educating teachers who are prepared to meet the needs of culturally diverse learners.

“Our students are going into some of the [country’s] most diverse schools, and our students are still primarily white, female and young,” said Holcomb-McCoy. “Our data show us that our students suffer once they get into schools: They’re staying for two to three years, and then they move on to other careers.”

Holcomb-McCoy’s hope is that, because of these changes her program will make over the next year, teachers who graduate from her program will stay in the classroom longer and will do a better job improving the educational outcomes of their own students. She would also like to see an increase in the diversity of both her applicant pool and her enrolled teacher-candidates.

When Holcomb-McCoy took the deanship at American in 2016, the university’s president and provost challenged her to build the School of Education into something unique. They want graduates of the School of Education to graduate and to become leaders and innovators in education, both in Washington D.C. and nationally, and gave Holcomb-McCoy significant latitude in how to achieve that goal.

That’s an exciting opportunity – and she’s excited to work with her Impact Academy cohort and coaches to move beyond accreditation concerns and to identify big, bold ideas that could help fulfill her vision for the school.

“I wanted to join a community that would embrace that concept of creating new strategies, bold strategies,” said Holcomb-McCoy. “It’s a lonely world being a dean, so having a network of other deans who have some of the same challenges, some of the same ideas, I thought would be helpful to me.”

For more information on Impact Academy and becoming a fellow, click here.

Charis Anderson

Senior Director of Communications

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