When Micha Jeffries, Ph.D., was a first-time elementary school teacher in Forsyth County, North Carolina, she worked in a very diverse district with students from all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of the strong presence of diversity in her school, she never really expected issues of inequity to arise in her classroom.
That all changed when she was working after school on a reading assignment with a second grade student named Phillip. The boy, she recalled, told Jeffries that he was so happy to be in her classroom because teachers usually “don’t expect Black children to read. They just expect us to look at the pictures in the books.”
That encounter inspired Jeffries to dedicate her career to pursuing educational equity for all students.
“Even in that school setting, with families from all different backgrounds, the message still got sent to an African American boy that the expectations that his teachers had in the two years he had been in school were that he didn’t have the same capacity to be successful as his peers did just because of the color of his skin,” Jeffries said. “It was just very apparent for me as a young teacher that we were not creating opportunities in our classrooms where all students had the same opportunities or expectations of being successful as their peers who weren’t Black or Brown.”
One of the things that attracted Jeffries to the NC State College of Education’s elementary education program, where she currently serves as an assistant teaching professor of social studies and diversity education, was the program’s upfront commitment to issues of equity.
Although the elementary education program is considered innovative for its focus on STEM education, Jeffries said she appreciated that social studies, as well as issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, were given a prevalent space.
“I was able to specialize my professional focus on social studies and diversity. I just felt that having the opportunity to focus on preparing teachers in that area would give me more opportunity to contribute to the field overall,” she said.
As the director of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, an accelerated, 100% online teacher licensure program, and coordinator of the MAT in elementary education track, Jeffries said she is proud to help prepare a group of students who are diverse in ethnicity, age and gender.
In the Fall 2020 semester, 20% of the incoming student population in the MAT program were students of color, which is important as research shows that the student population is becoming more diverse while the majority of teachers in the state are white.
“In North Carolina, our teacher population is so drastically different than our student population and we feel really good about the work we’ve done in the MAT program in elementary education to try to close that gap a little more,” she said.
Through a recently awarded grant, Jeffries and Assistant Teaching Professor Drinda Benge, Ed.D., aim to help further diversify the teacher workforce by building partnerships with undergraduate programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in North Carolina that don’t have MAT programs. The goal, Jeffries said, is to create a pipeline of students who could earn their MAT degree from the College of Education and ultimately enter the classroom.
In addition to helping to diversify the teacher workforce, Jeffries works to ensure that all pre-service teachers are prepared to enter the classroom by guiding them through coursework and modeling classroom behavior.
Alicia Koylu ‘20MAT said she appreciates that Jeffries has always made herself available to students, encouraging them while helping them to understand the content as well as instructional methods.
“The things that I see in Dr. Jeffries’ teaching and instructional style are things that I was constantly taking note of. I just really appreciate how she can help you progress in a way that always makes you feel like you are learning and you are able,” Koylu said. “Having Dr. Jeffries as an advisor, a teacher and a mentor has just been the icing on top of the cake of my studies at NC State.”
Koylu, who previously worked in the business world, said that she enrolled in the College of Education’s MAT in elementary education when she decided to change careers after several experiences teaching English in Korea and Mexico.
Jeffries believes that international experiences are important for pre-service teachers and has led three previous study abroad courses that brought students to Mexico to work with K-12 students.
Jeffries developed the course several years ago with Assistant Teaching Professor Joanna Koch, Ph.D., when she noticed that, despite understanding the importance of approaching instruction from a strengths-based perspective in the classroom, some students were still using deficit language to describe emergent bilingual students during their field work.
The trip, which took place every other year before the COVID-19 pandemic paused international travel, brought students to Mexico City, where they would visit colleges and museums. They would then spend the bulk of the trip in the small town of Guanajuato, where they would live with Mexican families and volunteer in local elementary schools.
“We were trying to give students a perspective of Mexico that showcased its history and showcased its economic connections and contributions internationally, and we also wanted them to have an experience where they were placed into a community where no one spoke English,” Jeffries said. “Being in classrooms with students who are very bright and gifted and speak Spanish as their first language, and having to negotiate that, will hopefully provide pre-service teachers with a more empathetic perspective for students who come to the U.S. with the same framework.”
Whether in North Carolina or abroad, Jeffries said that she believes her job as a pre-service teacher educator is to model the type of classroom she wants her students to one day create. Since she often has to tackle difficult subjects in her course material, she aims to make her classroom a safe space where students can speak openly, engage in self-reflection and set personal goals related to being more equity minded.
Her goal, she said, is that pre-service teachers leave her classroom having high expectations for all of their students and understand that part of their job is to create conditions where all students can succeed.
“I hope my students first see themselves as change agents. There are so many things that we can tackle as educators. We have the power to make a difference in a child’s life, but we aren’t always empowered as educators. I really want my students to leave and believe they can make a difference,” Jeffries said.