This summer 24 students embarked on a four-week journey to engage with communities in Chicago and prepare to be urban educators in the city. The Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Preparation (STEP-UP) program is a rigorous fellowship where undergraduate education majors are immersed in a community in Chicago. They live with host families in a partner community where they co-teach in the morning, work with non-profit community-based organizations in the afternoon, and attend professional development in the evenings and on weekends.

Faculty members at Illinois State University, April Mustian and Shaqwana Freeman-Green facilitated two series during this year’s Fellowship. They led a four-hour series that included co-teaching strategies and ways that teachers should be accommodating and modifying for students with special needs. They also facilitated a six-hour series called “Power of Privilege” where fellows developed their awareness and understanding of their own privilege and how this plays a role for them as urban educators.

Special education faculty members (from left): Shaqwana Freeman-Green, Yojanna Cuenca-Carlino, and April Mustian.

The two series that Mustian and Freeman-Green co-facilitated began with a two-hour session on co-teaching. Co-teaching is becoming more prevalent in Chicago as inclusion becomes the norm. Students should learn in their least-restrictive environment (LRE), which oftentimes means that they will have two teachers in a classroom with students in the general education program and a percentage of students with individual education plans (IEPs). This comes with its challenges. “Co-teaching has a huge potential impact on the school-to-prison pipeline based on how teachers accept or deny responsibility for student behaviors,” says STEP-UP staff member and two-time fellow Liz Armstrong.

She further goes on to explain that it is important for teachers to understand whom they are saying “no” to when a co-teacher asks someone to see a student that needs a break from the classroom. It is okay to say “no” to another teacher. However, the indirect effect is that the student might then be sent to the discipline office for a referral when they just needed to cool down. This process of sending kids to the discipline office for minor, non-threatening behaviors feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline and emphasizes the importance of collaborative team teaching and knowing how your decisions affect students indirectly.

According to first-time fellow Jacob Dressel, “[Mustian and Freeman-Green] helped facilitate conversations regarding power and privilege that encouraged us to confront some of our biases and recognize the impact of social dynamics as we continue to grow as urban educators.” Understanding privilege and institutional racism are crucial aspects of becoming a community teacher in urban settings.

This is Faith Overall’s second time as a STEP-UP fellow and she describes the classes as, “incredibly necessary” and emphasizes the necessity of being mindful of privilege.

Illinois State University faculty play a critical role in facilitating conversations with the fellows that are not often covered in the required coursework but are very important for teachers preparing to work in an urban setting. Alec Rigik, another first-time fellow, grew a lot from the experience. He states, “[Mustian and Freeman-Green] facilitated in the realms of using candy and games to represent our personal and professional networks, as well as to simulate our less-than equal, inequitable society and how people tend to act within it based on features that they cannot control and selfish interest.”