Home / Articles / Special Reports (all) / Teacher Education / It Is My Problem: Engaging Students In the Exploration of Social Issues
2015 January 19 - 07:28 pm

It Is My Problem: Engaging Students In the Exploration of Social Issues

Together, Community Colleges and Four-Year systems can Formalize a Definition for Civic Engagement

It Is My Problem: 

Engaging Students In the Exploration of Social Issues

Kimberly Tobey, Executive Director, NACCTEP 

“A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.”


While teacher preparation programs are non-political entities, they operate within institutions of higher learning. It can be argued that one of the primary responsibilities of colleges and universities is to develop well-informed citizens.

The National Association of Community College Teacher Education Programs (NACCTEP) is choosing to engage in the conversation around civic engagement and pre-service teacher training. Future educators need to be committed to and responsible for the communities they teach. NACCTEP, in partnership with The Democracy Commitment (TDC) of community colleges and the American Democracy Project (ADP) of state colleges and universities, encourage community colleges to join us in further discussions on this topic at our national conference March 6-8th in Boston. For additional information on the NACCTEP national conference, please visit the website, http://nacctep.riosalado.edu/_Conferences/2015_Boston/Index.html.

Together, community colleges and four-year systems can formalize a definition for civic engagement as it relates to pre-service teacher training. These higher learning institutions can develop a continuum of learning that introduces, assesses, and formalizes a set of best practices and standards for classroom teachers and their school communities. As educators, we need to ensure that future generations’ learning environments and culture support the values that define our country. The following article briefs represent a snapshot of ongoing programs and partnerships that are currently being implemented across the country; thus setting the stage for greater conversations around the need for a cohesive definition and implementation plan.

The Democracy Commitment
By Bernie Ronan, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, Maricopa Community Colleges, Ariz.

“Democracy has to be born anew in every generation, and education is its midwife.”


Educators are the primary stewards of democracy. Since the birth of the republic, we have charged schools with preparing students for lives of democratic citizenship. This charge has regrettably devolved into the “mechanics” of citizenship, and even this narrow approach is increasingly crowded out of the classroom by accountability mandates. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than elections. Democracy, as Dewey stated, is first and foremost a form of associational life, not a system of government. Teaching and learning in our schools must address this rich vision.

This challenge is exacerbated by the way future teachers are taught. The “science” of teaching, advanced by Thorndike and others, has come to dominate the American classroom, undermining a more learning-centered, developmental paradigm advanced by Dewey. The relentless quest for accountability drives teacher education programs, just as it dominates American classrooms.

A unique opportunity to ameliorate these trends can be found in two national civic engagement projects: TDC and ADP. These two sectors of American higher education are making a concerted re-commitment to democratic education and civic engagement. An alliance between teacher educators in these two systems which leverages programs, partnerships, pipelines, and policies, can help to recalibrate the way classroom teachers are educated in this country, with great promise for reinvigorating democracy in our classrooms, and in our communities.

Across the country, community colleges continue to serve as the gateway for countless students to become classroom teachers. This alliance between TDC and ADP offers community college faculty who instruct future teachers the opportunity to recommit themselves to civic learning and democratic engagement for their students.

Students as True Partners

By Tawn Hauptli, Faculty, Education Studies, Mesa Community College, Ariz.

Teacher educators are tasked with the responsibility to train prospective teachers to meet the needs of the diverse student populations they teach and to serve also as ‘critical change agents in schools and society’


One way my students are able to develop the background skills and knowledge necessary to improve their understanding of civic engagement or teaching for social justice is through group assignments. In Equity & Excellence In Education, M.A. McDonald argues “course assignments represent one aspect of the pedagogy of teacher education and may direct prospective teachers’ attention to ‘particular problems of practice and introduce them to ways of reasoning and performing’” (Grossman as cited in McDonald, 2008, p. 152).

McDonald also found that the majority of assignments connected to field experiences in teacher education programs he studied had the impact of focusing pre-service teachers on “meeting the needs of individual students rather than as examining the social, political, and institutional conditions of schooling (p. 156). When assignments were focused on groups it had the effect of shifting “prospective teachers’ attention from individual students’ needs (independent of larger social structures) to students’ needs and experienced as shaped by affiliations with social or educational groups” (p. 157).

As a faculty member in education at Mesa Community College, I help my students to develop a greater understanding of the importance of civic engagement by giving them the opportunity to engage in rigorous, academic research on topics related to course competencies and by providing them with an opened-ended structure or set of guidelines from which to operate.

Students must identify issues related to their chosen profession, research the positives, negatives, and implications for student achievement, identify the moral issues associated with it, and suggest recommendations for action. By empowering my students to take ownership of an issue they deem to be critically important, I am able to engage my students “as true partners in the higher education community” (Ric Keaster, 2005). It allows me to learn alongside future educators about issues of great significance to our educational community.

Starting Small, Thinking Big

By Anne Marie Perry, Chair , Education Department, Massasoit Community College (Mass.)

Massasoit Community College is the second largest community college in the 15-school Massachusetts system. With the main campus in Brockton, a second campus in Canton, and the newest, the Middleborough Center, the college serves a diverse community of upwards of 10,000 students.

The Elementary Education program started small, and still does not have the highest percentage of students, but it is growing steadily. We have been happy to see so many students transition to our partner bachelor’s degree institutions and enter the teaching profession.

The college’s main location in a low-income city provides a valuable experience for pre-service teachers often coming from wealthier surrounding communities. Students have the opportunity to observe teachers in sometimes lessthan idyllic settings doing some amazing things for and with their students. The pre-service teachers’ report from their first field experience is usually filled with stories and plans for their future classrooms.

This year, after field experience observations, we challenged students to determine if and how they might become civically engaged. As a result of that challenge, students organized and implemented a winter clothing drive. Bags of winter coats, hats, and gloves were delivered to a local elementary school nurse. Future donation plans are targeted for special needs students with unique clothing requirements. Another school also benefited from our students resourcefulness. After using the Massachusetts’ Curriculum Frameworks and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System for years, educators struggled to create and modify curriculum to meet the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standards. With a few classmates and faculty assistance, the pre-service teacher found resources at no or little cost which teachers could use to help classrooms transition to the new assessment tool delivering great results.

Our teaching engine may be small, but it’s chugging along, gaining strength and speed as it goes!

Reinvigorating Democracy

Jolanda M. Westerhof, Director of Teacher Education, American Association of State Colleges and Universities

The ADP and TDC launched the Teacher Education Civic Pathway, the first joint initiative between the two organizations. The Pathway is intended to forge and strengthen democratic education and civic engagement in teacher preparation at two- and four-year member institutions. This new pathway is a natural extension of American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ (AASCU) national Civic Minor in Urban Education project. This fall, I met with the NACCTEP Executive Board to explain this alliance between teacher educators in the two systems and explore ways in which we can help to recalibrate the way classroom teachers are educated in this country, with great promise for reinvigorating democracy in our classrooms and in our communities.

The Civic Minor in Urban Education project, funded by a $433,874 Learn and Serve America Higher Education grant, was awarded to AASCU by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The three-year project (2010-13) addressed one of AASCU’s strategic goals: to strengthen P-20 education. New civic minors in urban education were approved on each of the five project campuses and are now being implemented. The five new civic minors, open to all undergraduates, integrate K-12 servicelearning experiences with urban public policy coursework, offering pre-service teachers and other undergraduates a broad understanding of the larger context of urban education. The five participating AASCU urban campuses were:

Buffalo State College (SUNY), California State University-Fresno, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and Wright State University.

The project required a faculty member in teacher education and a faculty member in the arts and sciences to serve as co-campus leaders. Faculty campus leaders from the five project campuses made joint presentations on the Civic Minor in Urban Education project at the 2012 and 2013 annual meetings of the ADP/TDC.

A report profiling the five minors will be released in 2015. The report will offer specific information about each minor and provide recommendations for other AASCU campuses interested in creating new curriculum structures that embed community engagement and K-12 partnership in public policy coursework.

The ADP/TDC national meeting will include a focus on pre-service education civic learning and engagement ideas. The meeting will be held in Louisville, Ky., June 5-7, 2015.

For additional information, please visit the website, http://thedemocracycommitment.org/events/2014-adptdc-annualmeeting/.

Also in Teacher Education

Also from Kimberly Tobey, Executive Director, NACCTEP

Log in to use your Facebook account with
CC Week

Login With Facebook Account

Advocates Say Full Academic Load Is Key to On-Time Graduation

helps students. College students who enroll in 15 credits in their first semester, and 30 credits a year, accumulate mor... Full Story

Next Issue

Click on Cover
to view


League Leads Effort To Embed Colleges In Public Health Education

Community colleges long ago cemented their place as a central and critical contributor to the country’s health care wo... Full Story