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This year, the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program hosted the sixth annual gathering of the Urban Teacher Education Consortium (UTEC), bringing together over 50 educators from 16 universities around the country to continue a uniquely candid and national dialogue between practitioners engaged in the work of preparing urban teachers.

“The Urban Teacher Education Consortium was born out of my conversations with Kathy Schultz—then at the University of Pennsylvania—and my UTEP colleague Kavita Kapadia Matsko about how to create a network of urban education programs that could share experiences and provide support for each other,” explained Marv Hoffman, associate director of UChicago UTEP and co-founder of UTEC.

“We had a strong model for how teacher education should be done here at UTEP," he said, "but I always thought we'd have to figure out how to do some of this work together, on a larger scale. This is the sixth gathering of UTEC now and we've come to think of it as the anti-conference, where instead of sharing "findings" we share in the struggles and celebrations of our joint work. The conference meets on-site at a program each year, and that has added a depth of practice and context to all our conversations.”

For UTEC 2013, participants from 16 institutions—including Columbia Teachers College, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Clark University, Mills College, the Boston Teacher Residency, Match Education, Teach For America, Bard College, and Brandeis University—convened in Chicago to observe the programs of UChicago UTEP and co-host Illinois State University’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline in action and engage with the practices presented by each. Conference visitors to UChicago UTEP's program were invited to participate in a session of Soul Strand, part of the Foundations of Education first-year course sequence and a cornerstone of UTEP’s approach to teacher preparation.

“Soul Strand has been with us from the very get-go,” explained Kavita Kapadia Matsko, director of teacher preparation for UChicago UTEP. “It’s a key tenet of our program in which we work together with our students to understand how issues of class, culture, gender, and language affect our identities, the identities of our students, and the work of teaching and learning. Soul Strand’s curriculum looks a little different every year as we push ourselves to respond directly to the students in front of us and incorporate new learning into our curriculum."

As participants in Soul Strand, UTEP students as well as UTEC visitors were asked to locate themselves on the New York Times socioeconomic class tool and discuss the ways class had impacted their experiences, both negatively and positively. 

"Not often are you provided a chance to be a fly on the wall in a pre-established, intimate reflection space, with students grappling with their privilege as related to race and class,” said Robert Lee, executive director of ISU’s Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline. “That's just what we got when UTEP invited us to see their Soul Strand. You can't have an experience like this without a foundation of trust. I had heard about it in previous year conversations, but seeing it was powerful and moving—there are definitely elements we'll be talking about and ways we might incorporate what we saw into our conversations with students.”

The framing of UTEC 2013 around the two Chicago programs with different models and different problems of practice inspired fruitful conversations about the possible and varied approaches to the work of teacher education.

“Although both programs are headed in the same direction, one program seems to be doing it inductively while the other one is doing it deductively,” said Hoffman in one conference discussion. “In UTEP, we start out with Soul Strand to try to create a frame of reference around privilege and oppression and have students consider all the implications of this before entering a classroom, while ISU’s program immerses students in an experience in the community, hoping they will arrive at that understanding of privilege and oppression through their own encounters. There are advantages and disadvantages to both—I think having seen at UTEC successful practices in both approaches will help all of us think about our own.”

Though the differences between the hosting Chicago programs inspired many conversations, discussion continually returned to themes that connected not only UChicago and ISU’s programs, but all the participating institutions gathered at the Urban Teacher Education Consortium.

“Creating conditions to learn from and with each other—that’s exactly what we’re doing in these conversations, a big part of why we are here at UTEC,” said Katherine Schultz, dean of the School of Education at Mills College and co-founder of UTEC. “The kind of history that we’ve developed as a group and are developing as a group is also what we are looking to help develop for our graduates, so they can network and maintain and foster relationships with each other across their cities, across different groups.”

As the conference neared its close reflecting on these networks of relationships, Jay Featherstone, Professor Emeritus at Michigan State University, wondered aloud what might happen if all those connections—within and between urban teacher education programs—were fully realized. 

“I always thought at MSU that as we were placing graduates from our program into schools, those folks who were staying on in the schools were like a sleeping giant,” he said. “If we could only get a little bit of the resources to organize or to get them to start organizing themselves, they would really be something. Clearly with both of the two Chicago programs there are structures of mentoring and real tangible things that mentors can do, but there’s also just something—what if all those students got together and thought together, what might they not say and do next?”

Appropriate for a conference created to foster conversations and connections, the 2013 gathering of the Urban Teacher Education Consortium concluded with open group discussions between practitioners connected by shared interests, and expressions of gratitude for the peers and hosts that made these conversations possible.

“They’ve set an impossible standard for the rest of us,” said Tom Del Prete of Clark University, smiling as UTEC participants gave a warm round of applause to hosts UChicago UTEP and ISU. 

Next year, Clark University will co-host UTEC 2014 with the Boston Teacher Residency, and the conversations and connections will continue.