Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers

Although she grew up in Los Angeles, Tamara Spencer’s compass for pursuing education as a career was forged in the South. “My family was from New Orleans, the segregated South of the 1950s, and so my mother’s family moved out West for opportunities, including education. Education was always emphasized in my family,” said Spencer.  

Her family would settle in Oakland. It was the era of the civil rights movement, the call for black power, and rise of the Black Panthers. Spencer said her mother developed a strong belief, during those pivotal times, that education would be the means for her family to gain social progress, access, and equity. “These are values which are rooted in my family's history and beliefs, that were passed on to me at a very young age,” she said.  “They grounded my desire to become an urban schoolteacher. I identified early that this was a direction I wanted to pursue.”  

That backstory was bolstered by graduate studies at Columbia University in New York and hours of classroom time fostering literacy and reading excellence in school systems in New York, Philadelphia, and Raleigh, N.C. And now she brings a DNA of education-with-a-purpose to Saint Mary’s as the new director of the Teachers for Tomorrow program.  

“Much of the reason why I came to Saint Mary’s as a faculty member is because of TFT,” said Spencer. “All too often, teacher education is not taken seriously or not enough time is given to it. In Teachers for Tomorrow we have five years with our students to grapple with the question of what it means to be an exceptional teacher in our schools.”  

The innovative teacher preparation program tracks undergraduates in the Justice Community and Leadership department into a one-year master’s of education program in the Kalmanovitz School of Education. The 4+1 curriculum provides students with an opportunity to be placed in schools, working with children, and throughout the process, Spencer said, “They see themselves as change agents."  

TFT students begin their fieldwork once a week at schools in urban settings in Oakland. In their second year, they move to classrooms in Concord, and Moraga in their third year. As seniors, they are placed and teach at one of the many partner TFT schools across the Bay Area.  

“The JCL major’s interdisciplinary program stresses critical inquiry, leadership, global perspectives, ethical ideals, social and environmental stewardship, and self-assessment,” the assistant professor said. “It is my deeply held belief that this is the foundation that teachers need to enter and remain in classroom teaching positions.”  

Spencer added that what makes TFT different is a focus on the JCL undergraduate major, which “prepares leaders within a social justice framework to address the critical challenges of our times.” She adds that those challenges include addressing the opportunity gap and inequalities wherever they encounter them in school systems.  

Close to 100 teachers are currently at some level of the TFT program, which concludes its 17th year this spring. Spencer, the mother of young twin girls, said she is extremely proud of the program and hopes to see its influence grow, attracting more teacher candidates and impacting more Bay Area classrooms. “These are the teachers I want to prepare and the ones I'd want to teach my daughters.”  

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