Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should be Done to Improve the US Educational System”, with Autumn Cyprès, Dean at University of Alabama at Birmingham

An Interview With Penny Bauder

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Data tells us that this generation of learners is one of the most anxious in our nation’s history. This is due to a lot of things, including poverty, increased violence in schools, and the increased tension and violence found within discourses about difference. The number one area that we need to actively focus on is creating supports for all learners that center on intervention supports for mental health services for learners and their families. That includes most specifically addressing bullying as a serious matter and not something that is a rite of passage.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Autumn Cyprès. Cyprès is a former biology teacher and school principal whose line of inquiry focuses on the politics of education, change, and building bridges between those who prepare school leaders and those leading school systems. Her expertise lends to everyday leadership and change in schools. Cyprès translates theoretical knowledge in educational areas to practical everyday examples as a practitioner of her research. Her research focuses on the areas of educational administration, serving as a change agent and advocating for marginalized and diverse populations. Cyprès can comment on the intersections of politics and education.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I became a teacher because Mrs. Ann Justice, my high school chemistry teacher, and Mr. Reggie Price, my high school biology teacher, taught me to conquer my fears about learning something new and to pursue learning with the kind of brutal tenacity that opens the world up. They both also taught me that learning is the work of humility. I taught high school biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology in an urban core school district in Phoenix, Arizona. I became a school principal because my own principal helped me to see the joy in leveraging schools to improve the lives of all in the communities they served. As a principal, I worked with a team that integrated a school that was segregated by language, which ultimately meant that it was segregated by race. At the time, I was earning a doctorate at Arizona State University and one of my professors helped me find the courage to support this work in the intellectual writing and research of both leaders and philosophers. When the time came to choose between moving up in a school system to a higher level position or move into academia, I chose academia because I believed that the key to success in education is found in bridging the gaps between authentic leadership practice and rigorous research. After many years as an academic conducting research and teaching about organizational change and politics, I found myself again on the path of practicing leadership within the context of higher education. I have always found myself drawn to arenas where people work to give voice to those who are not always given a voice in educational settings. In my daily leadership practice, I continue to take comfort and inspiration in making connections between authentic research about leadership and the everyday work of servant leadership.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The greatest teacher I ever had was Robert Stout. He was a scholar of politics and organizational change. Our class was charged with writing a midterm essay about leadership. At the time I was his student and a school principal, which meant I was working a 70–80-hour work week on top of taking classes and studying. On the date the assignment was due, I wrote a sloppy paper at six in the morning. I turned in the paper during our evening class along with my colleagues and breathed a sigh of relief that I had completed my assignment.

A week later when Dr. Stout handed the papers back with grades on them, he gave me my paper back with nothing written on it. I went to his office after class to ask about my grade and he said, “I want you to write me something authentic. You are doing the real work of leading and serving others; surely you have thoughts about the world and your role in it. Try again. Honor our profession by being thoughtful about the ways you explain what is happening in your school.”

He wasn’t mean when he said this; which made his comments more crushing. I was mortified. It took me a week of very long nights of trying to find something worthy to say before I could even begin to write. Finally, I wrote a paper about how some of my colleagues struggled to understand the new demands of working with a greater population of students who were the sons and daughters of undocumented workers living in orange groves and tenements. I handed my paper to my professor and waited another week anxiously for his judgement.

When I got my paper back, he had written across it in huge red sharpie marker letters, “And now you see that the real work of writing is about the work of organizing your thoughts in a way that is worthy of your experiences. Give yourself the gift of being more conscious of your world and your role in it, in the future.”

The lesson of being more thoughtful in my everyday professional practice, as well as in my own life, was a profound one that has stayed with me ever since that paper.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am currently in my second year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and am very excited to be part of a vibrant leadership team. We have worked as a school to really focus on putting a spotlight on our mission, which is dedicated to the intersections of teaching, learning, health and wellness.

We are unique to many School of Education in that we count along with our educator preparation efforts, programs focused on kinesiology, health education, as well as counseling. We also are committed as a school to consider the contexts of educational delivery efforts and the importance of intentional inclusivity. What I mean is that classrooms can be places of empowerment or they can be places where learners feel diminished and excluded.

Our school is focused on pushing conversations forward about ways that we are all not only ready to learn from a healthy body and mind perspective; but how educators can ensure that spaces of learning acknowledge and include with intention the total learner.

Some of our unique efforts include a collaborative project with faculty in the School of Nursing and the School of Engineering to design a phone app that allows K-12 school leaders to connect with graduate and undergraduate aspiring educators to find solutions together to identify and address challenges in school systems. Our Community Counseling Clinic provides a training environment where student clinicians can gain practical experience under close supervision from faculty while serving members of the Birmingham community at a sliding fee scale. This means increased access to mental health services for many in a region of the United States that that has a high need for support.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Profession experience and research and practitioner.

Most academics and researchers in the field of educational leadership have not served as school administrators or teachers. I am fortunate I that I can bring my experience as a high school teacher and school administrator at the high school, middle school, and elementary school level to my work as a researcher. I have won awards for both my scholarship, as well as leadership contributions at an international level.

I am one of four people in the history of our field to have served the two premier professional organizations in educational leadership preparation in a leadership role, including president of both the University Council for Educational Administration and the International Council of Professors of Educational Leadership.

These roles afforded me several opportunities to review and evaluate a considerable spectrum of leadership preparation programs and faculty members in the United States and abroad. My scholarship has most recently examined what constitutes excellence in the professoriate, as well as challenges of leadership in schools relative to politics, discourse and identity frameworks.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system? Unpack the challenges of education in a democracy.

Your question itself demonstrates the wooly politics of education in the United States. It is common for many to ask about results. But the real question is who decides what “results” are? Education is by its very nature a political endeavor because of how schools in the United States are funded at both the federal and state level. So, they in many ways become campaign talking points for policy makers, who often are not educators. Another challenge about the word success has to do with the purpose of school and how that intersects with challenges our democracy faces.

For example, an elementary school principal serving a school located in a predominately white, upper middle class neighborhood with strong property values and low crime rates, will not necessarily have to focus on ensuring that the campus buildings are free of asbestos, or that there is enough working electrical outlets, or that there is a school nurse available to serve students. A school such as this is typically a desirable place for most aspiring teachers to work so there is a strong pool of well qualified teachers working in classrooms; there is high parent involvement and most children attending a school like this come home rich with printed materials and electronic devices that ease access to learning opportunities. This school has a much different purpose than a school serving populations at or near the poverty level.

The greatest predictor of success in school is the income of the family. Schools have a different purpose when they are faced with issues that impede a learner’s ability to focus such as poor eyesight or hearing, unstable home environments due to family members holding multiple jobs, or struggling with anxiety, stress, or even addiction.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

I think again we need to consider what the word great means. I think any time a school system or university can show evidence of being more intentionally inclusive, and considering the intersections of student identities, such as ethnicity, sexuality, (dis)ability, gender, and religion, mental and physical health and socio economic status is significant because that means there is focus on the whole person who is learning.

I think any time you hear about policy makers or legislators connecting in authentic ways with experts in the field of education it is a victory for our society because then schools improve. One of the things that is interesting about the profession of education is that many assume they understand education because they attended school. That is like saying, “I understand how hospitals work because I was born in one.”

When we see efforts where there is care given to ensure that schools are safe and orderly learning environments, I think that is great. I think when we see learning environments that encourage learners to think beyond their own zone of comfort that is a great thing. Lastly, anytime I see learning environments where students are encouraged to stretch themselves to make a difference in the world through public service that is also great.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement?

1. Data tells us that this generation of learners is one of the most anxious in our nation’s history. This is due to a lot of things, including poverty, increased violence in schools, and the increased tension and violence found within discourses about difference. The number one area that we need to actively focus on is creating supports for all learners that center on intervention supports for mental health services for learners and their families. That includes most specifically addressing bullying as a serious matter and not something that is a rite of passage.

2. In my view, the number two priority should be focused on issues of physical health. Not only by providing health and nutrition education to students but finding new and creative ways to address the food deserts that are found in areas of poverty.

3. Social Service support systems need to be in place for all schools. There needs to be an integration of social service supports for all students because of the myriad of issues that affect a student’s readiness to learn.

4. Shift the focus and accountability measures for classroom teacher from disseminating facts to be checked on a standardized test to teaching problem solving, creative teamwork and thinking skills.

5. Class size matters: Students learn more in smaller classes. Smaller means 15 or less in a class. In my opinion, this applies to doctoral students as well as kindergarteners.

Can you explain why those are so critical?

All of the above are critical because they speak to our nation’s continual struggle with the purpose of school, the messy realities of democracy, and the often overlooked intersections of the factors, for example poverty, violence, addiction, anxiety and other life impacting issues that affect a learner’s ability to stay focused in the classroom.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM?

As with the other issues discussed above, the underlying challenge is that our society is not homogenous, democracies are messy and have entangled funding structures, particularly in the United States, that are different and unique in each state and territory. This results immediately in the disparate nature of “how” we are doing relative to engaging young people in STEM. Across the country, there is a shortage of STEM teachers for many reasons, the most obvious in my mind is salary. It is a rare person who is qualified to be both an engineer and a teacher who chooses the salary of a teacher over that of an engineer.

Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Compensate the profession appropriately. Value the professional above policy. Find ways to ensure that learners mental and physical health needs are supported so that they are ready to learn when they come to school.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women?

There has been a long-term narrative in many societies that women are not equipped intellectually to engage in STEM areas. This, of course, is grossly inaccurate and reflective of age-old sexism. It is important to engage girls and women in STEM and STEAM subjects because we must break the deeply embedded notions that gender is somehow related to intelligence or ability. It’s simply not true. AND… by failing to nurture young girls and women into the STEM workforce we are cheating the myriad of STEM centered innovations or races against disease prevention out of half of the rich intellectual resources on our planet.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects?

Because of sexists’ frameworks that still exist, we could do better.

Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

  1. Creating structures in our large discourses that honor and recognize women in STEM fields. A great example of this is General Electric’s advertisement that was run during the 2017 Oscar ceremony where viewers were invited to imagine what would happen if Mille Dresselhaus, the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering was treated like an actress, model, or social influencer.
  2. Create and support structures in schools that allow for mentoring of all students relative to gender inequities and STEAM.
  3. Ensure that women in STEM and STEAM fields are paid equitably for the same work as men.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)?

STEAM centered programs allow us to flex more of our brains, to be nimbler because you are building more neural pathways and connections with a more varied set of intellectual challenges.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Stronger alliance between community resources and schools and universities, like the community located within our School of Education at UAB. We offer counseling services, service based learning and opportunities for educators and school systems to interact with our faculty and students to create a community of support throughout our state.

2. Stronger bridges between authentic research on best teaching practices and actions of educators.

3. Include educators in the process of creating policies that affect learners at all levels.

4. Address the following wraparound issues that affect how learners engage with information in classrooms: food availability, poverty, anxiety and societal violence.

5. Require that all schools have a nurse, certified family counselor, and a social worker.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When you are overwhelmed with all the projects in your life, identify the one most important project that will make a difference five years from now and call it your “North Star.” Once you know your “North Star,” ask yourself if the other distractions from life impede or accelerate your path to your “North Star.” Ignore the distractions and embrace the accelerations to your “North Star.”

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I’d like to make breakfast burritos with Roy Choi and Jon Favreau in a food truck. And while we are cooking, we would talk about the feasibility of one food truck in a region of the Black Belt area of Alabama and utilize locally grown produce.

I’d also really love to have lunch with Deontay Wilder. He is an inspiration to me personally and professionally. His is a story of finding his North Star through tenacity and taking an unexpected path. He is a fine exemplar of perseverance, giving back to others, rising above expectations, fatherly love; and frankly I’d like his advice on how to throw a better right cross.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@Autumn_Cypres_uab and @uabeducation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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