By Monet A. Stevens
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
When Jessica Shiller started her undergraduate career in Rochester, New York, nearly 25 years ago, she was more focused on philosophy and history than on the quality of America’s suburban schools.
But as Shiller began teaching high school students in New York City in the 1990s, she started to realize that the educational inequalities that had long been associated with lower-income city schools were affecting children throughout the nation’s education system.
“When I did get very deeply into American history, and I ended up teaching American history to high school kids, I really got to understand how deeply inequality is into our school system,” Shiller said. “That really drove me to want to do something about it.”
Now an assistant professor of education at Towson University, Shiller has written a new book that examines these inequalities. In “The New Reality for Suburban Schools: How Suburban Schools are Struggling with their Low Income Students and Students of Color,” the educator addresses the challenges suburban teachers face adjusting to the learning styles of students who have recently enrolled from shut-down, lower income schools.
“What I found very interesting is that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in these suburban schools that stereotypically people think of as white or affluent,” said Shiller, who has a doctorate degree in urban education from New York University. “So I wanted to make those schools a site to research and to see what else I could find out about how the schools were teaching this incredibly diverse group of kids.”
During the 2012-2013 school year, Shiller visited several Baltimore area schools observing both teachers and students. She sat in on classes, after-school activities and lunch periods.
Shiller found that many of the adjustment problems the children faced were tied to the inability of suburban teachers to connect with them. She said she also discovered that manyteachers were resistant to change.
“What I found again and again actually were that white teachers in suburban schools were resistant to learning about their students and that that really hindered what they could do in the classroom with those students because it really hindered what they were teaching,” Shiller said. “Kids who are immigrants from Southeast Asia or African-American kids from the Carolinas are all very different from one another, bring different things, have different assets and cultural norms, and it’s really important for teachers to understand those things.”
“I just thought, you know, this’ll be an interesting research project, and I’ll write an article and maybe talk about it with people at Towson and at other places, but it turned out to be such a rich study,” Shiller said. “So many interesting things happened that I thought actually this would make a really good book, and it turns out that people have been really receptive and excited about the idea.”
Although Shiller did not expect her findings to turn into a book, her colleagues say they are not surprised by where her drive has taken her.
“She is radically committed to equity and social justice,” Laurie Mullen, the dean of Towson’s College of Education, said. “She is kind. She is incredibly intelligent. But overall I would say the word ‘committed’ describes her.”
“A lot of professors at her stage in their career are pretty much internally focused,” said Professor Diane Wood, the chairwoman of the College of Education. “They’re concerned about getting tenure; they’re concerned about writing a lot; and sometimes they get separated from the outside world.”
Shiller will discuss her book at 11 a.m. April 6 in Banneker Hall Room 112 at Morgan State University.
Wood said Shiller has established a trusting relationship with members of the educational community, adding that Shiller “tries to bring her students out into the world.”
Shiller said it all boils down to how the nation’s future teachers are being taught.
“I think the main thing that I would really love people to know is that just because a school is in a suburban community, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any problems, and there aren’t challenges,” Shiller said. “We at universities, colleges of education, in particular, need to do a better job of preparing our students to go out into teaching so that they are willing and ready and able to meet the needs of students of color and low income students.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Shiller’s book can attend her book discussion on April 6, in Banneker Hall Room 112 at Morgan State University at 11 a.m.