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College of Education

Faculty Q&A with Rachelle Curcio: Connecting theory to practice for teacher candidates

By Carol J.G. Ward

Rachelle Curcio is a clinical assistant professor for elementary education in the Department of Instruction and Teacher Education. We talked with her about her research on preparing teacher candidates for diverse 21st-century classrooms through supervised clinical experiences.


What is the primary focus and impact of your research?

I research structures and practices that immerse teacher candidates into the life of teaching and help them connect what they’re learning in their University of South Carolina classrooms with what they are doing in our schools and communities. In other words, connecting theory to practice and vice versa.

One aspect of my research is an emphasis on school-university partnerships through a Professional Development School-District model with School District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties. As the UofSC liaison, I place an emphasis on the reciprocal nature of these partnerships for not only the development of our teacher candidates, but also looking at how our collaborative work influences teachers, administrators, families and – most importantly – our pre-K through 12 learners. I study the effects of learning in clinical spaces, as opposed to learning in traditional college courses, and then translating this learning to a future classroom.

I'm co-PI on a Teacher Quality Partnership Program grant in which we're creating a residency model in partnership with Orangeburg and Colleton counties as a teacher preparation pathway for career changers in rural school communities. This model immerses teacher candidates in classrooms alongside mentor teachers from day one. Related to the potential impact of Professional Development School research, I'm PI on a Spencer Foundation Conference Grant to organize a Southeastern convening to develop a collaborative research agenda that will inform the national agenda, policy and funding.


How has COVID-19 affected your research?

For the research I engage in within the Professional Development School-District, we had a year's plan mapped out, but we've put that on pause and are pivoting to meet the needs of our teachers and help them meet the needs of their students.

We’re looking ahead to what the needs will be when students and teachers return to classrooms. We know we'll have a lot of children and families that have had extreme instability. They may not have had equitable instruction or access to remote and distance learning. We’re trying to put a plan into action to address these needs.

I also research how teachers critically interact with social media for professional learning and support. Many teachers use social media platforms, but it's been enhanced in this time where we can't see each other face-to-face, and we are researching the role these platforms play during COVID-19.


In your opinion, what’s the main obstacle facing the education profession right now?

Equity and access across our state and nation. Too many of our learners, our families, our communities, face inequitable educational opportunities. It’s a systemic issue that's becoming more prevalent and is being amplified by COVID-19.


What advice do you have for junior faculty seeking to build their research programs?

The first thing is to know your story. That was embedded in me early on as a doc student – to know who you are as a scholar and to ensure that the projects and research you engage in connect to your story. It's easy as junior faculty to overextend yourself, so it’s important to pause and ask, “Does this connect to who I am as a scholar?” Find a balance of teaching, research and service; think intentionally about how to strategically connect these three pieces of your role as a professor.


What would be a game changer for you professionally?

For me as an educator, and for the profession, the game changer would be policy and funding to better support teacher education structures that impact recruitment, preparation and retention. I believe strongly in what I research and in creating authentic spaces for ongoing professional learning and initiatives that will contribute to building and sustaining a quality teacher force for our children, families and communities.

And specifically, right now, how can we systemically support educators as they return to classrooms after COVID-19?

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.