man in blue check shirt and blue jacket with trees and building in background

Education professor honored for his commitment to empowering teachers

Most of Barnett Berry’s career has been about advancing what he calls the profession that makes all other professions possible — teaching. As a scholar and researcher, he is an advocate for teachers and how they can and must be more instrumental in the future of education.

Berry, the founding director of the College of Education’s Accelerator for Learning and Leadership for South Carolina, is the 2021 recipient of the James A. Kelly Award for Advancing Accomplished Teaching.

The award is highest honor bestowed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to individuals who are dedicated to improving teaching and learning and to the professional integrity and competence of teachers. It is named for the board’s founding president and CEO. Previous recipients include Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; Richard Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education and former governor of South Carolina; and James B. Hunt Jr., former governor of North Carolina.

We caught up with Berry to talk about the award, transforming schools and the teaching profession, and his role as founding director of the ALL4SC.

You returned to the University of South Carolina in 2019 — having previously been an education professor in the 1990s — to lead the Accelerator for Learning and Leadership for South Carolina. How does this initiative improve opportunities for children and their families?

ALL4SC is an outreach project to marshal the university’s assets from 12 academic and professional units to support high-need school communities in partnership with parents, students, teachers, faith leaders and business owners. In this part of my career, I really want to work on a no-more-schools-only approach to improving opportunities for children and their families. Schools alone can't get the job done in closing achievement and opportunity gaps.

ALL4SC launched in late fall 2019 in partnership with the Fairfield County School District. We started by listening to community members and identifying priorities to focus on. One thing was to develop a 0-5 strategy for infants and toddlers. While the school district invests money in 3- and 4-year-old kindergarten, there were few opportunities for younger children — except for a few private day care providers. We have now forged a partnership with Fairfield County School District, Head Start, First Steps, Midlands Technical College and the SC Program for Infant/Toddler Care to develop a new comprehensive model (to launch in fall 2021) that will include immediate care for infants and toddlers as well as career pathways for early childhood educators in the community. As we come out of the pandemic we are launching, with several communities, innovations in whole child and cradle to career education.

We have also supported the launch of President Caslen’s Mentoring Initiative with Fairfield and Marlboro county students and developed a national partnership to provide social-emotional learning supports for teachers, so they can help address non-academic issues that keep kids from learning.

In addition to receiving the Kelly Award for Advancing Accomplished Teaching, you also were recently named a senior research fellow for the Learning Policy Institute — the nation’s leading think tank for advancing a more effective and equitable system of education in the United States. How do these recognitions reflect your commitment in these areas?

My commitment and focus have been to create opportunities for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, giving board-certified teachers ways to connect with each other, learn from each other and hopefully become more influential for the betterment of the children they're serving. Using their knowledge of what works and what doesn't, they can inform policies and practices that are often developed devoid of teacher leadership.

You cannot close student achievement gaps unless you close the opportunity gaps that students face when they don't have well-prepared and well-supported teachers. And you can't have a system of well-supported teachers if teaching is not a profession where there's common knowledge base and where there are opportunities for the professionals to learn from each other and to lead their own learning. It has to start with the knowledge base, and that is the importance of national board certification and America's long journey toward professionalizing teaching.

Can you give examples of how the College of Education is having an impact on the teaching profession?

The college has many successful programs and initiatives to attract and retain teachers and improve the profession. Specific examples include the Carolina Collaborative for Alternative Preparation and the micro-credentialing structure to create more competency-based professional learning opportunities for teachers. Our professional development school partnerships have a lot of potential to accelerate the college’s role in professionalizing teaching. Our Carolina Teacher Induction Program has produced terrific results, leading to very high retention rates among UofSC graduates. However, our state does not have a coherent teacher development strategy — at least not yet.

I think the next stages of work are helping to create more opportunities and supports for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, including preparing administrators to learn how to utilize teachers as leaders. We have plenty of teachers innovating, but we have too few school districts and administrators who know how to use them effectively.

You have proposed that schools need to be transformed not reformed. What do you mean by that and how does it benefit students?

You cannot do the kind of schooling for the future that every child needs and deserves if teachers are still organized and siloed in their classrooms. Too many teachers work in traditionally organized schools and have little or no time to learn from each other. Schools are not organized for that. We've got to change the profession. Teach, yes, but also have time and opportunity to work in the community and become familiar with social services available for families and students. Teachers need to be able to connect the academic and cognitive needs of children to the supports they need, so they can learn.

There have been studies that show top performing jurisdictions not only prepare and support teachers well, but they also create more opportunities for teachers to lead. I don't know how you improve the system of education without tapping the wisdom of those who do the educating.

I'm honored to have this award in Jim Kelly’s name. He told me a long time ago, the highest paid person in a school system ought to be a practicing teacher. That doesn't mean every teacher is the highest paid, but anyone who's the highest paid ought to still be teaching young people — at least part of the day or week. You cannot profess that teachers are important and then invest less in them.

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about