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Teaching Channel Talks Episode 90: Rethinking the Educator Mindset (w/ Dr. Walter Lee)

In this episode of Teaching Channel Talks, our host, Dr. Wendy Amato, welcomes Dr. Walter Lee, Assistant Professor of Middle/Secondary Education at the University of South Carolina Upstate, to discuss educator mindsets and the importance of positive self-concept. In this conversation, Dr. Lee shares his equity-focused approach for preparing the next generation of educators for the classroom, ensuring they are properly equipped to handle everything thrown at them—including parent-teacher conferences!

Our Guest

Dr. Walter Lee is currently an Assistant Professor of Middle/Secondary Education at the University of South Carolina Upstate, Campus Coordinator of the Nationally Acclaimed Call Me MiSTER Program, and Interim Director of the Center for African American Studies. An educator for more than a decade, Walter’s research agenda emphasizes positive enhancement self-concept strategies for learners, which include intersections of poverty and race, colorevasiveness, equitable instructional practices, and cultural competence. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Clemson University, EdS from Clemson University, and BA in Middle Level Education from Claflin University. 

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Our Host

Dr. Wendy Amato is the Chief Academic Officer at Teaching Channel’s parent company, K12 Coalition. Wendy earned her Master’s in Education and Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Virginia. She holds an MBA from James Madison University. Wendy began teaching in 1991, has served as a Middle School Administrator, and still teaches at UVA’s School of Education. She has delivered teacher professional development workshops and student leadership workshops in the US and internationally. Wendy and her family live near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Resources for Continued Learning

If you enjoyed this episode, you can learn more from Dr. Lee on his YouTube channel where he posts more information about the Call Me MiSTER program and tips for improving your mindset and wellbeing.

Dr. Lee is a board member of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), an international organization specifically for middle school educators. As the go-to middle school resource for research, best practices, and professional development, AMLE is a community of over 350,000 middle-level educators connecting and supporting each other.
Learn more and join the community!

This episode focuses on self-concept and equity, learn more about the important role these factors play in education in Dr. Lee’s article, Rising Tides, Sinking Boats – A Focus on Equitable Practices.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Wendy Amato: Welcome to Teaching Channel Talks. I’m your host, Dr. Wendy Amato, and as often as I can, I jump into conversations about topics that matter in education, like educator recruitment, teacher representation, equity. And so my guest today is Dr. Walter Lee. Welcome Dr. Lee.

Dr. Walter Lee: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I met you through the Association of Mid Level Educators, AMLE.

Can you start us off by exploring your work in education through your work with AMLE?

Dr. Walter Lee: Yes, so I was a middle school teacher for 5 and a half years. I taught and 6th grade and then I progressed to a character education course where we used. I think that was capturing kids hearts model. For 6, 7 and 8th grade teaching character at leadership, the team leadership course.

I. Progressed to finishing my PhD and found my way here at the University of South Carolina Upstate, where I’m currently an assistant professor of middle level education and the campus coordinator for Call Me MiSTER.

Dr. Wendy Amato: What you’re describing tells me that you are certainly experienced and credentialed and preparing educators. What’s a priority for you at USC Upstate?

Dr. Walter Lee: Making sure that these students get practical experiences. I think it’s unethical for us to graduate them with all the student loans and all the time and efforts and energy that they put into these programs when they don’t have practical experiences that they can utilize when they leave.

Picture it. When you’re in a pre, when you’re in a teacher education program. You don’t usually get tips and stuff on parent teacher conferences. We’ll focus on certification exams. We’ll focus on our SPA. We’ll focus on CAPE accreditation. Not getting you the experience that’s beyond the textbook. And usually students turn around and thank us later on for the engaging and problem based experiences that we curate here at Upstate.

Dr. Wendy Amato: So when you say practical, you mean you want students to finish your program and know how to teach.

Dr. Walter Lee: I realized over the course of time that students had graduated to become a teacher and had never sat in a parent teacher conference. They don’t know how to do that. And I can also understand how intimidating that would be because if you’re graduating as a teacher at age 21 or 20 or 22, and you having to talk to parents who are middle age or 35 or 40, 45, or you’re talking with the grandparents who are 60, you have to unlearn being the.

Submissive individual to someone who appears to be your grandmother or to appears to be your mother. No, you’re the trained professional who is here to advocate for the needs of that child in a way that is responsive and equitable.

Dr. Wendy Amato: That really is a responsibility. And if we’re not adding to the conversation, then we’re wasting time.

As the teacher of that student, we are expected to bring insight, knowledge, recommendation strategies to those parent teacher conferences, to the classroom lesson design. Otherwise it’s just going through the motions. So I’m glad to hear about this commitment to being practical. Tell me more about what that means.

What does it mean to prepare educators?

Dr. Walter Lee: Part of my mission, it’s a little crazy. When I was working on my PhD, my dissertation chair and some committee members, they said you probably should have gone through psychology or social work because studying the concept of self concept, the theory of self concept.

It wasn’t. A topic that was widely discussed in education, and as I continue to progress through the program and matriculate to that program, I learned that I wanted nothing more than to help people capture a more positive. image of themselves and to establish or pursue a positive relationship with themselves.

Rather they were a teacher, rather they’re a middle school student, rather they’re a high school student or just my flat out family.

Dr. Wendy Amato: And now I think this is informing some of your current research and writing. Can you give us a little teaser of what you’re working on these days?

Dr. Walter Lee: I am in the process of unlearning my limiting self concept.

And trusting the genius within to birth a text that presents a case for the theory of self concept enhancement. With this text, I plan to share my theory For domains of care, C. A. R. E. cultural relevance and affirmations and advocacy. Then ours relationship building and expectations, unyielded providing some domain.

So that educators at large can see their teaching platform as a way of enhancing students and self concepts. But I recognize that even in higher ed with the position I’m in. I’ve got to start with the teacher. If the teacher has a poor self concept, and if self esteem and self concept can be inherited from individuals around them, then darn it, if the teachers don’t have it together, more than likely students will inherit those traits from teachers as well.

Dr. Wendy Amato: You’re teaching teachers how to be practical in the classroom. You’re also teaching them how to see themselves so that they bring their best self into the classroom. They’re feeling their own respect for self. And conveying that throughout the classroom. Tell me more about respecting yourself as a teacher.

Dr. Walter Lee: One of the classes, my middle level curriculum and methodology course, that’s on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It happens to be hybrid and we tend to like that. And on Tuesdays I start off the class asking, all right, so how did you demonstrate love of self or care of self this weekend? And if someone does not answer.

That question and the 1st and 2nd week, I’m a little patient. I have them to think a little more indefinitely about how they have taken care of their emotional self, spiritual self, physical self. But after week 2, and you can’t come with, come up with an answer. My question is, what are you doing? What are you doing on weekends?

What are you doing with your downtime? I need answers. So I’m constantly pushing students and probing students to curate and establish healthy boundaries. Even at home. If they say, on Saturday, I made the commitment not to pick up anywhere. On Saturday, I went and took my walk, my dog for a walk.

Okay, because I appreciate being outdoor. On Saturday, I spent time with my boyfriend. On Sunday, I went to church with my family. On Sunday night, I decided to meal prep for the week. How do you demonstrate care for yourself? Because if I don’t get them thinking about that early on, they’ll get in the classroom and burn out.

And they’ll forget how to locate their joy or locate the joy in teaching. Joy is infectious. Students come to the classroom, there’s always that one teacher that students remember. They remember that they laughed, that they smiled. They had a great time in the class because the teacher got so much joy out of them, out of teaching, out of being involved, out of engaging with students. And I want to make sure that teachers see themselves, not only as an advocate for students, but first as an advocate for self, that joy, that peace, that happiness that they experienced within themselves, they’ll get in the classroom and that becomes infectious. And they will want nothing more for somebody else’s child, what they’ve achieved with themselves.

Dr. Wendy Amato: You and I are both middle school oriented people. And so you’ll understand when I tell you that when I would show up for work as a middle school principal. I had this vision I’m going to come in here and get some energy going. And it was back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And then the weekends would come and I would feel like I got to tap back into that source.

But it really was giving and receiving in all directions. And as teachers, we come in and we contribute energy, but we also gain and it grows. That’s a middle school mindset that I love.

Dr. Walter Lee: And lastly, one of the things that we do every Tuesday and Thursday on Tuesdays, we do gratitude journals.

We start off the first five minutes of class with them just documenting what they’re grateful for. And then on Thursday, we start off classes with affirmation stems so that they can be more intentional about their thoughts. One of the affirmations we started off with last week is, I am looking forward to, what are you looking forward to?

What are you anticipating? What are you awaiting? Or, I am calling forth. What are you calling forth? Are you calling forth your highest and best selves? Are you calling forth gratitude? Are you calling forth opportunities?

Dr. Wendy Amato: Educators are familiar with the concept of a sentence stem or a sentence starter for their learners, but By all means, we should have stems for ourselves and affirmation stems.

I think your Tuesday, Thursday model may just go viral right now.

Dr. Walter Lee: I hope it does. The people need it. Think about it. Students go to their classes quite frequently and there’s bell work up there, but it goes straight to the content. How do we do that? Use our classrooms to combat the negative images that they’re getting from social media to combat the negative words that they’re hearing from family, although it may be well intended, or what they’re hearing from their peers or within their self conscious senses of self with that invisible audience.

How can we use our classrooms to help them? To become more self loving instead of self loathing. How can we do that? I think those affirmations in gratitude journals are certainly one of the places we can start.

Dr. Wendy Amato: I want to shift a little bit and talk about some of the special work you do at Upstate. You are the coordinator for the university’s Call Me MiSTER program. What should I know about Call Me MiSTER?

Dr. Walter Lee: Oh gosh, so Call Me MiSTER started, when was that, back in 2000, with the intention to recruit African American males to elementary classrooms. It started at three universities, Morris College, Benedict College, and at the time, Claflin College. Call Me MiSTER has persevered throughout the years, and we started here at a cohort here at USC upstate back in twenty nineteen where we intentionally recruit black and brown males who are interested in becoming teachers. There’s some work by Johns Hopkins University that says that the likelihood of a student to graduate and to attend college increases significantly when they have one black teacher.

And so in response to the literature and the fact that there’s less than 2 percent African American male teachers throughout the country and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher must be of a certain race or of a certain gender in order to be effective, not at all. But there are some cultures that are unrepresented.

Many of the students, I am their first black male teacher at the university.

Some cultural experiences, some cultural gaps, I don’t want to call them deficits, but cultural gaps are certainly in place. Within, with the Call Me MiSTER. program they’re here, they do receive some funds to support them.

For tuition, they get me as an advisor. They get me as a professor and they get me as a mentor. We also have some experiences where they go into schools throughout the year to volunteer actively working with teachers, working with students. They are teaching lessons and lesson plannings and doing small groups.

And over the summer, we even have an internship experience where many of them get their own classrooms and they get to experiment. For and what our executive director, Dr. Jones calls the lab. And so all in all, we are breaking down cultural barriers. We are working to shift the mindsets of a generation to go into the classroom and see teaching as a tool for healing.

Dr. Wendy Amato: For people who are unfamiliar with Call Me Mister, can you explain, is it its own teacher preparation program? Does it run in parallel with other parts of the university? What is the structure?

Dr. Walter Lee: So it is a, it does run in alignment with the university’s teacher education program. So I have misters who have declared their majors early childhood, elementary, middle level, yay, secondary, physical education.

None have selected to go the path of special education. However, I need to find somebody soon. And they go to their regular classes. They meet with their professors as would any other student but above that, there are some other curricular. Structures that we have for personal and professional growth.

So we often have speakers. We often go to university, not university, but school district board meetings networking events. Just recently, we had 1, some local professionals come in to support them and developing an elevator pitch. So that they can talk more succinctly about what they do. So that’s just some of what we do within Call Me MiSTER.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Each one of those elements reinforces that positive decision to become a teacher. And it’s essential. I’m glad to hear that it runs in parallel and provides more. It’s exactly what education needs today. And I’d like to see that percentage of representation move up a little bit.

Dr. Walter Lee: Yes.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Let me switch and talk a little bit about equity and how you define it, because it goes beyond skin color.

Dr. Walter Lee: Yeah, it goes way beyond skin color, it goes beyond language and more so in the teaching style. In the education world, we have to consider teaching styles, okay, and assessments. Now, at first, when I arrived at the university, a lot of the assignments in the course, they were paper based or presentation based.

So they would research something as a group. They’d go up to the front of the class and presented with clap, ask a couple questions. They sat down and then they would write a paper and I would critique them heavily because they forgot some attributes of APA 6th edition or 7th edition. And I soon realized that it just wasn’t helping them on their path to becoming in service teachers.

When they take my class, they’re going straight into the field in clinical one, or what some universities define as blockel. I also realized that our math students don’t write papers much. They’re math people. Our science people don’t write papers much. They’re math people. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that image that said, that had all the animals lined up and the assessment was that they climbed the tree.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Yes, to the fish.

Dr. Walter Lee: To the fish, climb the tree. I’m asking a math person to write a six page paper. Not that they should, not that they shouldn’t be able to write. Not that they shouldn’t be able to organize thoughts, but how can I give them the opportunity out of fairness to demonstrate that they understand the content.

And so this year, I decided to take a shift and drop some of the papers and I give them a rubric. And often a checklist and an assignment description. And I tell them, you decide how you want to demonstrate that you understand this. And so we’re right now working on our AMLE project. One student is developing a series of TikTok videos.

Another student is being interviewed by someone on a Zoom call and submitting that as a paper. As the assignment as their submission, another one is creating a YouTube channel where she’s specifically talking about the standards and answering some of the questions and two of them decided to work together because they’re just close.

They believe in the team model as we do in the middle level philosophy and they are doing a podcast recording together. In fact, that they’re doing that now. In the library using some of the resources there. I believe equity allows them to express themselves from all of those backgrounds and it takes the onus off of me, the educator, the teacher, the facilitator of knowledge to tell them what they should be doing versus hearing from them how they want to share with me what they understand.

It was an aha moment and I could tell that our educational system over the years may have done a disservice. Because when I get told them that they had the opportunity to demonstrate it, however, they chose, there was like a paper. I was like, maybe beyond a paper, a presentation. Think beyond a presentation.

They were scrambling for ideas. I was like, but you use TikTok all the time. Make TikTok videos. She was like, I actually do love TikTok. It wouldn’t feel like work. It’d just feel like I’m telling you what I know. That’s what I want. So when we consider equity. I think sometimes when we approach it in the classroom, we are trying to do all of the work to make sure that all of the diverse needs are being addressed when in fact, It can be as simple as saying, this is what I’m wanting to hear from you.

This is what I want to make sure you understand. What are some ways you can communicate that to me?

Dr. Wendy Amato: What I hear in the way you’re describing this modification is not absolving the teacher of the responsibility for teaching. You’re not telling teachers, accept whatever you get.

You’re saying, be clear about the learning objectives.

Dr. Walter Lee: Yeah.

Dr. Wendy Amato: And then invite your students. to have that opportunity to tell you, to share with you, to show you, to model how they have learned what they need to learn.

Dr. Walter Lee: And be flexible. Please be flexible. If you want the best out of them, sometimes you have to not be so rigidly married to the deadline. And that’s a lesson in equity too.

Dr. Wendy Amato: We’ll add flexibility to the list of asks that we’re making of the education community. And all the layers apply here. We’re talking about using these strategies to prepare educators. These strategies also work for students and teachers in the K 12 environment. Emphasis on participating in the teaching and learning experience, regardless of which side of the desk you’re on.

This makes all the difference in our commitment to gaining deep understanding knowledge that we can apply in unique contexts, and an understanding that becomes personal so it lasts.

Dr. Walter Lee: I love the work of Paulo Freire, and he. He is, he discusses this idea of the banking concept whereby teachers are the depositors and students are simply the receptors.

But in a loving environment, he said that the, in order for us to love students, we have to be in dialogue. And it requires that we are willing to be both teacher and student, and they’d be willing to be both student and teacher. They’re teaching me about their learning styles and their communication styles.

By me impartially giving them opportunities to express the content in a way that they can muster it up. And I’m teacher but I’m also student. I’m giving instructions but I’m also excited. I want to hear what they have to say.

Dr. Wendy Amato: Dr. Lee, thank you for sharing a conversation with me. I understand why the Association of Mid Level Educators has you as one of their board members.

I understand why you are a leader at the university, and I’m grateful to have been able to connect with you for this discussion.

Dr. Walter Lee: Thank you so much for having me again.

Dr. Wendy Amato: To our fellow educators. Thank you all for joining. If you’d like to explore the topics, programs, resources, and information that Dr. Lee and I discussed today, please check out the show notes at slash podcast. And be sure to subscribe on whatever listening app you use. It will help others to find us and to find Dr. Lee. I’ll see you again soon for the next episode. Thanks for listening.


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