Meet Dr. Brenda L. Walker, Interim Associate Dean of the College of Education
Dr. Brenda L. Walker
(June 12, 2019) – Dr. Brenda L. Walker began her tenure as the Interim Associate Dean for the College of Education at USF St. Petersburg on June 3, 2019. As the top administrative officer in the College, Walker will oversee faculty and work closely with them and university leadership to support, grow and develop distinct community programs and strategies that enhance student and faculty success and research in the fields of education.
Walker has spent the past 28 years at the USF Tampa Campus, where she advanced through the ranks from Assistant Professor to full Professor. In 1995, she developed Project PILOT, Preparing Innovative Leaders of Tomorrow, the first of several initiatives that prepared African American men for urban special education teaching careers. As a result of the initiative, more than 30 African American men have graduated and are teaching children with special needs.
Walker’s work also focuses on culturally-responsive teaching – how to connect with students of different ethnic, social and gender backgrounds – and enhancing African American students’ success. We sat down with Dr. Walker to hear more about her academic experience and vision for the College of Education.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
I have always been an educator at heart. I grew up a product of urban schools and noticed disparities between different schools. By today’s standards, the schools I was in would probably be labeled as low-performing. We had predominantly African American students who came from largely low-income backgrounds. Furthermore, I always noticed differences between African American males and females and how they were taught and the outcomes that resulted. I had three brothers and their outcomes were very different from mine and how we were treated in our schools. I wanted to close those gaps and disparities.
What has been your focus throughout your academic career?
When I think about my career, this quote always comes to mind. Dr. Benjamin Mays was the president of Morehouse College when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He eulogized Dr. King and said that he “championed the cause of those farthest down.” And that really stuck with me and is what I wanted to do. In fact, in my job interview at USF for an Assistant Professor position, I remember letting them know that this would be my research agenda.
At the time, those farthest down in terms of educational success were African American males. I started project PILOT – Preparing Innovative Leaders of Tomorrow – because I noticed in my classes of students preparing to be teachers, there were no African American men. I didn’t have much of a budget for recruiting students, so I made some flyers and went to barber shops, churches and other places where African American males gathered and recruited them to become teachers of children with behavior disorders.
What is your vision for the college and your new role?
The exciting research and initiatives that faculty and staff are doing in this college is quite fascinating. I’m excited about their work around culturally responsive teaching, to all the research around areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the new STEM lab and the many connections I see with colleagues who are doing similar research and community engagement at the Tampa campus. I want to support and scale up that work and see my role as a connector.
I would like to create more linkages among the three campuses. I embrace consolidation as I see it bringing new opportunities and more collaborative problem solving. When you think about our work out in schools and in the community preparing teachers and school leaders, we need to rely on more collaborative work among colleagues and partnerships with the school district.
What areas do you hope to focus on moving forward?
I, like many others, have read articles on the so-called failure factories in Pinellas County schools and the Turnaround Schools in Hillsborough County. Those schools really resonate with me. But I approach it very much from a strength base as opposed to a deficit. I want to look at the strengths we can build on. From my own experience, I was a high performer in what would be considered by today’s standards a low-performing school. When we use terminology like “failure factories” and “low-performing schools,” we paint with much too broad of a brush. Everybody is not failing in those schools, all teachers are not ineffective and all families are not chaotic and dysfunctional. These are perceptions that I would like to change.
Why should aspiring teachers choose this college?
You get a real personalized curriculum here, due to the strength of a smaller campus and the community feel where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. There is a strong sense of care and support here and the realization that life happens, and when it does, the community rallies around each other.
What are some of the recent trends in education and how do they relate to the work of the college?
Enrollment in colleges of education around the country is declining, so our College needs to more deliberately recruit students who want to go into teaching careers. We want caring, effective and culturally-responsive teachers for our classrooms who are committed to all children.
There are also two significant gaps that currently keep me up at night. There is the achievement gap, and then there is the discipline gap. Students of color are being suspended at disproportionate rates when compared to other students. We tend to focus on academic gaps, but every time you are suspended from school you miss out on opportunities to learn. To address that fact, I really want to focus on the social aspect of learning, teaching students social and leadership skills as explicitly as we teach academic skills. We also have to ensure that teachers and principals are prepared to meet the changing needs of children and youth from families with limited incomes.