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Roy Jones listens to a Call Me MISTER student address the room during a previous Summer Leadership Institute.
Image Credit: College of Education

2020 was off to a great start for Clemson University’s storied Call Me MISTER® program. In February, the College of Education‘s program was recognized on the floor of both the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. MISTERs from every participating institution convened for a reception later that day celebrating the legacy of the program joined by educational leaders from across the state.

The next big item on the anniversary celebration agenda was the Call Me MISTER Summer Leadership Institute, which has become a key piece of the program experience for students over the years. Students and site coordinators from every participating institution get together to hear from guest speakers, network with one another and learn valuable lessons about the part they’ll play as change agents in education.

The institute is also when the investiture ceremony takes place and graduating MISTERs receive their signature black blazer. It’s far more than an article of clothing. It’s a major milestone. It’s the peak of a mountain ascended before a MISTER moves on to fulfill their commitment to teach in a public school.

However, those students have yet to don the blazer in front of their peers, and what was to be a weeklong institute in late June became a single speaking event held via Zoom. According to Roy Jones, executive director of Call Me MISTER, 2020 had other plans.

“Just like everything else we had planned for our MISTERs, those blazers will arrive, just maybe not in the timeframe we originally planned,” Jones said. “COVID-19 meant we had to adapt, so while an abbreviated summer leadership institute was disappointing, it has changed into something we’re very excited about.”

The late June speaking event featured Dr. Sandra McGuire, director emerita of the center for academic success and retired assistant vice chancellor and professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University. McGuire is a metacognition expert who has successfully closed the achievement gap for students of color. The online event held via Zoom was well received by students, so it proved to be a trial run for an entirely new, expanded version of the institute.

The Call Me MISTER Leadership Series was born from this event and the recognized need to convene MISTERs in an online format. MISTER leaders wanted to take advantage of Zoom to cover topics ranging from practical instruction to leadership values, so it quickly became clear that it could not—and should not—be relegated to the summer.

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Mark Joseph, program coordinator for Call Me MISTER, speaking during a previous Summer Leadership Institute.
Image Credit: Clemson University

According to Mark Joseph, program coordinator for Call Me MISTER and assistant professor at Anderson University, the schedule lasting into next summer is not completely filled out yet, but that is by design. MISTER leadership want to first “take the pulse” of current students in their home areas to learn what they want out of an ongoing, online series.

“There are many conversations around race going on at the moment all across this country, and we’ve always seen that context is one of the most important things to get right when discussing anything with our students,” Joseph said. “It’s now more important than ever to have future educators understand their place in history and the responsibility they will bear as educators moving forward.”

Protests revolving around race, police brutality, statues of historical figures and building names have obviously emerged as topics that students want to explore and seek guidance on. Jones and Joseph admit that if there was ever a time to provide MISTERs with context, now would be it.

Dr. Alfred Tatum, dean of the University of Illinois/Chicago’s College of Education, will lead off the Call Me MISTER Leadership Series in September. Tatum is a nationally known scholar for “reorienting how we think about literacy” in the language development and understanding of Black boys. He will be addressing the MISTERs on this theme and will pull information from his most recent book, “Literacy Development of Black Boys: An Advanced Literacy Perspective.” Tatum was instrumental in establishing Call Me MISTER on his campus three years ago and continues to be a champion in promoting the mission to diversify the teacher workforce.

Joseph said that the key to tackling these sensitive topics for students is to clearly tie them to the mission of MISTER, just as Tatum will surely do in September. He said it would be misguided to try to educate students as a reaction to world events; instead, they need to understand those events and the bearing they will inevitably have on classrooms. With that knowledge, MISTERs won’t just be able to recognize problems but come up with solutions.

“These conversations just make clearer what our role as educators needs to be,” Joseph said. “If we call ourselves MISTERs but we’re not willing to educate and empower, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice. We use cohort meetings and we’ll use this leadership series as a reminder and encouraging space for us, because it’s easy to get swept away with larger conversations and frustration and hurt. Let’s remind one another what our role is in this.”

In a time of uncertainty in the future of higher education budgets and enrollment, this unwavering focus is why MISTER has only seen increased interest from institutions looking to start Call Me MISTER programs. Jones said that the pandemic has certainly disrupted site visits and consultations, but Zoom meetings and online site visits have occurred, nonetheless.

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Site coordinators from every Call Me MISTER institution listening to a speaker alongside students at a Summer Leadership Institute.
Image Credit: College of Education

Jones said that a teacher shortage will still be present if not worse whenever the pandemic ends, and institutions will still prioritize diversifying the teacher workforce as student demographics continue to change. Current social crises only make the need to prioritize teacher diversity clearer for teacher preparation institutions, and Call Me MISTER’s 20-year track record of positive impact and results is hard to ignore.

Jones can’t help but see the news these days and imagine where the stories of so many people intersect. This upcoming school year, he imagines a future victim of police violence sitting in an elementary classroom. On one side of this student may sit another future victim, and on the other a future perpetrator of violence. In that same class may sit a future police officer tasked with protecting them all. With MISTER in mind, Jones thinks about what they all might have in common.

“Some of these students may be missing that crucial adult role model, but they will all have teachers in front of them,” Jones said. “The masses won’t be able to sit down and talk to a therapist about what’s going on in the world. That would be great, but it’s not realistic. If you have instability in a community, the next best thing is a teacher, and our program aims to continue positioning MISTERs to stand in the gap between vulnerable students and the outside world. The way we do that is preparing these teachers in the context of the world around them.”

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Call Me MISTER works to increase the pool of available teachers from more diverse backgrounds, particularly among the lowest-performing elementary schools. What started as a single program at Clemson University is now at 25 participating institutions in nine states. Ninety percent of students in the Call Me MISTER program come from South Carolina public schools; 85 percent of graduates are still teaching in them, often in Title 1 schools. If MISTERs leave the classroom, it’s usually to become administrators as 36 alumni have. Of the 278 MISTERs who have graduated from the program in South Carolina, 42 have been named Teachers of the Year by their schools.

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