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Looking back on her more than four decades as an educator, Carol Brennan Jenkins still marvels that she became a teacher at all. “I did not grow up immersed in books,” she says. “My parents were Irish immigrants—they drilled into us the importance of education, but they didn’t read stories to us.”
Jenkins admits she didn’t read a book for pleasure until she was about 14, when she discovered Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and fell in love with language and literature. And, she confides, she didn’t have great teachers growing up as a student in the Boston public school system of the 1950s. “I was in college before I found my first favorite teacher,” she says.
And yet the School of Education associate professor believes she was born with a “teaching gene.” As a five-year-old, she recalls, just after her father had painstakingly painted her bedroom, she “proudly wrote the words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ on the wall, trying to teach my younger sisters how to spell them. I just knew growing up that I was going to be a teacher.”
Jenkins majored in education at Northeastern University, where she also earned a master’s degree. After working as a reading specialist in an affluent suburban school and as an elementary school teacher in a poor urban school system, she went to Boston College for a PhD. Her research focuses on elementary-level literacy with an emphasis on developing tools for teaching writing to young students.
For the past 23 years, Jenkins, program director of SED’s Elementary Education program, has prepared hundreds of undergraduates and graduate students to become teachers.
Her goal, she says, is to see that her students “leave with a commitment to make sure there’s a joyful learning climate in their classroom, that their kids are excited to be in their classrooms.” The pressure teachers face over standardized testing is unlikely to change any time soon, she says, and “we have to try to strike that balance where joyful learning is at the heart of what we do, along with the relationships that you build with your kids, because that’s everything. Relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Jenkins has earned plaudits from her students for her innovative methods in the classroom. She is not afraid to put on a costume and role-play if it helps drive home a point. She’s been known to dress up as a leprechaun to demonstrate how to teach “sh” words to children and to don a cape and crown and pretend to be a queen so her students learn how to teach children about writing a good lead for a story. Standing at the front of the room, she’ll explain that while a queen may have her trumpeters to pull in an audience, an author must rely on words. At other times, with her hair in pigtails, she’s acted like a third grader and assigned one of her students the role of teacher to demonstrate how to conduct an effective writing conference.
But Jenkins’ most important legacy may be the introduction of what she calls “situated learning” into the elementary education curriculum at BU. Putting students in an actual school, where they learn how to teach writing by working with elementary school teachers, allows them to observe firsthand how to get children excited about writing, and what works and what doesn’t.
“When you look at the training for medical students and see young interns right there with the experts, learning their incredible craft with all that expertise,” she says, “it just seemed so ridiculous for us not to be in a school while learning to teach writing, so we could take advantage of some of the wonderful writing teachers working with fourth graders.”
Students routinely describe her as “inspiring,” “passionate,” and “a role model.” And on Sunday, at BU’s 140th Commencement ceremony, Jenkins will receive one of the University’s highest teaching honors: a Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.
“Carol represents the courage and authenticity that it takes to be a great educator,” says Hardin Coleman, dean of SED. “She teaches and mentors with her whole body and soul.” Coleman credits Jenkins’ collaboration with the Trotter Elementary School, a poor urban school in Dorchester, Mass., and the site of her situated learning model, for better preparing “educators to work in hard needs schools.”
Jenkins’ efforts to teach students in a poor urban school came about after several recent SED graduates, all academically gifted, confided to her that they felt unprepared for the enormous challenges they faced when they took assignments in an urban school—so much so that they nearly quit.
It was a eureka moment. “I thought, well, it’s not just a matter of delivering content to them,” Jenkins says. “They have to live it. They have to be there. They have to be in a school where they see the lack of resources. They need to see the reality of a poor urban school.”
Jenkins reached out to the Trotter’s principal to forge a unique collaboration. Now, instead of simulating writing conferences and role-playing, her students spend one day a week observing a fourth grade teacher in the classroom. The teacher then comes to Jenkins’ class and teaches the preservice teachers. They learn firsthand the challenges of preparing kids for standardized tests like MCAS and how to introduce students to writing. And they work one-on-one tutoring a fourth grade student.
Jenkins says that the situated learning program at the Trotter also better prepares her students to understand the role that race plays in the classroom (78 percent of Trotter students are black; the rest are Hispanic).
“How powerful for them to be learning about issues around race in the classroom while they’re in a school,” says Jenkins. “They come face-to-face with the reality of poverty and the prospect that the child they’re tutoring once a week may not have the incredible future that they had at the same age. There’s just something about being attached to a child, caring for that child, and then looking at the issues around poverty and education.”
She hopes that such exposure will better prepare her students for the day in and day out reality of teaching in a poor urban school.
Her first reaction on learning she had been nominated for a Metcalf Award, she says, was, “There’s no way I’m going to get this.” Winning the award “is amazing. This is the supreme tribute, because I’m a teacher—I’m a teacher through and through. And to have this kind of recognition, that’s phenomenal.”
The honor is especially sweet because she recently announced that following a sabbatical next year, when she hopes to work on two children’s books, she will retire. But she plans to stay involved in the collaboration she began at the Trotter, she says.
“I know my legacy really is this incredible group of young men and women who will go into these classrooms and carry forth the charge of joyful learning,” says Jenkins. “And the work at the Trotter, hoping that we really are moving in the right direction and that teacher prep can begin to become more school-based instead of remaining in isolation the way we have been.”
The Metcalf awards date to 1973 and are funded by a gift from the late BU professor and Board of Trustees chairman emeritus Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74). The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, the Metcalf Award winners $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on nominees’ statements of teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom evaluations.
This year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize winner is Deborah Vaughan (GRS’72), a School of Medicine professor of anatomy and neurobiology and assistant dean of admissions. The second Metcalf Award winner is John R. Finnerty, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of biology.
More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.