UNT Dallas Program Nurtures Aspiring Educators, Opens a ‘Thirdspace’ for Teachers and School Leaders

The university’s Emerging Teacher Institute is creating a space where educator superpowers are cultivated, creating positive well-being in the midst of extraordinary stress so that the best changemakers remain in the profession.

John Gasko is finding a way to reshape education by making the classroom a place where innovation can thrive.

Gasko, professor and dean of the School of Education at University of North Texas, stresses the importance of nurturing the mental well-being of students and teachers, ensuring both feel motivated and encouraged in the classroom.

In an effort to increase teacher retention and make students more comfortable in the classroom, Gasko this May is introducing Thirdspace, one of the nation’s first body-mind labs which will guide how teachers are developed and supported.

Here’s what he had to say about Thirdspace:

Tell me about your role at UNT Dallas, your inspiration to innovate in the world of education, and the importance of rethinking our approach to training educators and better preparing students?

I currently serve as Professor and Dean of the School of Education. My inspiration to innovate revolves around my belief that if we are not constantly living on the razor’s edge of innovation then we will not create the conditions for success in our schools.

In today’s educator preparation environments, there largely is a status quo mentality around what skills and competencies future teachers need to both survive and thrive in our public schools. I believe that current approaches need to be reimagined and reordered beginning with the “who” that teaches rather than developing microwaveable formulas designed to get better test scores.

Reclaiming our own humanity in the midst of the teaching enterprise is something that’s been lost, and we are seeing the repercussions across the country given the number of teachers who are leaving the profession and/or expressing their existential angst through protest.

Describe the Emerging Teacher Institute and its goals in the world of education. How has the institute’s training impacted teacher retention and students’ graduation rates?

John Gasko

The Emerging Teacher Institute has 4 core pillars that drive its approach to teacher preparation: (1) Nobility; (2) Intellect; (3) Self-Care; and (4) Practice. At ETI we espouse the belief that teaching is a sacred, noble calling, and we intentionally seek candidates who have discerned a stirring within themselves that they wish to actualize here at UNT Dallas.

Accordingly, our faculty and staff do a tremendous amount of work celebrating the profundity of the call and create learning experiences that elevate the status of the profession and inspire a mindset of unbounded possibility in our students. We pair that sacred calling with a world-class education of the intellect in order to prepare urban intellectual warriors who are capable of enacting transformation no matter the environment they find themselves in once they graduate.

Unfortunately, educator preparation programs have not paid as much attention to the well-being and self-care of their candidates. Therefore, at ETI we have made self-care a learned skill so our teacher candidates do not have to make the false choice between the calling of a lifetime and their own health once they begin work in the public school system.

We see many teacher turnover in our public schools due to stress, burnout, toxic work environments, and the rising challenges associated with managing difficult student behavior. As such, at ETI we believe students need to be prepared to cultivate their own self-awareness and self-management skills in the midst of a difficult work environment so that they can flourish and stay the course.

Finally, we believe in providing our students with ongoing opportunities to practices their skills and craft by spending significant amounts of time in high-needs public schools where they hone their relational and instructional competencies while also practicing self-care in the midst of it.

How do neuroscience and medical discoveries affect stress and burnout, and how is Thirdspace combating the phenomenon?

We have made such significant breakthroughs in neuroscience that not addressing them in teacher preparation would be akin to malpractice. We know without question that brain health is integrally linked to bodily health and that our actual musculature and tissues “keep the score.”

A recent ABC News poll ranked teaching as the 4th most stressful profession in America. This has huge implications in terms of preparation that can be framed by the following question: do we want teachers to work from a place of stress or from a place of well-being? If we desire the latter, we have significant work in teaching future educators how to flourish and be resilient in the midst of adversity.

I believe well-being is a learnable skill that can be imparted; therefore we are opening in May of 2019 one of the nation’s first body-mind labs, called Thirdspace, which will integrally engage and guide how teachers are developed and supported. Thirdspace represents a (r)evolution in teacher pedagogy that seeks to transform teacher burnout to teacher well-being.

What do you mean by a “holistic model of education and development” when discussing teacher wellbeing?

For me, holistic is a play on being or becoming WHOLE. How do we support the development of WHOLE human beings while preparing them to become incredible changemakers—aka, teachers? That’s our opportunity. If we want to nurture happy and whole teachers, then we need to do more than educate their minds.

We need to reflect back throughout antiquity and reclaim ancient wisdom that suggests that wholeness involves the body, the brain, the mind, the breath, the emotions, the heart, and the non-material worlds. Young people in schools need positive, secure attachments with highly evolved human beings that have done the work within themselves required to enable it for others.

Teacher preparation and support is not just taking courses and engaging in intensive clinical practice, but it must also encompass “deeper” aspects of human development.

What are the tenets of the program, and how do they contribute to lowering the dropout rate?

The ETI model, especially through the inclusion of Thirdspace, prioritizes integral human development as the precondition for good teaching and the ability to thrive in the midst of adversity and churn. We believe that supporting the integral development of our candidates—mind, body, emotion, and soul—will give them a much stronger foundation upon which to remain focused on well-being in the pursuit of excellence in the classroom, thereby lowering their need or desire to dropout simply to remain alive. Stress, as we all know, is a killer. Too many of our best teachers leave because they would rather do something else than shorten their lives.

How could the teacher dropout rate decline as a result of Thirdspace?

Thirdspace launches in May 2019, and we have put together an incredible strategy group representing the university and great organizations and leaders from the community who believe that happy teachers change the world.

We will be developing impact metrics that monitor outcomes for students while they are in formation at UNT Dallas and also after they graduate and begin work. In addition to current and future students, Thirdspace will offer programming geared at supporting current, in-service teachers and school leaders so that they, too, can work on the “inside” as they do their “onstage” work.

While we are optimistic we can reduce the teacher and leader dropout rate, we will also need to close partnership of school districts to ensure that the ecosystem itself is set up to nurture and support wholeness. Simply creating caring, Navy SEAL teachers with strong resilience is not enough. The system itself has to value the well-being of the adults that serve it with the same level of urgency as supporting young people.

Why is it important that UNT Dallas is setting the standard for an innovative approach to education?

UNT Dallas has to set the standard. Our university is located at the intersection of several deserts: a food desert, a poverty desert, a higher education attainment desert, and a well-being desert. We have made bold claims around accelerating the life outcomes and social mobility of our students that I claim are not realizable unless we innovate.

It’s hard to innovate in higher education because the system tends to trend towards compliance over time. Our community in South Dallas and our students don’t need compliance. Our community and students need changemakers who will reinvent and reimagine higher education over and over again until the results speak for themselves.

We currently are heading in that very direction as evidenced by our rapid enrollment growth, having the lowest student-debt in the United States, and through great leadership, faculty, and staff most of whom are mission aligned to our North Star.

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