The University Record, May 23, 1994

Shari Saunders lives three lives: Educator, mentor, role model

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

When Shari Saunders walks into the classroom on the first day of her introductory course on elementary school teaching, her students usually ignore her. An assistant professor at the School of Education, Saunders slips in the door half an hour or so after the first class has started. Meanwhile, her teaching assistant has been asking students to discuss their impressions of professors. By the time Saunders enters, the essential elements of the archetypal professor are taking shape on the board. Usually, the definition boils down to this: a professor is an old white guy. “I sort of challenge all three assumptions,” says Saunders, an African American woman who looks as young as most of her students.

Despite—or perhaps partly because of—the ways she differs from the

stereotypical professor, Saunders recently received recognition for her work as a mentor to elementary education student Candace Boone, who received the 1994 Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship. But Saunders also coached and advised a team of students who won the 1994 Commonwealth Center Invitational Team Case Competition in Charlottesville, Va., last April.

Her skill as a mentor is a natural part of what she sees as her role in the classroom, facilitating the development of teachers.

“In teacher education, you have to serve as a model as well as a mentor,” she says. “The U-M has a lot of students who are good at playing the academic game—listening to lectures, taking tests. I don’t lecture or give tests. Instead, I believe in group work, discussions and writing—lots of writing.”

She meets often with students, encouraging them to call her and guaranteeing she’ll call them back the same day if they call before 9 p.m. She also asks them to call her “Shari,” not “Professor Saunders.” These are the kinds of things, Saunders believes, that help develop the rapport with students needed to create a mentoring relationship with them.

Saunders also believes in the value of analyzing cases to help students understand the complexity of classroom teaching. Long a staple of business and legal education, case analysis is a growing trend in teacher education. The best thing about using cases, according to Saunders, is that they get students thinking, talking and considering the complexity of teaching. “They learn there are no right answers,” she says, “but when you make a decision, it should be knowledge-based.

“Through case analysis, students develop awareness of the factors that influence their interpretation of issues and choice of solutions—their beliefs and the context of the situation as well as the subject under consideration. When they ask the question, ‘What should I do?’ they learn that the answer is ‘It depends.’ And the more they know about the situation, the better their decision is likely to be.

“One of my goals for last fall’s course was to help pre-service teachers develop a multicultural orientation toward education,” notes Saunders, who authored a paper titled “Struggling with Issues of Race to Grow Personally and Professionally: A Case” that is based on her teaching experiences. “But I didn’t anticipate some of the issues that would arise as a result of adopting this orientation in a class composed primarily of Caucasian students.”

Saunders considers the process of helping students become aware of their own beliefs about diversity and how these beliefs might influence their behavior in the classroom to be at the heart of what it means to have a multicultural orientation in teacher education. She feels it’s often easier to facilitate the development of pre-service teachers who admit to having some racist beliefs but are open to growth and change, than it is to help those who feel they have no racist beliefs and therefore have no room for growth and change.

“Nevertheless,” she says, “we must continue to challenge all our pre-service teachers to think about who they are and how that will affect who they become as teachers working with children in a multicultural society.”