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Education professor fights status quo to make schools more equitable

Even at a young age, Gloria Boutte felt an urge to speak out against inequity and injustice. Growing up in Newberry, South Carolina, Boutte says her mother’s example of pushing back against discrimination taught her she could make a difference.

For three and a half decades, the University of South Carolina education professor has dedicated her work to creating school experiences that are more equitable for students of color.

“It became very clear to me early on that was part of my life’s purpose,” says Boutte, a Carolina Distinguished Professor in instruction and teacher education. “That’s why I am passionate about it — because it’s part of what I am meant to do. Some people can go with the status quo, but that was never right for me. When something didn’t sit right, I was always speaking up, finding ways to interrupt, and for me, that translates into teaching.”

Boutte’s scholarship, teaching, leadership and service have been recognized with the 2021 Division K Legacy Award from American Educational Research Association. The award is given to an educator who has made significant and exemplary scholarship contributions to the field of teaching and teacher education.

“Rarely in our professional careers do we have the honor to work with someone who has a clear purpose and passion, and the dedication to selflessly serve” says Jon Pedersen, dean of the College of Education. “Dr. Boutte embodies this through her commitment to culturally relevant teaching and Black children. Her dedication to changing inequitable systems through teacher education and the effect of her internationally recognized scholarship has impacted countless children, families, schools and communities.”

The award is an honor, she says, not only because was she nominated by colleagues and former students, but also because it means her work has impact.

“We’ve been able to move the gauge on what equitable curriculum and instruction look like and what systemic policies need to be changed,” she says. “Ensuring academic and cultural excellence impacts students in the short run and benefits us as a society in the long run.”

In addition to being the first Black woman named a Carolina Distinguished Professor, Boutte is founder and executive director of UofSC’s Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students and the author/editor of four books. She has presented nationally and internationally on equity, community, curriculum, instruction and diversity issues and has received prestigious awards, including Fulbright Scholar and Fulbright Specialist.

Boutte calls the work of promoting culturally relevant teaching joyful even though it can be a slow process when conversations about race and racism are not always welcome or easy.

She says UofSC has been ahead of the curve in efforts to transform schools through programs such as Early Childhood Education’s Urban Cohort, the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students and the Apple Core Initiative. Through these initiatives as well as new course work, field experiences and partnerships with South Carolina school districts, the university has become a model in teacher preparation for translating culturally sustaining teaching methods into practice.

“Advocacy for children is at the forefront of Dr. Boutte’s work. Everything she does builds from that foundation,” College of Education doctoral student, Javais Jackson, along with professors Susi Long and Kamania Wynter-Hoyte wrote in their nomination of Boutte for the legacy award. “She does not conduct research, publish, present and teach merely for lines on a CV; she does so because of deep convictions about creating a more just world.”

That conviction underscores Boutte’s support of a nondeficit approach to education — ensuring that schools and educators implement curriculum, instruction and assessment to focus on students’ abilities rather than their challenges or backgrounds. She references the Masai greeting, “And how are the children?,” to emphasize her belief that if the children are well, then our society and our future are intact.

For those who are interested in teaching as a profession, Boutte urges them to reflect critically about why they want to be an educator.

“If you want to make a difference in the lives of children, then of course teaching is one way of doing that,” she says. “But you have to be open to growing and developing. In addition to a theoretical base, it takes skill to implement that knowledge and be an effective teacher. People who want to teach need to think about why they’re doing it and what they can do on behalf of children to make the world a better place.”

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