Sally Blake’s plans for the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction are bold.
“I want NIU to be the best teacher-training program in the country,” says Blake, who began work July 16 as chair of the department formerly known as the Literacy and Elementary Education. “Of course, it already has a strong reputation, and it will become the premier program. That’s not too high of a goal.”
Teaching is something Blake takes quite seriously, even if she didn’t grow up planning to become a teacher.
But that notion began to flicker when her mother became engaged with the work of Head Start, which launched in 1965.
“My mother encouraged me to realize the importance of education, of informed citizens, of why we need to train teachers,” she says. “It has become an even more pressing issue in this time than it was 40 years ago.”
Educators continue to confront “constantly changing environments,” she says, including social, cultural and political dynamics as well as accountability systems and technology.
Teachers also need solutions on how to communicate with English Language Learners, she says, and the awareness “that all children want to be treated equally and given fair opportunity.”
“All children have potential and talent. They all want to be successful, and we, as educators, must help them identify and develop these strengths,” she says. “They are the future and educators provide the guidance, scaffolding and safety net to success.”
Faculty and graduates of the NIU College of Education understand that well, adds Blake, who cites that commitment among the factors that helped draw her to DeKalb from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., where she served as chair of the William F. Blois Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Dean Laurie Elish-Piper is excited to welcome Blake, known and highly regarded for her valuable experience with grants, school-university partnerships and innovative programs.
“Dr. Blake is a veteran teacher-educator and leader, and she brings a wealth of expertise in assessment and accreditation, which will be important contributions to our department,” Elish-Piper says. “She is a creative innovator, an exemplary teacher and a generous collaborator, which is just the kind of leadership we believe will move the Department of Curriculum and Instruction forward in positive ways.”
NIU has actually been on Blake’s radar “for the last few years,” thanks to her daughter, Candice Burkett, who seriously considered NIU for her doctoral studies.
Blake’s favorable opinion only grew when she attended an undergraduate research conference where many young Huskies from the College of Education were presenting with their mentors.
Visiting NIU further exposed her to “vibrant personalities” and “the professionalism” of the College of Education faculty. “This is a place where we will find many solutions to the issues that plague us,” she says. “The students at NIU seem to have this high potential.”
Potential is something Blake has cared about since Day One.
After earning bachelor’s degrees in Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Arkansas State University in 1973, she became a kindergarten teacher in Houston – where her lessons continued.
Surrounded by “social justice issues – but that’s not how we identified them in those days,” she “always worked in the high-risk schools. I could see the discrepancies in opportunity for the lower-socioeconomic status students and, in some places, teachers.”
Meanwhile, “I learned a lot from the children in my classrooms,” she adds. “In my afternoon class, the children spoke eight different languages.”
Her creation of a program in Texas to provide free, for-credit curriculum in science, engineering and math to secondary students – mostly high school – showed her “how little I knew about teaching and learning.”
When Blake eventually returned to her native Arkansas, she began teaching in another high-poverty school.
“Seeing the teachers and how they interacted with the students, I thought, ‘How do we train teachers where they do not come in with bias, or make assumptions? We have to find ways to support them,’ ” she says. “I had to go back to school and learn how to be a researcher.”
Blake, who earned a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi in 1991, and also holds a M.S. in Elementary Education from Arkansas State, studies such topics as science education for English Language Learners as well as teacher education in science and math.
Her recent work has examined the effects of high-stakes testing on the creativity of teachers and children. “As we focus on the test,” she says, “creativity scores are declining.”
Her career in higher education has included stops at the University of Memphis, the University of Texas at El Paso, Arkansas State University and Kentucky Wesleyan College. She began at Flagler in 2011.
Faculty in the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction can expect a partner in Blake.
“My leadership is very grass roots. You accomplish nothing unless you have a strong, core working relationship with all of the people, and I felt such an energy when I was talking to all of them,” she says. “It’s very exciting and energizing for me to be with a group ready to take on any issues we have in our schools – and to offer solutions – and I’m looking forward to working with them in learning how to become a better teacher-educator.”