By Jeff Dodge | Photography by Mary Neiberg

During childhood playtime, Susan Faircloth pretended to teach a classroom of stuffed animals and dolls. But as a Native American – a member of the Coharie Tribe in North Carolina – she had no early interest in education as a career. She hadn’t grown up with Native teachers as role models.

“I wanted to be a lawyer or an FBI agent, something with intrigue,” said Faircloth, who was raised in Clinton, N.C., a rural town in the state’s eastern reaches, where her tribe is based. “I had little interest in teaching, as the majority of my schooling experience did not emphasize my tribal culture or history, and I did not see others like me in teaching or leadership roles in my schools.”

Yet, Faircloth became a licensed teacher and, later, a college professor and distinguished administrator with expertise in school leadership and education for diverse student populations. She changed her mind about a career in education after completing undergraduate studies in Latin American history and landing a job working with American Indian students in a large urban school district. A second job at a community college, providing support services for students with disabilities, first-generation students, and low-income students, crystallized her interest in connecting students from all backgrounds to educational opportunities. That interest prompted her graduate studies and became the keystone of her professional life.

Last year, her path brought Faircloth to Colorado State University, where she is director of the School of Education and guides teacher preparation and other programs that ready CSU scholars to work as educators in settings ranging from preschools to university campuses and beyond. About 1,100 students take course work in the School of Education.

“Although I had not planned to become a teacher, it became evident through my early career experiences that I was meant to be an educator. It just took me longer than many of my peers to see and follow my calling,” Faircloth said.

As it turns out, a career in education is the perfect way to wed her personal experience, her academic interests, and her desire to help address challenges facing schools and their students across the country. Many of those challenges – including urgent K-12 teacher shortages across the state and nation – boil down to a need for access to educational excellence for all. That need is a driving concern for Faircloth and is central to the mission of Colorado State University and other land-grant institutions nationwide.

“I hold dear the land-grant mission of serving the people and communities of this land and ensuring equitable educational opportunities and access for all,” Faircloth said.

Her family history reinforced the idea. Faircloth is a first-generation college student, with parents who attended Indian schools because they were prohibited from going to school with white students. Her father joined the Marines, served in Vietnam, and became the first American Indian police officer in their small town; her mother worked in a hog-slaughtering facility for nearly four decades.

“It took my mother 37 years in that factory to figure out she could do more than that,” said Faircloth, adding that she likewise underestimated her abilities after earning her bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t see myself as being a good fit for graduate school and didn’t have the money.”

Susan Faircloth pictured as a schoolgirl with her parents, Gene and Marie Faircloth.
Susan Faircloth is pictured as a schoolgirl with her parents, Gene and Marie Faircloth. Photo courtesy of Susan Faircloth

Faculty mentors encouraged her to apply for fellowships to support her graduate education. She did so, and earned master’s and doctoral degrees in education through the American Indian Leadership Program at Penn State University. Her areas of emphasis include educational administration, special education, and Indigenous education.

Her background aligns with the School of Education, which prepares CSU students in undergraduate and graduate-level programs to lead and deliver education and related services in a variety of settings, whether for preschoolers, K-12 pupils, college scholars, or adult learners. One of its units is the Center for Educator Preparation, whose work training K-12 teachers has gained visibility with rising worries about teacher shortages, which are acute in rural schools in Colorado and elsewhere.

Ann Sebald, co-director of the Center for Educator Preparation, said the challenge in teacher preparation comes not only in attracting and graduating more college students to fill teacher vacancies, which are rising with a wave of baby boomer retirements, but addressing the reasons younger teachers leave their jobs. These include curriculum concerns, limited affordable housing, a low tax base for supporting public education, and meager salaries. In 2017, Colorado ranked No. 31 in the nation based on average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

“Some rural school districts have to compete with Walmart for employees, because Walmart can pay more than the teachers earn, which is incredibly sad,” Sebald said.

CSU cannot change the state funding formula for public schools or boost teacher pay. But its Center for Educator Preparation does strive to develop more and better-prepared candidates. That’s important, given that up to 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession in their first five years, data show. Through the program’s framework as a professional development school, CSU students major in subjects they wish to teach – art, biology, English, history, or mathematics, for instance – while also learning pedagogy, the practice of effectively delivering classroom lessons. Education majors then gain more than 800 hours of co-teaching with K-12 instructors in local school districts. These experiences lead to licensure.

“Our teacher candidates get a large amount of on-the-job training,” Sebald said. “K-12 learns from us, and we learn from K-12.”

Alumni laud the approach. Darian Ortiz, a first-generation student who graduated in May after student teaching at Timnath Elementary School, east of Fort Collins, works at Compass Community Collaborative School in Fort Collins.

Darian Ortiz meets with a student
Darian Ortiz readied for his teaching career through the Center for Educator Preparation, one of several programs in the CSU School of Education. Like others in the program, he gained more than 800 hours of student teaching before accepting a job at Compass Community Collaborative School in Fort Collins. Photo by Ben Ward

“They gave us a solid platform with the student teaching practicum,” he said. “CSU prepared me well and gave me a really good base for teaching.”

For Faircloth, addressing the teacher shortage in rural areas holds special meaning – not just because of her academic background and personal history, but because she is a parent.

“Education is the work that I do, but it’s also very personal,” Faircloth said. “I think about the kinds of teachers I want teaching my own child. I have a deep commitment to ensuring there is a qualified cadre of educators, particularly in rural areas. The location where one lives should not determine one’s access to – or quality of – education.”

“I hold dear the land-grant mission of serving the people and communities of this land and ensuring equitable educational opportunities and access for all.”

– Susan Faircloth, director, CSU School of Education

Susan Faircloth pictured with her daughter Journey
As a child, Faircloth had no interest in education as a career. That changed by the time she had her daughter, Journey, above; the two are pictured at a family wedding. Photo courtesy of Susan Faircloth