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Burke Scarbrough

Burke Scarbrough headshot

Affiliation: Alumnus
Program: PhD, Teaching and Curriculum
Previous education: BA, Duke University (English): MA, Teachers College (English Education)
Honors: 2010 Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student

After graduating from Teachers College at Columbia University, Burke Scarbrough figured he’d get his feet wet, like any new grad, with a teaching job. His full-time teaching gig became more than just that. Scarbrough was given an opportunity of a lifetime to start a new school in New York City.

Scarbrough, along with seven other young colleagues, helped open one of several new small schools inside Martin Luther King High School, a public school in Manhattan that closed down due to gang-related violence.

As the only English teacher in the new school, he had two years of difficult work, trying not only to form personal relationships with students and be a good English teacher, but to run and build a school from a blank slate. He looks back and describes this experience as overwhelming, yet fascinating.

“We all entered this school thinking we could reinvent education,” he says. “The school did many things great, but it did not reinvent education, and being exposed to some of the most frustrating aspects of the school system really motivated me to stop and continue my education. I didn’t feel like I was doing justice to myself or my students without thinking more about the system I was part of.”

Having grown up in a Connecticut suburb, Scarbrough always knew that he wanted to become a teacher, but as a teenager he thought that meant being Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, teaching at a prep school where everyone goes to elite universities. Scarbrough did some further research and coursework before a life-altering challenge came along from a close college friend who was committed to social justice.

The challenge, to consider urban education before opting for a career in private or suburban schools, combined with his desire to live in a big city after college, led him to Teachers College, where he pursued his master’s in English education and student taught in city schools. It was an eye-opening experience, both in the kind of work urban teachers need to be engaged in and the amazing things that so-called “at risk” kids are up to outside of school. He also saw where much improvement was needed.

“After seeing how much mayhem, disaster, and violence really does take place in some urban high schools, I was surprised to see how much of it was structural and attributable to adults, not kids,” Scarbrough explains as he reflects back on his student teaching experience. “I quickly developed a sense of political awareness around urban education in that the school system and larger traditions of teaching were failing my students.”

Scarbrough’s teaching and research have been greatly influenced by the entrenched contrasts that he’s experienced growing up as a student in both wealthy suburban schools and elite universities compared to the opportunities that are (not) made available to youth in the urban public school districts in which he taught.

Scarbrough, who recently completed his PhD in the teaching and curriculum program and was a Scandling Scholar at the Warner School, focuses his current research on learning settings, curricula, and pedagogies that challenge historical inequalities among diverse youth.

“As a high school teacher, I felt like I was only beginning to do the kind of work I wanted to do. Researching it is a way to contribute, but there’s a part of me that still wants to be in a classroom,” adds Scarbrough, who hopes to maintain a connection to urban high school classrooms in his future research as a professor.

His dissertation examined a diverse academic summer program at an elite boarding school that brings together youth with different backgrounds, including some historically marginalized youth who have been excluded from such elite learning contexts in the past. His analysis explores how multiple definitions of “diversity” converge in such a setting and how summer learning contexts can be opportunities for multicultural engagement rarely found in schools.

Today, Scarbrough still has his hands in teaching, but at the university level. As a visiting assistant professor at Warner, he teaches master’s and doctoral courses, and his approach to teaching has not gone unnoticed. He was recently presented with the Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student from the University for the 2009-10 school year for his commitment to and excellence in teaching.