Cheryl Ellerbrock oozes with optimism when speaking about teaching and training others at USF to teach.
For her, teaching is a rewarding, creative and fun way to make a difference in the community, and in children’s lives. As dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus, she strives to impart her sense of joy and her spirit of servanthood to USF students preparing to enter their own classrooms, to encourage new teachers to embrace their role as a teacher-leader and advocate for their students and to transform the College of Education into a vitalizing force in the Sarasota-Manatee community.
“My goal as campus dean is to increase community relationships between and among the College of Education and our local school districts — trying to build capacity for them, while simultaneously supporting our initiatives here at USF,” Ellerbrock said. “We work hand-in-hand with our community to bring forth the next generation of educators and those committed to the field of education to service our community.”
One example of the many ways in which the USF College of Education strengthens community relationships is the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative, a donor-supported effort with which Ellerbrock became involved last year.
Through the initiative, which is funded by a $500,000 gift from noted Sarasota philanthropists Mary Kay Henson and her husband Joe, USF students tutor and mentor sixth-grade students at Sarasota’s most economically disadvantaged middle school. Beyond helping to improve the middle schoolers’ reading skills, the USF students are embedded in the children’s lives, where they serve as positive role models and encourage new opportunities for success.
The Booker Middle School project, as well as the College of Education’s involvement with two community partnership schools in Manatee County, dovetail with Ellerbrock’s teaching philosophy. In addition to serving the local community, establishing relationships with prospective future USF students and creating research opportunities for Ellerbrock and other faculty, these initiatives also serve as a proving ground for the College of Education’s teachers-in-training. According to Ellerbrock, early and ongoing clinical experiences are vital for students.
“For me it’s always about helping teacher candidates understand that our role as a teacher is multifaceted. It’s not always about math, science, social studies, language arts and literacy. It’s about the whole child who has needs — just like any other human — that must be met in order for them to learn well,” Ellerbrock said. “And all children deserve to have their needs met by an adult. For many children, that person is a teacher. And when teacher candidates understand this fundamental, the pedagogical practices and the content-based methods they learn in our programs begin to have a reason and intent.”
“It becomes less about conformity and structure, and it becomes more about relationships and individuals,” she said.
In her own classrooms, Ellerbrock is forthcoming with details about her personal story and the many ways her life experiences have shaped her beliefs and teaching practices. At the start of each semester, she shares a video with her students where they learn about her family, her hobbies and her path to becoming a teacher.
“I teach at the relational level. And they reciprocate. I believe when you value and model for future teachers positive interpersonal relationships and teacher care, they experience firsthand the most important lesson in being a teacher — it’s all about relationships,” Ellerbrock said. “I don’t lecture to them about it. I show them. And that’s how I teach.”
Former students have described Ellerbrock as a “phenomenal educator,” a “linchpin” and a “life-changing” force.
“Dr. E’s intense and genuine care for students as people first can be felt from the first class you take with her,” said Ashlee Highfill, a teacher at a Title 1 magnet middle school for the arts in Tampa. “She taught me that, with a little grace, students are able to see their own potential and strive for excellence anytime they are given the right environment in which they can thrive and feel safe.”
Ellerbrock wants the teachers she trains to be aware of their role as an “adult other,” to a child, a non-family member with the ability to guide them to success, in and out of the classroom, and into adulthood.
“When I go home and I look at my 13-year-old and my 5-year-old and my 3-year-old, I have an obligation to prepare the absolute best teachers for them and all the other children in our community,” Ellerbrock said. “If students in our community can interface with at least one great human who believes in them, encourages them, convinces them of their inner strength, their potential and help to shape their life in a positive way, that’s what I want for them. I want this for all children.”
Ellerbrock does not remember ever wanting to do anything but teach; it was her calling and her passion from the earliest moments of her life. As a toddler and into kindergarten, she would line up her dolls and present them with daily lessons.
“I remember being in middle school and telling my 8th grade social studies teacher that I wanted to be a teacher,” Ellerbrock recalled.
Ellerbrock, a former high school social studies teacher and cheerleading coach, has been mission-driven since the beginning, but she also recognizes the many challenges facing the profession, from low salaries and limited classroom resources to outside political pressures, that drive many teachers to other jobs. Often, prospective teachers must lean, as Ellerbrock did, on their sense of purpose and resist calls for them to take their talents, which she said are in demand by other professions, elsewhere.
“It’s not a profession for all,” Ellerbrock said. “There has to be an extra layer that says ‘No, this is the profession I’m going to do’ and keep an eye on what matters most — students who become tomorrow’s leaders. Unfortunately, our society is making it very difficult.”
Ellerbrock refuses to be held back by the challenges education and teaching have faced in the past. What needs to be accomplished today and, in the future, she said, is too important to not fight for the education profession.
“It’s a moral imperative for me to look forward with optimism,” she said. “We can’t look back because the children of today are relying on the adults in their lives to look forward for them, to give them the best we can so they can have all the opportunities they so deeply deserve.”
Boundless Bulls is a collection of stories about what truly makes USF great — the people. It is a focus on our community footprint, our impact and the trajectory of where we can go together. To nominate a member of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus community for Boundless Bulls, please fill out the submission form.