Uniting expertise with empathy to help students thrive in college
While serving as director of composition for Virginia Tech’s Department of English, Sheila Carter-Tod learned that several graduates from a high school in Newport News who had high academic accolades and test scores felt unprepared for the university’s expectations in a first-year writing course.
She came up with an innovative plan to help.
Carter-Tod connected with the high school’s teachers to introduce elements of the university’s writing curriculum in order to prepare students earlier. A few years later, students from the Achievable Dream Academy were not just doing better in introductory writing, they were testing out of it.
“Focus groups showed that the students who took first-year writing were not struggling because they couldn’t do it, they just hadn’t been shown how to do it,” said Carter-Tod, an associate professor in the Department of English. “Understanding how to write in various genres and to various audiences allows students to overcome cultural and societal barriers.”
In both her research and her teaching, Carter-Tod aims to make writing more equitable and help equip students to thrive in college and beyond. Her work with the Achievable Dream Academy is one example. She has also conducted workshops for teachers in Southwest Virginia. Her professional development of teachers focused on aligning curriculum and pedagogy between high schools and the university.
Carter-Tod has published articles or reviews in Writing Program Administrators Journal, WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and Enculturation, as well as chapters in several edited collections and textbooks. She formerly served as director of curricular and pedagogical development in Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative program. Since 2017, she has served as the faculty liaison to the A. James Clark Scholars Program, which was created to reduce barriers to education for students in engineering and construction.
Carter-Tod serves on the board for several professional and service organizations within the field of writing studies. She chaired the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English and was elected to serve on the executive committees for the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the College Composition and Communications Conference.
The practice of teaching writing is Carter-Tod’s area of expertise, and she applies it in a wide variety of ways in order to break down barriers and make positive change for students of writing. In addition to her work in high schools across Virginia, she has worked directly with advanced-placement language and composition teachers in St. Louis. All of her work promotes the idea that language differences do exist and there are a variety of dialects, but those should be seen as benefits rather than deficits.
Carter-Tod sought out teachers at the Achievable Dream Academy who had not had access to extensive professional development programs. She helped to ensure they received additional training in preparing their students for college-level writing courses. Carter-Tod later employed this effective strategy to make a difference at other high schools in Southwest Virginia and West Virginia. In both instances, her work was supported by diversity grants from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
“It is an easily replicable model,” Carter-Tod said. “It is more effective to train five people who can each reach 100 students than it would be for me personally to reach each student individually.”
Carter-Tod’s extensive research and work to break down language barriers by collaborating with high school teachers is noteworthy, but so is her care and compassion for university students at Virginia Tech. As faculty liaison to 30 Clark Scholars, her responsibility goes far beyond simply ensuring students are passing their classes. She works one-on-one with the scholarship recipients to ensure they can make the most of their university experience.
“She is always checking in to make sure I am meeting all the requirements for the scholarship and holding leadership positions, but if I have problems with my relationships, my family, almost everything, she will be there,” said Clark Scholar Ricabelle Pagara ’21. “She will know there is a problem and try to fix it before I even tell her about it.”
Pagara’s life was upended by the death of her father in January 2019. As the oldest of three siblings, she suddenly found herself having to oversee many family responsibilities, ranging from filing taxes to planning a funeral, daunting work for a 20-year-old college sophomore. Even though she found it necessary to take a semester off from her studies and move home to Alexandria, Virginia, she still found a strong source of support in Carter-Tod.
“She helped me plan the funeral,” said Pagara, who is now back on campus. “She came to the funeral to be with me. She made sure I was able to keep my scholarship and offered me rides back and forth to Virginia Tech.”
The help and care that Carter-Tod gave to Pagara was not an isolated incident. Carter-Tod prioritizes the well-being of the people around her and is always prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to help them succeed. She is recognized by her colleagues for having a knack of identifying an unseen problem and immediately developing a feasible plan to fix it.
“Sheila is someone who truly cares about the students within the state of Virginia,” said Katie Beth Brooks, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English who worked with Carter-Tod on teacher outreach in Southwest Virginia. “She recognizes there are needs everywhere in the state and makes connections. What students need in northern and eastern Virginia, they also need across the state. She sees more connections than overt differences.”
In her role on the board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, known as the WPA, Carter-Tod collaborates with teachers across the nation to understand the political and institutional challenges that educators face when teaching writing and composition. She uses experience and expertise to find solutions. Carter-Tod is known for integrating new administrators into the organization and finding the right spot to apply their individual skills to effect change.
“Sheila is incredibly passionate and supportive of newer program administrators,” said Jessie Moore, a professor of English at Elon University who is Carter-Tod’s colleague on the WPA. “It is really tough work leading a writing program, which might have dozens if not hundreds of sections. There is emotional labor there, in addition to the time and expertise which is necessary for the job. Sheila is really adept at helping new administrators think about how to see their strengths and apply them to position their programs for success and become their best selves.”
Described by her colleagues and students as a wonderful mix of expertise and empathy, Sheila Carter-Tod is a not only a prominent and rising figure in composition and pedagogy research, but an inspiration to those around her. Her work in the field has improved the education of students in Virginia and beyond, while inspiring colleagues and students to follow her example by promoting an equitable future for young writers.
Carter-Tod’s effort to help others see linguistic differences as opportunities rather than pitfalls continues to pay off. In her work with WPA, the Clark Scholars Program, and the plethora of other programs she leads or supports, she makes it a priority to treat colleagues and students as people who deserve to be heard and cared for.
“She’s honestly like a parent figure to all of us,” said Clark Scholar Araceli Cabrera-Ortuno ’23, of Annandale, Virginia. “Whenever we need anything, we send her an email, and she responds immediately. She is always there for us. If we are going through a tough time in class, she motivates us with such a positive energy to keep going hard. I really appreciate her.”
Written by Rosie Hutchison