Colleen M. Hill is an advanced doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona. Her research is focused on the intersectionality of teacher preparation, literacy and race. Colleen is particularly interested in how knowledge sources influence pre-service teacher decision making. Colleen is active in teacher preparation and in her local education community.
This reflection provides insight into how a common literacy practice in an elementary school classroom, such as a read aloud, can be used to spark critical conversations and to show solidarity with historically underrepresented students. Reflecting on current teaching practices, combined with critical dialogue with colleagues from the Equity Institute, the author highlights the importance of collaboration in creating meaningful literacy activities. The author offers suggestions for teacher educators, such as being cognizant of book choice when preparing for a read aloud and sharing in critical dialogue with elementary students around topics in which they need space to work through, such as family diversity.
Keywords: teacher education; critical dialogue; collaboration; literacy practices; equity
Preparing a New Wave of Critical and Socially Just Educators: Reflections of a Teacher Educator
Engaging in this work is hard. As a longtime teacher and teacher educator, I stand in solidarity with my fellow colleagues who may feel as if the time and energy we exert in the quest to prepare future teachers is never acknowledged and never enough. Or worse, is resisted and tossed aside as another fad or ideology (Pre-service teacher, personal communication, 2020). As a teacher educator, this dismissive behavior leads me to question what my goals and priorities are in the design of teacher preparation courses and in my own work as an emerging scholar. This work I speak of, continuously pushes future teachers to be allies and activists in all spaces. Teachers should confront harmful and oppressive systemic practices within their own classrooms and empower their students to fight against oppression in every form that is embedded within society and, more specifically, education.
As I reflect on my time spent at the Educator Institute for Equity and Justice and start to think about how my work as a teacher educator is connected to the institute, I get a sense that my goals for teaching and research are similar to that of many activists, educators, and artists. My first goal is to ensure collective liberation for future generations. I strive for this daily in my work with pre-service teachers through engaging in critical discourse, asking thought provoking questions and breaking down privileges (Matias, 2016; Matias & Mackey, 2015). Liberation and working alongside historically marginalized communities is also of the utmost importance to me and is my responsibility as a scholar and teacher educator. Cultivating allies that will resist those historically labeled as oppressors is vital and an enduring goal that will continue for decades to come.
As I think about these goals and my current work, I think about the stories of the schooling experiences that many of my teacher candidates who identify as white describe in my teacher education courses. They feel safe in the classroom and assume that everyone feels the same. No students speak out. No students question classroom practices, and no students question pedagogy steeped in Whiteness (Sandoval et al., 2016). Yet time passes. Years, decades, and these students realize that these practices which they were a part of, supported through silence, were oppressive. Furthermore, development of critical consciousness (Freire, 1986; 1970) does not just happen overnight and we, as teacher educators, need to be prepared to fight the long battle for and with our future teachers and their students.
The teaching profession is ingrained with many normalized practices, yet there are ways to resist and move towards collective liberation. The institute provided a courageous space in which scholars, activists, and artists could engage in such resistance and enabled conversations where I reflected on my own practices. One such reflection included how I can be more inclusive of all students in how I approach different conversations and assignments in my classroom. Such practices are deeply embedded in my own pedagogy in teacher preparation programs with pre-service teachers. Critical discourse and reflection are techniques used in my courses. Class time is dedicated to breaking down normalized practices within teaching, and this proves to be difficult. One of the very first conversations students have in my course that introduces teacher candidates to different elements of the teaching profession revolves around conversations/topics traditionally viewed as taboo. I start with the guiding question of: “Give me a topic that you were told a teacher should never discuss in a classroom.” Unfortunately, there is always a long list. Topics on this list include gender, sexuality, masculinity, race, religion, to name a few. The question of “why?” is then posed, and this is when students begin to reflect on normalized practices that they are so accustomed to in education. This exercise, along with building a courageous space (Carter Andrews et al., 2019; Zygmunt et al., 2020) in the course, has proven to be a starting point in moving towards collective liberation in education. This is often the first time in which pre-service teachers are asked to reflect on their own privilege and it leaves them feeling fragile from Whiteness (DiAngelo, 2018; DiAngelo, 2019). As I attended sessions during the institute, I considered multiple aspects of this complex occurence that needed to be addressed. First, many pre-service teachers may be stratteling complex identities not overtly visible. Additionally, my own privileges contribute to how I inhabit spaces of unsure emotions when attempting to engage my students in difficult conversations. The institute provided a courageous space where allies could come together and share, learn, and plan for the future of their own spaces.
Discussions must turn into action and one way to do this is by doing. Repetitive application is key in cultivating agency within pre-service teachers (Bowman, 2010). As I, a teacher educator, reflect upon the list of topics mentioned in the previous paragraph, I start to think about how this new knowledge, born out of critical discourse and reflection, can shift teacher pedagogy and thinking. In subsequent classes, pre-service teachers are asked to revisit this list when completing assignments. For example, one such assignment is a read aloud. Knowing the normalized discourse around a read aloud, I make it a point to model different types of read alouds with different books for the first half of the semester. Yet, it should not be expected that teacher candidates will have an “aha” moment suddenly as their way of thinking around these educational practices is steeped in white, Eurocentric ways of knowing and being. We talk about book choice and promoting agency and activism through book choice. We talk about objectives and content and the need to move away from the misconception that read alouds are used to focus only on specific skills. There are teacher candidates who understand and they desire change. On the other hand, there are teacher candidates who struggle to see the need for change. This latter group requires extra attention and I, as their mentor, attempt to find a common ground in which we can grow together. Through communication with colleagues who attended the institute, I was able to refine this practice and revisit how book choice is vital when cultivating agency and critical consciousness (Friere, 1986) in young students. Colleagues shared books they use in their own classrooms with very similar activities.
As I reflect on these teaching practices and examine my own ingrained, normalized views, I come to the conclusion that I must move forward. The path to moving forward is one of voice, advocacy and continued reflection of what I, as a teacher educator, am doing in all educational spaces I occupy. If I start, one will follow, and another and those who are dedicated to collective liberation will raise their voices and fight for what is right, not what is easy.
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