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Reminiscent of Groundhog Day, some education discussions just seem to resurface, again and again. The state of teacher education is one of those.

In April, I had the privilege of speaking at the annual American Educational Research Association conference, where I participated in a presidential session that aimed to challenge the public and policy discourses surrounding teacher education—by featuring the work of four equity-minded teacher educators and scholars from across the country: Elizabeth M. Dutro, University of Colorado Boulder; Antero Garcia, Colorado State University; Bettina L. Love, University of Georgia; and Bree Picower, Montclair State University.

I offered some thoughts on the future of teacher education. Here’s what I said.

Good morning.

As a writer, I enjoy metaphors. They allow for creativity, and nuance, and imagery. Metaphors can make complicated concepts more accessible, and add depth to your writing. And successful metaphors conjure up mental pictures that are vivid – and sometimes unforgettable.

So I’d like to invite you to think of teacher education not as a beleaguered system that deals with the study of teaching … and the learning process … and its application – but rather as a much-maligned reptile.

Teacher education – like crocodiles – generally suffers from bad press. Although revered in some quarters, the mere mention of teacher education – like crocodiles – can evoke negative sentiments. And over time, the prevailing narrative surrounding teacher education becomes so ingrained in our minds – like crocodiles – that some begin to call for drastic measures, even elimination.

But metaphors can be tricky. Basically, not all metaphors are created equal. The best ones not only enhance our understanding of the topic at hand, they help us grasp associations and characteristics we might have overlooked.

The photojournals from Antero, Bettina, Bree, and Elizabeth offer a strong and powerful image for teacher education’s future. So perhaps it’s helpful for us all to think of teacher education not as a crocodile, but rather as a system on the brink of a revolution.

What I see in the pictorial displays – and what I hear in the video and audio – is a promising and underutilized path – a strategy that can effectively disrupt the hegemonic whiteness that supports the current system of teacher education, and that informs how pre-service teachers are currently prepared and inducted into the profession.

And it’s the perfect time – considering the magnitude of demographic changes now underway. A few years ago, AACTE conducted a comprehensive analysis of data collected from nearly all of its more than 800 teacher preparation program members. The findings are startling, but not surprising: classrooms are growing more racially and ethnically diverse, while those leading classrooms remain predominately white.

According to the data, 82 percent of bachelor’s degrees in education are awarded to white students. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American teaching candidates were each in the single digits. This is contrasted against the rapidly changing racial and ethnic makeup of public school students – more than half of public school students today are non-white, and according to the Census Bureau, by around 2020, non-white children will make up more than half of Americans under the age of 18.

Against this shifting landscape, we have teacher educators like our presenters who are upending the model for teacher education. With laser-like precision, they are demonstrating how equity and social justice and excellence can work in harmony – and be elevated to an imperative. Through their work and scholarship, the aim is not to reform teacher education, but to revolutionize it – not to tweak, but to transform.

Author, historian, and journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr. – a shrewd observer of American society and its racial injustices – had a piercing take on the teaching profession that immediately comes to mind as I reflect on the presenters’ journals. The photojournals capture the lives and the work of teacher educators as liberators. Any discussion on teacher education and scholarship that fails to include the intersection of race, culture, and opportunity cannot build a road map to the future.

Allowing for the trends I noted, for the foreseeable future, the teachers in our public schools will be primarily white and middle-class. And because of widespread housing and school segregation, they themselves will have likely lived in primarily white neighborhoods and attended primarily white schools.

Today, these prospective teachers enter preparation programs and complete their schooling without ever having their ingrained and widely-accepted beliefs about the students they’ll be teaching challenged or even questioned. And let’s be frank – it’s not just white teachers. The same applies to aspiring teachers of color as well. Because as people of color we also can internalize ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that mire us in our own oppression.

The quarterly magazine Rethinking Schools incisively describes the work that must be embraced in teacher education. Changing the dominant narrative requires changing the way that teacher educators teach – which the photojournals illustrate – as well as changing the way that teacher education research and scholarship is used to inform policymakers and the public.

To influence and sway opinion means writing not to impress and dazzle your colleagues – who already have an established interest in the topic – but writing clear and readable materials for a general audience. It means producing works – in written or other formats – that challenge established thinking and practices – and therefore have the capacity to generate new visions and directions. And that doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your work – as evidenced by the work of our presenters, which is rigorous and insightful.

What I see in their pursuits is what all education research should be: fresh and inviting, with a real-world connection that underscores its relevance and validity.

Teacher education needs to show that you have some skin in the game. Countless time, energy, and resources are spent trying to improve the field of teaching to meet the needs of a growing, diverse student populace – and no one wants to speak the words “race” or “culture” or “racism.” That’s a shell-game and not a solution.

In my research for this session, I came across a piece in the journal “Teaching Education” written by Cheryl Matias, an assistant professor in urban teacher education at University of Colorado Denver. True to form, it seemed to have caused quite a firestorm, because the article expressed some seldom-heard, and for too many, difficult-to-accept truths.

In the journal, she describes whiteness as a disease —emphasizing that a colorblind society is impossible in the United States. She stresses that we can’t even begin to address the education debt – commonly referred to as the racial achievement gap – without addressing the underlying maladies of racism and whiteness. And she calls on schools of education to own and prioritize this work before teaching novices land in classrooms.

I found her words very illuminating – and for me it encapsulates the real test ahead for schools of education.

Teacher education programs must actively engage preservice teachers in the work of unpacking and reassembling how race, ethnicity, culture, language, and social class manifest in schools, in their students’ lives, and in the communities in which they are privileged to teach. And I reiterate – privileged. Because as a parent, I turn my most-prized and treasured asset over to teachers every day.

Teacher education can recreate what teaching practice looks like, re-envisioning the role of teachers and schools in historically marginalized communities. You have the tools and the means to create schools where social, political and economic equality is fostered and nurtured and grown.

Can you enthusiastically and openly move in this direction? The presenters here today show me it’s possible. Let’s make it permanent.

Thank you.