A Catholic nun, a gay musician, and a black Muslim walk into a classroom…
They’re joined by a conservative white Republican, a Marine Corps Sergeant, an environmental activist, a Mexican immigrant (a Sephardic Jew), and everyone else you can imagine. The students are all undergraduates—aspiring teachers—and they’re about to spend the semester deeply examining culture, diversity, and inequalities in K12 education. The syllabus is a minefield: Racism. Classism. Sexism. LGBT rights. Institutional discrimination. Privilege and power. Assignments demand that students share their experiences, analyze, question, and hold each other accountable. The instructor ceremoniously rips ups a ‘Celebrate Diversity’ bumper sticker. This is not about tipis and tacos, she announces, and grades will not be based on the size of the group hug.
It’s about to get real.
Have you heard this story? If not, maybe you can guess how it goes: The conservative declares himself a ‘real American’ and bemoans the flood of immigrants (no offense, of course). The Jew and the Muslim tear each other apart over the intersections of culture and religion. A white woman on public assistance complains that she’s tired of hearing about black people’s problems. Someone starts to cry. Someone else storms from the room. Forget about learning. This is about surviving.
Pretty predictable, right? These days, intelligent exchanges about race or sexual orientation are rare, especially in a media environment where trading barbs counts as a ‘discussion.’ We seem to have more and more opportunities to talk, but less and less worth saying. The ability (or willingness) to hear at times approaches zero.
In schools, the tone tends to be more polite. Resistance to addressing inequality is often masked by, “I don’t see color,” or, “Just treat all kids the same.”
I believe we need a better story for cultural competency in teacher preparation. Here’s one peek inside that same classroom:
Before delving into race or class, the course opens with the concept of democracy: participation and inclusion, a way of living and learning, and a guiding principle for education. Students learn the fundamental premise of education in a democracy: every student deserves equal educational opportunities. The class becomes its own democratic learning community, and students see themselves as members with rights and responsibilities to each other. Together, the students commit to an honest investigation of difficult topics based on this question: “To what extent is this [practice/policy/belief] supporting equal opportunity for all?”
And then it begins.
When exploring race, the Muslim student explains the threats she often hears, and then the Marine shares stories about the Afghan people he had the honor of serving with. The two students explore ways to reduce anti-Muslim stereotyping in schools, and the Marine decides to student teach in an Arab community.
In the unit on LBGT issues, the gay musician describes the life-threatening harassment he’s experienced, and the whole class—including the nun—comes to understand that teachers must support every student regardless of one’s personal beliefs (which the course is not out to change).
When it’s time to examine the impacts of poverty on student achievement, the conservative (whose parents paid for college) works alongside the woman from the trailer park. They both learn about the complexities of economic inequalities, and write a paper together fiercely challenging the rhetoric that ‘those kids’ are too lazy to succeed.
The class also talks about the equality on a global scale and the shared problems the next generation will inherit. The Marine talks about the conflict and migration caused by climate change, the nun shares her favorite passage from Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the environment, and the environmentalist discovers allies in unexpected places.
And on it goes until the desired ending: each student comes away with an ethical commitment to equity.
This version of the story comes from my own classroom. For the past 13 years, I’ve taught an undergraduate course focused on culture, diversity, and inequalities in K12 education. (It’s an academic writing course as well.) The mix of students is different each semester. Sometimes, the class is diverse in multiple ways. Other times, I have 17 white students and 1 black student, raising the stakes for discussing race despite other differences in the class.
The course demands much academically and emotionally, both from the students and myself. We launch on the journey together and support each other along the way with guidelines we create together.
It’s certainly not without its bumps. Some students withdraw, unable or unwilling to do the hard work. Others say they are ‘tired of hearing about it’ and simply turn in assignments based on what they think I want to hear. But most students take the course very seriously because they understand their obligation as a teacher: to respect and support every student, every day while challenging the structural barriers that impede kids’ efforts.
Preparing teachers to write a new story
The inequalities in society and K12 education are well documented, and educators around the country (and world) are amplifying efforts to change this. One powerful strategy is to prepare new teachers who are able to envision and create a different story within their classrooms.
Here are some of the methods I use: (Note: I refer to pre-service teachers as ‘students,’ and K12 students using K12.)
1. Start with democracy.
Pre-service teachers must understand that equal opportunity is the foundation of education in a democracy. This is the one ‘non-negotiable’ in a course where opinions on everything else will differ. The good news is that pre-service teachers tend to be caring people. They want a better life not only for themselves and their communities, but also for those around them. Asking my students to commit to democracy creates a unifying goal and ‘measuring stick.’
2. Deepen students’ understanding of their own identities.
In a broad sense, the ‘diversity movement’ arose to foster inclusion of historically marginalized groups. Because of this, students in the dominant group may believe diversity is about ‘other people.’ The internal script is, “I’m just regular. ‘Those people’ are diverse.” or, “He’s very diverse” (because he’s gay, working class, and Latino).
Pre-service teachers need to understand that diversity is about our collective differences. To support this, I have each student write about how they identify in terms of nationality, ethnicity, gender, race, and other dimensions. Students discuss which elements of their identity are most important to them, which aspects are most ‘visible’ to others, which they are still learning about, and how it all impacts the way they experience the world. When students recognize complexity within themselves, they are more able to understand it in others.
3. Help students acknowledge biases.
No one is born hating or fearing another skin color. Stereotypes and prejudice (racial and otherwise) are learned from many sources including the media, school, family, friends, and our own experiences. To help students become aware of their own (often unconscious) beliefs, I lead them through a series of activities designed to elicit reactions about unfamiliar ‘others’ and the scripts we create about them. (There’s no room for details here, but the activities are fun and get everyone involved. This helps create an environment where it’s safe to acknowledge blind spots and assumptions.) Through the process, students discover how easy it is to form impressions, and more importantly, that they can be unlearned.
4. Teach the structural nature of inequality.
In our inflammatory media environment, students’ perceptions of discrimination are often linked to specific acts of hatred, exclusion, or violence: The abusive cop. The name-calling bully. The KKK rally. Such acts are of course wrong, but defining racism (or other ‘isms’) as individual behaviors enables students to dismiss the problem by asserting their own non-racist credentials: ‘I’m not racist. I never call people names.’ As long as students believe the problem starts and ends there, they feel free to opt-out from listening, learning, or acting for change.
Pre-service teachers need to understand that ‘isms’ exist at the institutional level. This shift from individual to systemic perspectives is a big leap for students because it asks them to interrogate how society operates.
To make this digestible, students first learn about the ‘operating rules’ and conditions that support oppression at the institutional level. Here are a few:
- Society ranks and sorts people based on real or perceived membership in social groups including race, class, and gender.
- Inequalities based on these categories can live and breed through schools, businesses, the law and other institutions.
- Within each category, a dominant group has the power to project its values and behaviors as neutral, normal and natural. Social structures (in education, business, etc.) give this group access to benefits and privileges others don’t have.
- Non-dominant groups face systemic barriers or burdens. Deficit narratives about ‘those people’ misrepresent, dismiss, or silence their values and experiences.
- Because we have multiple dimensions to our identity, we can be in both privileged and non-privileged groups. (The work on clarifying identities is a prerequisite for understanding this concept of ‘intersectionality’.)
- We may be conscious or unconscious of our roles in the system.
We use the conditions to assess both historical and current social situations. Consider, for example, the stark racial segregation of the Detroit region. Is that just a result of individuals deciding to live next to ‘their kind,’ or is there something bigger going on? To answer this, we look at the federal housing policies after World War II that provided loans for whites to move to the suburbs. People of color were not only mostly ineligible, the loans could not be used to repair homes in existing city neighborhoods. When examining the policies, students must ask, “Who had the benefit in this situation? Who had the burden? Who faced barriers? What were the impacts?” Through the inquiry, students uncover the impacts of massive urban disinvestment on Detroit (and countless other cities across the country).
With this example, I also have students write about their own communities, now and when they were younger. This helps students situate their individual experiences in larger social structures—another necessary element in moving to a systems perspective.
To go deeper, students assess if institutional discrimination is still a concern. They select an example (e.g., racial profiling, the glass ceiling for women) and then marshal evidence—not just anecdotes—to evaluate progress, set-backs, and needed changes. The students don’t always agree, but they come away understanding the questions they need to ask of themselves—and each other. They learn to recognize the difference between personal anecdotes and larger, persistent patterns.
Examining structural inequalities does not mean that individual initiative doesn’t matter; I emphasize that throughout the course. Our goal is to examine what gets in the way of individual efforts.
5. Validate the journey.
Cultural competency is a journey, and pre-service teachers need opportunities to reflect on their place in that journey. To start this discussion, I ask students to identify their emotional reactions. Responses greatly vary, ranging from angry to guilty to empowered. As students share their responses with the whole class, they begin to see—and respect—that they’re all in different places along the path.
Obviously I’d love all of my students to shout out that they’re empowered to make change, but I can’t set that up as the ‘right answer.’ Instead, I ask students to consider the implications of their current response for their future career. Consider the teacher who’s ‘tired of hearing about’ oppression. Fair enough—that’s where he is. But how will this impact his K12 students who are tired of living it? Will he be an advocate for equity? Or will he look the other way when, for example, Black students continue to be disproportionately suspended? And what about a teacher who is so uncomfortable discussing sexual orientation that she withdraws? Will she be effective at addressing LGBT bullying?
These are tough questions, and the point is not to condemn how students feel. Rather, I want students to have the tools to reflect on their beliefs and behaviors so they can continue down the path. I also want them to affirm their professional obligation to continuing learning because of their ethical obligation to their future students.
6. Have students identify how they can change the story.
My students’ understanding grows over the semester—and so does their commitment to change. To develop this, they must write about applications to their own disciplines. Here are a few of my favorites:
- A fundamentalist Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin says he will be “the first one to intervene” when an LGBT student is bullied.
- An Army vet and physical education (PE) major commits to challenge ‘machismo’ stereotypes in gym class and instead promote enjoyment in fitness for all. A PE colleague creates a plan to work with cafeteria and social services staff to ensure low-income students get access to healthy foods at school.
- A pre-school teacher commits to challenging gender-based, exclusionary practices. (Boys get first dibs at trucks; the playhouse is for girls.)
- A music teacher decides to examine which students are encouraged for band or orchestra, and if there are underlying, unconscious beliefs. (“Orchestra isn’t for ‘urban’ kids.”)
Maybe you think the students are saying what they think I want to hear. But I believe they are sincere because I see the progress in their thinking and writing over the semester. The students gain writing skills to put their ideas into words, culminating in a final piece for their professional portfolio (e.g., a statement of teaching philosophy or a letter to future students and families). For many, this is where it all comes together: their writing flowers, their hearts shine through, and each time I am moved to tears at the strength and beauty of their vision. (As I tell my students, I don’t have kids, so I brag about them.)
Will these aspiring teachers be able to fulfill their goals? It’s hard to say. As I tell them, it somewhat depends on whether they find colleagues who share the same ideals.
The class ends, and I send my students off into the world, hoping for the best for them. You can imagine my joy when, years later, I run into a students who tells me what s/he has been able to accomplish, and how the class has stayed with them.
We can shift the narrative of inequality, but it takes creating a new generation of teachers who can begin a different story in their own lives and classrooms. We need this shift among in-service teachers as well, and I use the strategies described here as part of in-service professional development. That promise of change across the profession is what inspires me.