“But What Can I Do?”: Three Necessary Tensions in Teaching Teachers About Race

Jun. 21, 2010

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), p. 211-224. (May/June 2010).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

A core question of teacher education—“What can I do?”—plagues courses on race. Regarding preparation for racial diversity and inequality, this question tends to be asked in three different inflections. Each version of the question raises its own particular tension related to teaching teachers about issues of race:

1. What can I do? Teachers routinely search for concrete, actionable steps they can take in their classrooms and schools, questioning how abstract ideas or theories about racial inequality and difference can help them.

2. What can I do? Teachers routinely question the power of the individual educator to counteract structural or societal problems of racial and race– class inequality via the classroom.

3. What can I do? Each teacher routinely questions his or her own personal readiness to become the type of professional who can successfully engage issues of race and racism in his or her life and classroom practice.

In this article, the authors discuss how these three core tensions surfaced repeatedly, both in real-time conversations and in reflective journal entries, during one teacher education course focused on issues of race.

Research Setting

The course studied here, titled Everyday Antiracism for Educators (EAR), was a half-semester course on race, newly required for all 50 teacher candidates in our university’s teacher education program. The candidates had taken another required summer half-course, Race, Class, and Power, designed to prod the candidates to consider those aspects of their social location within an unequal society.

In general, the EAR class consisted predominantly of White women, as is the norm in teacher education. One third were men. Of the 51 students enrolled, 22% chose not to identify a race/ethnicity on institutional paperwork. 14% identified as African American, 6% as Asian American, 2% as “other,” and the final 57% as White.

Discussion and Implications

The authors demonstrate that the teachers who seemed most invigorated and who expressed feelings of efficacy in serving students of color were those who pledged to continue ongoing inquiry into both sides of each tension.

The authors propose that these three tensions require explicit attention in teacher professional development. Indeed, the authors suggest that teacher educators’ acknowledging and addressing the necessary tensions of race may help foster educators’ ongoing commitment to inquiry regarding various issues of difference and inequity in education.

Updated: Jul. 13, 2010