Putting Race on the Table: How Teachers Make Sense of the Role of Race in Their Practice

April, 2017

Source: Harvard Educational Review; Vol. 87, Iss. 1, (Spring 2017): 50-73,157.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article explores how teachers make sense of the role of race in their practice in an ongoing way, in and through complexity of their everyday life both inside and outside of school.

The author used a portraiture methodology to examine the efforts of one white female teacher to understand whether and how race plays a role in her teaching practice.
At the beginning, the author observed four teachers from two districts high schools that were actively participating in race and equity policy.
The author observed each teacher in two of her classes over the course of one academic semester in 2009.

Finally, the author decided focusing on one white female teacher's experience.
This participant worked at Bethlehem High School's (BHS) English as a second language (ESL) teacher. She had worked seven years as a ESL teacher.

The participant's long-term boyfriend is of El Salvadorian descent, although he was adopted as a child by a white family.

The author found that the participant focused on guided practice, group work, and individual application. The participant said that she worries that some of her students often feel "different," unseen, and unheard by the school and by their mainstream classmates. She told the author about her own experience with second-language learning when she studied Spanish in the Dominican Republic during a study abroad semester in college.
The participant remembers that feeling, that fear of making mistakes, that often gripped her when she was shopping in the market, talking to locals. The teacher describes how she tries to build trust with her students by using her own cross-cultural experiences to remind her students that she understands what it's like not to feel comfortable speaking the dominant language in a country.

The author notices how the teacher misunderstands whiteness to be only an individual characteristic. However, the author argues that whiteness goes far beyond shared cultural expressions. She argues that whiteness is a powerful ideology used to build and reify a hierarchical racial order that justifies the systematic and absolute distribution of benefits and resources to whites.
The author argues that though the teacher has openly participated in the school's equity team, has listened empathetically to her boyfriend's experiences of racism, and has struggled to understand how her African American colleagues experienced the race-based professional development session she led, in her own story, race has never been a conscious part of her experience.
So when the participant is pressed to engage race's meaning in her own life and in her own teaching, she finds herself on unfamiliar terrain. The participant draws on her time as a cross-cultural traveler to construct. The author calls this response a racial touchstone to best approximate the nature of racism.

The author found that the teacher uses her touchstone to frame her interpretations and guide her pedagogical choices in the context of her classroom.

The author concludes that racial touchstones are drawn from teachers' impactful personal experiences and are constructed in and through the dynamic contexts of their classrooms and schools. She recommends that efforts to support teachers in developing meaningful and authentic personal experiences of difference must be done with great care and must be sustained over time.

Updated: Dec. 16, 2018