“Learning Our Way Through”: Critical Professional Development for Social Justice in Teacher Education

January - March, 2020

Source: The New Educator, 16:1, 45-69

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this paper, the authors present the results of a year-long inquiry into their attempt to nourish and sustain themselves, their colleagues, and their scholarship through the creation of a critical, social justice-oriented, faculty learning community (FLC).
In framing this work, they wish to note that although they are all faculty at the same institution, when this project began, they did not know one another beyond a casual hallway greeting.
However, they were united by their commitment to centering equity-oriented teaching and learning within their institution and field as a whole.

The purpose of this study was to answer the following two research questions:
(a) what institutional factors impact faculty members’ approach to teaching for social justice in higher education?, and
(b) how does participating in critical professional development (CPD) impact faculty members’ sense of identity and efficacy as social justice educators?
The authors present the results of their year-long investigation into CPD as a strategic support for university faculty, and teacher education faculty specifically, as they navigate academia as social justice scholars.

Participants and data collection
Over the course of the year, 26 faculty members registered for the FLC and completed at least one study-related instrument; of these 10 were “active participants” who attended all or most of the 11 meetings.
Active participants represented six of the university’s nine colleges, including Communications, Education, Engineering, Health and Human Development, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and had between seven months and 25 years of service on the faculty.
“Inactive” participants attended meetings and completed journals sporadically, and generally indicated that their schedule precluded full engagement.
At the time of registration, participants answered questions regarding their interest in participating in the FLC.
Once enrolled, participants completed a more comprehensive survey featuring open-ended and Likert-style questions related to their understanding of teaching for social justice; sense of connectedness on campus, goals, strengths, and areas for growth as social justice educators; and a 24-item battery adapted from Funge’s (2012) social work-focused Efficacy to Integrate Social Justice Content into Teaching scale; participants repeated the full survey as a post-test at the end of each semester.
Participants also completed project research journals addressing common prompts (administered at 5 points during the year), and those participants who implemented a project-related course intervention administered student surveys related to the efficacy of their approach.

Findings and discussion
The authors’ findings highlighted the depth of participants’ sense of disorientation within academia, as well as their collective hunger for community, professional learning, and strategic alliances when navigating inhospitable institutional conditions.
They found that participating in CPD met these needs, and also increased members’ sense of efficacy and authenticity as social justice educators.
The FLC provided space for faculty to think critically about their role as teacher educators for social justice.
This process required participants to reconcile their passion for anti-racist work with the realities of their positions and institutional culture.
Specifically, FLC participants had to recognize the tensions inherent in working in an institution that some describe as full of “nice, color-blind white people” and others as a model campus that has succeeded at “embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
These dueling and dichotomous characterizations create a limiting continuum that makes it challenging for scholar-activists to find role models.
Participants described having to tread lightly when teaching for social justice as a frustrating reality in terms of interactions with students, colleagues, and institutional policies that sometimes prioritize technical compliance over transformative actions.
For participants, coming together and processing this reality within the FLC was nourishing and much needed.
The FLC created a protected space in which members could think, reflect, and grapple with their individual needs and find authenticity as scholars for social justice.
By creating room for, and requiring, participants to share their curriculum and pedagogy with a community of peers, the FLC challenged participants to articulate their social justice-related goals and consider how they were enacting – or failing to enact – them.
Essentially, the FLC created opportunities for learning through internal, authentic accountability.
This was a necessary prerequisite to becoming more effective educators, within their respective disciplines and overall.
Participants increased their practical skills and self-efficacy as social justice educators, felt more connected within and beyond their departments, built strategic alliances that enabled them to thrive within and beyond their classrooms, and prepared to assume social-justice -oriented leadership at the university and professional level.
These are significant benefits and reflect the broader research on the positive impact of CPD groups for K-12 teachers committed to social justice.
The authors wish their research provided an easy solution to systemic and pervasive inequity and injustice in academia.
It does not.
What they did find, however, was a glimmer of hope.
By creating a safe and brave space (Arao & Clemens, 2013) for social justice-oriented faculty members, they were able to offer an oasis.
The FLC afforded participants the space to build connections with others while growing together as social justice-oriented teacher educators.
They also see value in the ways this project enabled them to repurpose institutional resources to nourish critical, social justice-oriented professional learning, and to do so in ways that directly engage the working conditions that impact the daily lives of participants.
As they close, the authors wish to offer several recommendations for other teacher educators seeking to build and foster hospitable spaces to learn and grow.
Specifically, they encourage readers to evaluate the institutional structures that support or undermine the working conditions, intellectual freedoms, and daily experiences of critical scholars and scholars of color.
They see a need to shift teacher education from focusing on the recruitment of “diverse” faculty and candidates, to the systematic reshaping of policy and repurposing of resources to authentically support social justice scholars and scholarship, especially when conducted by members of other historically marginalized communities.
They echo Pham and Kohli’s (2018) call for the strategic recruitment, retention, and empowerment of critical teacher educators, and especially critical teacher educators of color, who are poised to lead our field in new directions.
Finally, they challenge readers to hold themselves accountable, not only for their work with future teachers, but also for their efforts to nourish and sustain social justice scholars, scholarship, and action as essential features of the profession.

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation (pp. 135–150). Washington, DC: ACPA Press
Funge, S. (2012). Teaching efficacy and context: Integrating social justice content into social work education (Ph.D.). Available from UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations. (0864UCLA). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/12p789cw
Pham, J., & Kohli, R. (2018). Cultivating teachers of color as change agents: A model of critical race professional development. In C. D. Gist (Ed.), Framing teacher development for community, justice, and visionaries (pp. 101–128). New York, NY: Peter Lang. 

Updated: Sep. 21, 2020