Source: Urban Education, Volume: 55 issue: 8-9, page(s): 1115-1141
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This research project is the extension of a larger 4-year ethnographic study.
Overall, 17 intern teachers participated in a critical social justice focus group (CSJFG) while enrolled in a teacher-preparation program (Aronson, forthcoming).
The specific research questions that the author asked included the following:
1: After participating in a CSJFG simultaneously with the Urban-Multicultural Teaching Cohort (UMTC), what are one teacher’s understandings of critical social justice, and in particular culturally relevant education?
2: How do these social justice understandings play out in practice?
That is, what does one first-year teacher actually do in an urban classroom context? What obstacles might she face?
The author’s goal for this article is to share the ways that Sarah navigated her understandings of critical social justice throughout her teacher education and into first years of teaching.
This qualitative study seeks to provide an in-depth look at one case, Sarah White, to illustrate her transition from the UMTC program into her first years of teaching.
Scholars have critiqued the overabundance of small-scale, narrowly focused, qualitative studies that do not necessarily produce generalizable outcomes supporting the need for social justice teacher education (SJTE) (Sleeter, 2012). This study does not overcome the critique of being a small-scale study; however, evidence from this study suggests having critical dialogues regarding critical social justice (CSJ) while in teacher education and in practice could affect teachers’ understandings and reflexivity in teaching, particularly in urban school settings.
A variety of data-collection methods were used to explore Sarah’s understandings of CSJ and development of CRE in her classroom through observations, field notes, journals, and archival data.
As Sarah progressed from participating in the CSJFG and into the classrooms, the author’s main sources of data collection were from observations and interviews.
For the purposes of this study, she intended to take careful record of what Sarah said and did so they could discuss her praxis in relation to culturally relevant education (CRE).
This was accomplished through direct and frequent observations in the classroom, which allowed her to find patterns in Sarah’s behavior and prompted the author to ask specific questions about her decisions in their interviews.
The author’s prolonged engagement in Sarah’s classroom over 2 years enabled her to fully capture how Sarah worked to use CRE in her classroom.
As the study progressed, the author’s observations led her to ask interview questions or to send emails clarifying Sarah’s actions.
These practices included questions regarding curricular decisions (or lack of decisions), student interactions, classroom management tactics, and familial involvement.
In addition, the author frequently referred back to her research questions to ensure that her observations did not stray from the focus on this study.
In addition, throughout the author’s time observing Sarah, she conducted several semi-structured interviews.
Using interviews in conjunction with observations provided an in-depth exploration of Sarah’s perspectives on what she observed and also provided more insight into other events that may have been missed during observations (Hatch, 2002).
To understand Sarah’s view of CRE in the classroom, the author conducted an initial interview at the beginning of her first-year teaching with prepared interview questions.
The remaining five interviews were spread out throughout the observations and were initiated by questions she asked regarding comments found in her field notes and research journal.
Many of the strategies Sarah used are reflective of the practices suggested within the literature on CRE.
In particular, Sarah’s CRE teaching practices were most evident in her caring classroom community, high expectations, cultural competence, and sociopolitical awareness.
In this section, the author reports the findings of this study regarding Sarah’s implementation of CRE in practice.
She also discusses the barriers Sarah faced in conjunction with the author’s own reflections throughout this process.
Barriers to Engaging in CRE
As the author observed Sarah’s classroom, it became clear that there were several challenges she faced as she attempted to enact CRE.
Throughout the author’s analysis, she found that state-, county-, and school-wide requirements in conjunction with English language learner (ELL) issues made implementing CRE a challenge for Sarah.
There were a number of institutional requirements that impeded Sarah’s willingness to be responsive to her students and enact CRE.
At times, these strict requirements of the school and accountability system made Sarah question how much she should empower students to question the school system and the demands put on them.
Sarah felt it was her responsibility to prepare students to “continue learning” particularly with regard to the institutional requirement of standardized testing.
Often seen in CRE literature, testing is not the sole determinant of students’ achievement; however, it is one indicator of success.
Making sure students pass and go on to the next grade level is an obligation Sarah has.
Throughout the author’s observations, she witnessed the struggle Sarah had with fulfilling her requirements as a new teacher and sticking to her pedagogical beliefs she adopted prior to entering the classroom.
As shown in the previous section, there were several other examples of how Sarah enacted CRE, but sometimes institutional requirements, such as testing, shifted her focus.
Sarah was clearly dedicated to serving her students in the ways she felt were best, and the author believes she has students’ best interests in mind from her perspective.
Observing her in the classroom, the author was able to witness her attempts at enacting CRE (sometimes, she was explicit about it, others times, she was not).
She was able to enact CRE through the caring community she set up, the high expectations she consistently held for her students, her attempts to be culturally competent in the curriculum, and through her own sociopolitical awareness.
Despite her attempts, state-, county-, and school-wide requirements centered testing as central part of daily life in school.
Also, Sarah did not feel she had the preparation or support to adequately meet her ELL students’ needs.
Overall, Sarah is a teacher who is clearly committed to her students, and the author believes she had their best intentions in mind; however, the author does not believe good intentions will be enough for teachers who are truly committed to social justice (Milner, 2012b; Milner & Laughter, 2013).
The implications of this study reveal the potential benefits of a school system establishing a teacher-mentoring system grounded in theory and practice.
It is evident from this study that the author’s involvement in Sarah’s classroom aided in her ability to implement CRE.
Although she possessed the theoretical knowledge needed to implement CRE, the author’s role as her mentor led to discussions that allowed her to reflect upon the rationale for why she did things a certain way or to provide suggestions for new ways that she could try things based on the author’s past experiences teaching.
Their discussions were not just “vent” sessions to complain about the many difficulties she faced, but rather productive and intentional meetings with a particular purpose to enhance her CSJ practice, meeting the needs of ALL her students.
The author’s intention is for this research to add to the literature highlighting the positive influence of mentoring while in one’s early years of teaching, particularly as it is related to CSJ in urban schools.
Aronson, B. (unpublished manuscript). “That’s much easier said then done”: The Realities of Social Justice Praxis in Schools. Journal of Teacher Education.
Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Milner, H. R. . (2012b). Start where you are, but don’t stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today’s classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Milner, H. R., Laughter, J. C. (2013). But good intentions are not enough: Preparing teachers to center race and poverty. The Urban Review, 47, 341-363.
Sleeter, C. E. (2012). Confronting the marginalization of culturally responsive pedagogy. Urban Education, 47, 562-584.