We’re all socialized beings, and that makes critical mentor teachers more needed than ever
I'm happy to host a guest blogger this week, Mary Hamel from my graduate class at UMass (Research in Teaching/Critical Pedagogy, Dr.Keisha Green). Thanks for guest blogging, Mary!
Despite all we know about how powerful an impact a critical approach to teaching can have on our young people, teachers today are struggling, perhaps more than ever, to reconcile socially just teaching practices with the demands of more traditional, assessment-geared schooling practices. The constant uphill battle of school reform has many educators burning out, leaving the profession, or succumbing to the pressures of status quo teaching. However, critical teachers are out there. They are working to promote social justice in classrooms and empowering their students to participate actively in their own education. They are decolonizing their curriculums and engaging their communities in discussions on school reform. They are pushing back on unfair and biased policies that widen opportunity gaps and inequities across multiple diversities. For the sake of all our students, the need for strong mentorship of a new generation of critical multiculturalist teachers is essential to keeping the ball rolling towards progress.
Theories behind critical pedagogy have existed in academia since at least the 1960’s. Brazilian philosopher and educator, Paulo Freire, is most often credited with introducing theories of power, oppression, and praxis into education with his famous 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This seminal text has often served as the foundation for conceptual frameworks used by educator-scholars like Christine Sleeter, Sonia Nieto, and Django Paris as they work to evolve and redefine the goals of multiculturalism. Thanks to these educators, the meaning of the word “multiculturalism” in the classroom has shifted away from the practice of offering students exposure to shallow, culture-essentializing practices and instead asserts that education does not exist within a vacuum, but reflects the social, political, and economic factors that are salient within our institutions
Today many progressive colleges and universities are throwing much needed energy into adapting their teacher preparation programs to give teachers the skills and understandings they need to become not just multiculturalist, but critical multiculturalist educators in the field. Coursework focused on critical issues in education, such as language acquisition, trauma-informed teaching practices, social justice, opportunity gaps, anti-racist curriculums, and cultural proficiency are increasingly required in tandem with traditional content methods courses. Requiring dual practicum experiences in urban and suburban settings is becoming more and more the norm for pre-licensure candidates.
But here’s the rub: Though the theory and conceptual frameworks for a critical reformation of the institution of schooling has been laid for some time, it is easy to feel as though little headway is being made in actual praxis (actions taking place in classrooms).
While more and more teacher preparation programs are shifting to reflect the goals of critical pedagogy in our classrooms, a critical multiculturalist mentor teacher is a bit of a four leaf clover: damn near impossible to find, and withered dry all too soon. The absence of critical pedagogues actively teaching in the field and willing and able to mentor student teachers presents a massive stumbling block for higher ed. institutions wanting to grow a critical mass of teachers who are prepared to undertake the real work (praxis) of addressing educational inequities in America. In their absence of critical mentors, too many student teachers are being socialized right back into the trap of status-quo teaching.
Teaching practice most often begins through apprenticeship. New teachers are immersed in a veteran teacher’s classroom and learn by observing and imitating their mentor’s instructional practices, attitudes, management style, and expectations. In this way, new teachers are generally socialized into the profession of teaching. They learn the norms of teaching through the teachers and school climate surrounding them as they navigate their practicum experiences. Teachers reflecting on their humble beginnings very often identify their practicum experience as the most memorable and influential part of how they learned to teach. Without a strong mentor to help bridge critical theory with praxis, student teachers are unlikely to carry newly learned critical pedagogy into their future careers.
Compounding this problem is another dilemma in education; an extreme lack of teacher diversity. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between 2015 and 2016, 88% of elementary teachers in the workforce identify as women, and 80% of all teachers (elementary and secondary combined) identify as White. This presents a significant challenge to critical teacher preparation programming because student teachers are not shaped solely in university classrooms. Like all humans, they are socialized into their own cultures. This strong socialization creates the lens through which we see the world. The hyper-dominance of White female teachers in America makes it highly likely that, despite receiving critical coursework in their preparation programs, most of our teachers will enter the field already highly socialized into White cultural norms. These norms dominate our media, classrooms, curriculums, and ideologies. They show up in things like deficit model instruction. We see it in zero-tolerance discipline policies, colonialist textbooks, community politics, hiring practices, the demographics of school administrations, etc.
Without opportunities to recognize and challenge these socialized norms in ourselves, we lose the opportunity to comprehend the underlying context of what we encounter. Simply requiring a student teacher to complete a practicum in an urbanized district is not enough to develop a critical teacher. In fact, it is quite possible that it does the opposite by further entrenching ideas, attitudes, and ideologies shaped through socialization. This is because the lens through which she is examining her experience has not been examined. It is assumed to be objective, free from implicit bias, but scholars and theorists alike from multiple fields are adamant that this cannot be true. This is problematic for the critical pedagogue, as a critical lens requires constant recognizing and questioning of one’s own socialization.
So, where does this leave current educators who are steadfastly pushing that ball of social justice progress uphill? Targeted in a call to arms, I suppose. A call to reach out to nearby teacher education programs and agree to mentor a student teacher. Provide a new generation of educators an opportunity to change their own lens through a meaningful apprenticeship with a critical teacher. Yes, it is a lot of work, but so is pushing that ball alone!