My teaching career began at Brown University in Providence, R.I. As I began the teacher education program at Brown, I immediately became im-mersed in teaching. By experimenting with a variety of teaching texts and reading authors like Lisa Delpit, Paulo Freire, and Ted Sizer, my cohort group began to explore what it means become educated.
In the university setting, my peers and I confronted some uncomfortable realities of teaching. We began to sort through what it means to be an educator grounded in social justice theory.
Instead of simply seeing the classroom through my own eyes and experiences, I began to recognize that dialogue is at the heart of all good teaching. But the growth I experienced as a result of our conversations at Brown seemed to have no place once I began my student teaching at Shea High School, in Pawtucket, R.I.
Race and class issues at Shea felt overwhelming (the student population at Shea consisted primarily of African-American, Cape Verdean, and Latino students), but I didn’t see educators reaching these students. There were a total of three teachers of color in the entire building, including me and one other student teacher. I felt I needed the perspective of an experienced, committed teacher to support me as I confronted these difficult issues every day. But my cooperating teachers were unwilling or unprepared to give me the guidance to explore the complex dynamics of what it means to be a teacher in public schools.
Throughout my student teaching experience I kept asking myself the question: Why does the conversation that I began during my university experience in confronting issues of race, class, gender stop at the university door?
My Student Teachers
After my fifth year of teaching, I became a cooperating teacher at Parkland Middle School in Wheaton, Md. As I remembered the silenced conversations in my own student teaching experience, I thought about ways to help my student teachers engage in real dialogue about teaching — including race and class issues.
But creating a space for conversation in a large school setting poses challenges. Everyday practicalities consume student teachers’ first couple of weeks: How should I set-up my classroom? How do I get to the copy machine? How should I format my lesson plan? These kinds of issues often inhibit student teachers from reflecting very deeply on their practice.
After these everyday concerns about teaching get layered upon the larger issues of working in a bureaucracy, it becomes extremely difficult for student teachers to discern what is essential and what is nonessential in their teaching.
This is why it is critical for cooperating teachers to shift the discourse for student teachers. We must encourage beginning teachers to recognize that one of the major keys to success is not how you format your lesson plans but how you get to know what best motivates your students.
Here are a few practical suggestions based on my work with student teachers:
1. Balance the “nuts and bolts” conversations with dialogues about social justice issues.
In the first couple of weeks of the practicum experience, cooperating teachers should provide select short articles for student teachers to engage with. You don’t want to overwhelm them with a whole book. But you want to provide them with particularly important articles. I’ve found that several essays are especially good conversation starters: “The Silenced Dialogue” by Lisa Delpit, “I Won’t Learn From You” by Herb Kohl, “Inexorable De-cisions” by Jonathan Kozol, “Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice” by the editors of Rethinking Schools, and “Less Is More” by Ted Sizer.
When I first started using these articles, I realized that I was asking student teachers to process multiple ideas and experiences that they were not always introduced to in their university settings. In the first three weeks, student teachers observe me teach. As I teach, I encourage them to watch to see how I implement (or try to implement!) ideas in the articles I provided them. Asking student teachers to apply their reading to my own classroom practice helps create much richer discussions with them. Instead of just reading abstract theory, student teachers are able to think about how these ideas might play out in practice.
2. Help student teachers understand the physical and socioeconomic geography of the building.
In the first couple of weeks of student teaching, I ask my students to tour the building using the questions that Enid Lee poses in her work on anti-racist multicultural education. [See “Taking Multicultural, Anti-racist Education Seriously,” in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1.]
In a traditional practicum experience, the focus is on getting the student teacher acclimated to the classroom. I want my student teachers to place themselves in the context of the school, and more importantly to think about their connection with the larger community. If a student teacher is working in an unfamiliar community, it is essential for the cooperating teacher to provide student teachers multiple opportunities to reflect on the politics of space in the school. In prior years as a cooperating teacher I’ve had my student teachers analyze the school using questions like these:
Who is the person parents first see when they arrive in the school office? Is this person bilingual?
Is our school tracked? How? What is the gender and racial breakdown for Gifted and Talented classes, and how does this compare with overall gender and racial representation in the school?
Select two students. Follow their schedule for a day. How do these students experience school? Relate these students’ experiences to the articles that we’ve previously discussed.
3. Help student teachers set consistent, high expectations for students.
The cooperating teacher should assist student teachers in recognizing the importance of creating multiple opportunities for students to exhibit their mastery of skills. For example, my student teacher Jose Castro and I provided lunch-time assistance for students, where they could relearn and reassess material they did not understand. When I modeled for Jose the importance of being consistent and persistent with students, he developed a conviction that all students could master content. In this lunch-time space, Jose was able to get to know students who might have fallen through the cracks.
4. Help student teachers learn to adapt and create curriculum.
I also try to help student teachers develop a critical eye for how to reshape the curriculum. As a social studies teacher, I use two books — Rethinking Columbus and a book I co-edited, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching — to enlist student teachers in reshaping some aspect of curriculum that they will teach. I ask my student teachers to take one unit from my county’s curriculum guide and create two lessons that highlight perspectives that are silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, my first student teacher and I altered a unit on Latin America in our curriculum guide to include a lesson bringing in the voices of Central American women affected by the civil war in El Salvador.
In this age of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, creating teacher-activists has become even more important because of the need for the constant agitation for change in our schools. We must, as cooperating teachers, provide student teachers with the foundation that will allow them to develop the skills to teach what matters. We have to help student teachers nurture their aspirations for social justice but also help them see concretely how these values can play out in real school contexts.