Engaging with social justice in pre-service classrooms poses a variety of challenges for teacher educators. First, many of the topics under discussion are controversial and emotionally charged. Taking up issues like sexism and homophobia (to name only a few) can lead to intensely uncomfortable feelings as students and teachers grapple with differing opinions about what is and is not possible to tackle in a traditional school setting. Second, it is often important to share highly theoretical ideas with developing teachers prior to their having accumulated ample classroom experiences that can demonstrate the benefit of such social justice preparation. For instance, I have consistently asked students to envision and describe possible ways that they might take up race or racism in their future classrooms or schools. I reasoned that this might give me some indication of how developing teachers considered applying the advice of critical race theorists like Gloria Ladson-Billings or Derrick Bell, who argue that educators need to discuss race, racism and social injustice explicitly in the classroom. However, as I struggled to make social justice issues “real” for my students, I began to see a growing disconnect between a teacher educator’s dedication to social justice issues and a more politicized vision of teaching, and traditional approaches to practicum experiences. I felt strongly that student teachers were interested in making use of our classroom discussions about controversial topics during their practicum, but they did not feel experienced enough or amply supported to test out some of the theoretical tools I had shared with them. Consequently, it became clear to me that teacher education students needed more support if they were truly to be expected to challenge social injustice in the classroom.
In 2011, while teaching in the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island, I proposed that teacher education students needed an opportunity to work explicitly with the social justice tools they were being introduced to throughout the program, with the guidance of equity-conscious practicum supervisors. The goal was to develop an alternative practicum experience for pre-service teachers that would help them actively engage in the critical discussions required in social justice work.
The Diversity Project was a practicum experience that placed diversity, equity, and social justice front and centre in an apprenticeship model for teacher education. Pre-service teachers were asked to think about their practicum as an investigation of “school culture.” As such, they would first participate in observations at their school in non-traditional classroom settings (e.g. in the lunch room, student lounges, hallways and playgrounds) prior to beginning their teaching. Observation settings were meant to allow the pre-service teacher to think objectively about what the actual social justice needs were in particular schools, an approach that challenged traditional ideas that equity education could be a one-size-fits-all set of assignments. Moreover, this preliminary investigation at the school reminded pre-service teachers that it was important to tap into the school culture that existed in their assigned school if they were to develop engaging assignments for their students.
It never stops surprising me how teacher education students, when given a chance to consider participating in projects like these, become fully engaged teachers. Unlike many educators who are exhausted by having to fight against the system on a daily basis and give up on seeing their profession as “political work,” many teacher education students are energized by the idea of framing their pedagogies in social justice and equity principles. Their commitment, excitement and consequent desire to engage was apparent in their response to The Diversity Project. After sharing this unique practicum option with Faculty of Education students, fully half of the 60 student participants requested enrollment in the project.
It was clear that the student teachers would require assistance, both in working through their school observation “findings” and in developing relevant curricula for the classroom. While the host teachers would be supporting the pre-service teachers in the classroom, another key element of The Diversity Project was to provide pre-service teachers with wrap-around faculty support as well. To this end, the “Diversity Team” was established in the Faculty of Education to act as a support network and social justice community ready, willing, and able to help pre-service participants as they engaged in social justice work during their practicum. The final step for The Diversity Project was to co-create the “Diversity, Equity & Social Justice Teaching Guide.” This guide would provide a rationale for this work, create a forum for pre-service teachers to share lesson plans, and suggest alternative lessons to help address social justice in the classroom as well as meet curriculum expectations. Thus, pre-service teacher engagement would continue long after participating students had graduated from the Faculty of Education.
Interested in learning more about their students and their schools, wanting to find authentic ways to engage with faculty members and acutely aware of the ongoing need to speak explicitly about issues like racism, homophobia, and ableism – issues that most pre-service teachers shy away from – the teacher education students in The Diversity Project taught me a lot about what engages developing teachers:
- Pre-service teacher engagement requires support from faculty in the university just as much as it requires a supportive teaching environment in the practicum experience.
- Pre-service teacher engagement requires reinforcement from host teachers and from faculty members who shared a desire to create stronger, more pro-social learning environments that allowed diverse students to be themselves no matter where they were from or how “different” they felt.
- Pre-service teacher engagement does not have to feel “safe.”
It was this final lesson that has had the greatest impact on my own work in teacher education classrooms.
When the pre-service teachers asked me what aspect of diversity we would focus on, my response was, “We won’t know until we get there.” When they asked me what tools we would draw on to build our diversity curriculum, my response was, “We won’t know until we get there.” And when they asked me what kind of support the faculty’s Diversity Team would provide, my response was, “We won’t know until we get there.” The student teachers were scared (and rightly so!) but that’s not all:
They were excited.
They were curious.
They were invested.
And most importantly? They were hooked.
First published in Education Canada, September 2013