Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Individual and Structural Orientations in Socially Just Teaching: Conceptualization, Implementation, and Collaborative Effort

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Individual and Structural Orientations in Socially Just Teaching: Conceptualization, Implementation, and Collaborative Effort

Article excerpt

Social justice is rapidly becoming one of those terms that is bleached of meaning while still able to evoke strong emotion. When that happens, the term can easily be co-opted, with its meaning filled in as the user sees fit. This frequently produces less clarity, with increased disagreement accompanied by strong emotions such as anger, defensiveness, and distrust. Not surprisingly, then, the wide use of the term social justice in teacher education (Zeichner, 2006) has produced an ample share of confusion and emotional reaction. For example, the number of justice-related presentations at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association has increased dramatically in the past several years, even as that array of presentations varies widely in practical implementation.

From outside the field, the popular press has leveled blistering criticisms against teacher education based on assumptions about how teacher educators define and teach socially just education. For example, John Leo's (2005) editorial in U.S. News & World Report accused schools of education of imposing "group think" and a "culturally left agenda" associated with social justice. George Will (2006) argued in Newsweek for the closure of all schools of education because of the way they "discourage, even disqualify, prospective teachers who lack the correct 'disposition'" (p. 98) associated with social justice. In an editorial for City Journal, Stern (2006) described his impression of K-12 schools with a social justice focus as places where "the idea of democratic empowerment for the students was subverting any hope for a rigorous education." Such criticism understandably evokes caution about using the term social justice in teacher education units and their accrediting organizations; their cautious reactions, however, have then elicited further criticism from within our ranks. The National Council of Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) has felt pressure from outside to omit the term in its documents with corresponding pressure from within to include it (Glenn, 2007), pressure intensified by the term's previously ill-defined link to dispositions (Sockett, 2009). This controversy has siphoned off energy to respond to the attacks in the popular press and to address wrangling among ourselves (Damon, 2005; Glenn, 2007; Leo, 2005; Sockett, 2009; Wise, 2006), energy that should be directed toward improving the quality of our profession. Indeed, the phrase social justice is becoming less practical and more divisive, to no one's benefit.

Caught in the cross fire, preservice teachers can end up parroting the phrase teaching for social justice with little substantive understanding, with varying degrees of conviction, and, consequently, with limited ability to act in the interests of greater justice. Too many abandon the notion altogether, whereas others ask, "Just what does teaching for social justice actually mean?" Though educational researchers and instructors have attempted to provide clarity, both practically (Bigelow, Harvey, Karp, & Miller, 2001; Christensen, 2009; Cochran-Smith, 2004) and theoretically (North, 2006; Zembylas & Chubbuck, in press), the confusion continues, frequently with more focus on individual teacher behaviors and less on the need to analyze and transform larger structural issues (Cochran-Smith, Shakman, Jong, Terrell, Barnatt, & McQuillan, 2009; Whipp & Chubbuck, 2009; Zeichner, 2006).

Confusion, however, also creates an opportunity for dialogue, leading to greater depth of understanding (North, 2006). At the risk of oversimplification, this essay attempts to enter into that dialogue by drawing from research, theory, and several years of personal reflection as a teacher educator. First, I suggest a framework for tmderstanding social justice in education by attempting to clarify the links between dispositions, reflection, and teacher behaviors and the goal of social justice, using both an individual and a structural analytical lens. …

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