From Ideal to Practice and Back Again: Beginning Teachers Teaching for Social Justice

By Agarwal, Ruchi; Epstein, Shira et al. | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2010 | Go to article overview

From Ideal to Practice and Back Again: Beginning Teachers Teaching for Social Justice


Agarwal, Ruchi, Epstein, Shira, Oppenheim, Rachel, Oyler, Celia, Sonu, Debbie, Journal of Teacher Education


Introduction

Many teacher education programs across the United States express commitments to social justice and accordingly attract prospective teachers who seek to work for social change. These social justice commitments are certainly broad and diffuse but stem in no small part from the structural inequalities in our society that are reflected in--and perpetuated by--our schools. We know, for instance, that students in low-income communities are more likely to receive fewer resources and a qualitatively substandard education compared to their middle-class counterparts (Ferguson, 2000; Kozol, 1991; Rothstein, 2004). So too, students of color are often denied adequate educational resources, are overrepresented within special education contexts, and are subject to harsher forms of punishment than their White peers (Losen & Orfield, 2002; Mukherjee, 2007; Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997). Of course, these are not new trends, as U.S. schools have historically failed to adequately serve students outside the White, English-speaking, middle-class, nondisabled, mainstream culture (Zollers, Albert, & Cochran-Smith, 2000). To combat such inequalities, social justice is emphasized as an integral part of many teacher education curricula.

When seeking to transform inequities inherent in society and expressed so sharply in schools, classroom teachers can be understood as "the most essential element [as] they have the ultimate responsibility to navigate the curriculum and instruction with their students" (Lalas, 2007, p. 19). Consequently, we, as teacher educators, feel the charge of this responsibility, both in our university-based curriculum design and in our research on the consequences of our justice-oriented teacher education with preservice teachers. To that end, we developed a multicase study of recent graduates of our elementary preservice program. We explored with these beginning teachers their classroom enactments of social justice-oriented curriculum to investigate ways that our university curricula might better prepare teachers for the realities of teaching for social justice within our current public school system. This article discusses our graduates' conceptions of teaching for social justice, their curricular enactments, and their reflections. Although we were insistent that our classroom-based data collection with beginning teachers be respectful and nonevaluative, we use our findings to highlight and critically analyze some of the important possibilities and challenges we face in our teacher education work when preparing teachers to advocate for social change through their pedagogy. Our work was inspired by our understanding that a commitment to social justice teacher education must be partnered with a commitment to self-study and self-reflection. Thus, this work is born from a position of self-criticism and critique that undergirds various social movements (Hale, 1991).

We begin the article by framing our work in relation to the literature on beginning teachers and teaching for social justice. Next, we describe our method of study. This is followed by three cases, each of which highlights a different beginning teacher and her conceptions and enactments of social justice education. The cases illustrate some of the difficulties beginning teachers face when seeking to enact social justice curricula and teach in a way that reflects their ideals. In spite of these struggles, these cases also reveal the potential that many new teachers have to teach toward justice curricula, even as they doubt their own ability to do so. We conclude with a set of recommendations for ourselves and other teacher educators who are dedicated to supporting new teachers in creating socially just curricula.

Framing and Researching Social Justice Teacher Education

The phrase social justice has proliferated in teacher education in recent years and is an umbrella term encompassing a large range of practices and perspectives (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2006). …

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