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Teaching Teachers to Reflect on Race

As America’s schools grow increasingly diverse, powerful educators can’t be “colorblind.”

As a faculty member in a teacher education program, I have been part of a team of faculty who have created a new mandatory course, “Identity and Teaching,” to help preservice teachers develop cultural competence and racial awareness that are vital for effectively teaching in diverse schools. The specific purpose of the course is to allow preservice teachers to grapple with their racial, cultural, and gender identities. The most vexing challenge for students has been their examinations of their own racial identities. Students engage in readings and activities, wrestling with questions such as, “Who am I racially? What do I believe about other racial groups? and “Does who I am and what I believe about race have ramifications for the students I teach?” The reflections and revelations that emanate from the course are invaluable, and the emotional outpouring is a testament to how difficult it is for many individuals to come to grips with their own notions of racial privilege.

Many of the students in the course explain how their discomfort is a result of race being a taboo topic for them. They express concerns such as not wanting their comments to appear racially insensitive, racist, prejudiced, or politically incorrect. Yet, facilitators guiding race-related discussions cannot allow individuals’ discomfort or ignorance about race to become an escape for not addressing and analyzing their own beliefs about race. Teacher educators should be willing to push students into the uncomfortable spaces where race is being discussed on an in-depth level. Students can be asked to think about why race was not a part of their upbringing, or challenged to think about why students of color believe that race and racism are real issues in their lives.

The process of examining identity also can mean taking students to task in a respectful manner when racially inappropriate comments are made within the context of a course, such as when a White student in one of my courses stated, “Why do we spend so much time on this race stuff; these people need to just get over it.” The tone and tenor of such a comment suggest that race-related issues are insignificant and need not be discussed. However, hearing the stories, learning from the experiences, and hearing some of the painful episodes that people of color encounter, may help to enlighten those who want to avoid race-related topics. The process of critically delving into race-related topics is especially important because if teachers do not have experiential knowledge regarding issues of race, they may feel inadequately prepared and retreat to the safety net of practicing “colorblindness,” the practice of not acknowledging the racial identities of their students. With the best of intentions, colorblindness inadvertently renders students of color invisible.

Colorblindness can imply that there is something wrong with not being White, or that there is something embarrassing or insulting about acknowledging one’s race or ethnicity. Colorblind perspectives also may reproduce racial and cultural hegemony in school practices, such as curriculum choices, teacher expectations, testing procedures, instructional practices, and even more pedestrian tasks such as seating arrangements. Because of the growing racial diversity in the United States, it is vital for teachers to understand and have the capacity to acknowledge racial diversity, and create safe, affirming, and supportive learning environments for their students to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to dialogue about race-related issues.

Preservice teachers in our identity course are informed that many of their students will see their racial identities as important—and in some cases primary—facets of who they are. The ability to talk with students openly, honestly, and from an informed standpoint about race can be a huge asset. An inability to create a learning environment that recognizes the salience of race could place these novice teachers at an extreme disadvantage.

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While research on the topic is sparse, it remains clear that one of the pressing challenges in teacher education is the largely White population of former teachers who serve as teacher educators, many of whom have not problematized issues of race. Nevertheless, they are given the daunting task of helping preservice teachers to think critically about race-related issues. Being able to effectively initiate and facilitate critical reflection about race requires the ability to critically examine one’s own personal beliefs, opinions, and values about racial identity and the race of others.

The reflective process in the identity course was enhanced by a three-day workshop that each of the course instructors took before teaching the course. Each instructor engaged in activities identical to the ones they would take their own students through—activities that required the students to come to grips with their own identities around race, ethnicity, social class, and gender. The willingness on the part of teacher educators to share their own lived experiences, expose their own human frailties, and reflect on their ever-evolving identities within a community of peers is important. The practice of reflecting on race in teacher education becomes superficial if facilitators of discussions are not clear and comfortable with both their own identities and those of others.

Whatever reflective mechanisms are put in place, teacher education programs must go beyond reflection and actively engage preservice teachers in discourses about how race plays out in schools, how students make meaning of race, and to what degree race and race-related issues influence students’ prospects for learning. Ray C. Rist’s research on labeling and teacher expectations revealed that teachers’ preconceived notions about students and their academic potential frequently were influenced by race and consequently contributed to the salience of self-fulfilling prophecies wherein students question their own potential for academic success.

The following suggestions are offered to inform teacher educators, preservice teachers, inservice teachers, and school administrators about ways to translate critical reflection into greater racial awareness.

  1. Develop teacher education faculty who are able to sufficiently address the complex nature of race, ethnicity, and culture. Clinical educators, lecturers, or mentor teachers can be helpful in facilitating this critical racial awareness with preservice teachers. These individuals can share their own frustrations with mistakes and strategies for making meaning out of issues pertaining to race in diverse schools. For teacher educators who have never worked in racially diverse schools, the process of critical reflection is likely to be incredibly difficult. Consequently, it can be fruitful for teacher education programs to identify former classroom teachers who have experience working in racially diverse school settings to work with preservice teachers.
  2. Recognize that reflection is a never-ending process. Just as the very nature of teaching is built upon always revisiting curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, the same holds true for critical self-reflection. Preservice teachers should realize that even the most seasoned and racially aware teachers are prone to mistakes, and lapses in judgment. However, they acknowledge their errors and improve their teaching accordingly.
  3. Emphasize that teaching is not a neutral act. It is highly political, and issues such as race and class are always tied to teaching. Teachers should be mindful of how their actions can contribute to or stifle the development of a healthy identity and sense of self among students. Teachers who refuse to monitor their own beliefs and classroom ethos can contribute to resistance on the part of students.
  4. Avoid reductive notions of race and culture. A critical reflection process allows teachers to recognize the array of differences that exist within groups. Not all Black students work well in groups, not all Latino students are second language learners, and not all Asian American students are high achievers. While there may be central tendencies within groups, teachers must avoid creating stereotypical profiles of students that may do more harm than good. Instead, teachers should develop individual profiles of students.
  5. Enumerate specific issues to reflect on. Teachers should consistently examine data and ask challenging questions about equity at their school. Such questions might include:
    • What is the racial breakdown of students who are referred for special needs services?
    • What is the racial breakdown of students referred for gifted education and recommended for AP/Honors classes?
    • How frequently do I differentiate instruction?
    • Do scoring rubrics give advantages for certain ways of knowing and expression?
    • Do I allow culturally based differences in language, speech, reading, and writing to shape my perceptions about students’ cognitive ability?
    • Do I rely solely on traditional student assessments? How often do I allow nontraditional means of assessment such as role playing, skits, poetry, or rap to be a part of my class?

The development of a critical consciousness should not be viewed as relevant only to White teachers. One of the mistakes that can be made by teachers of color is assuming that being a member of the same racial or ethnic group as one’s students automatically gives one a unique ability to connect to or effectively teach students of color. The ways in which race, ethnicity, culture, language, and social class are manifested in young people’s lives are constantly in flux. Therefore, it is important to recognize that while there may be experiences that allow teachers of color to relate to certain realities of their students, this is not necessarily a given, and it is therefore highly advisable for teachers of color also to engage in the process of critical reflection.

Tyrone C. Howard is associate professor of education and Director of Center X in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA.

Adapted from Chapter 6, “Developing Cultural Competence and Racial Awareness in Classroom Teachers,” from the book Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms, Copyright 2010 by Tyrone C. Howard. Reprinted with permission from Teacher’s College Press. All rights reserved.

To order copies visit http://www.tcpress.com/.

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