Preparing Educators to be Champions for Justice

Growing up in Louisville during the civil rights era, with activist parents who believed in the inherent connection between education and equality, I understood early on that a quality education can increase opportunities and improve outcomes for all children. I recall the civil rights hymn, “Woke up this morning with my mind – stayed on freedom,” which inspired so many and captured the urgency of addressing the injustice minorities faced in America at that time. Today, educational equity continues to be in the forefront of my mind.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of two major milestones in this country’s pursuit of justice – the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the soul of the country with his “I Have a Dream” benediction, and James Meredith’s graduation from the University of Mississippi as the history-making student who integrated that state’s flagship institution. We should all celebrate these victories. For teacher educators in particular, in honoring the memory of these achievements, we will find inspiration to redouble our commitment to our unique social justice imperative – to prepare all future educators to improve the opportunities for all America’s children.

Undeniably, the nation has made progress on the equity agenda, but there is still challenging work that urgently needs to be done. Too many students are vulnerable to conditions that cannot be overcome by our motivation or our sympathy. We must be skilled in advocacy for our students’ needs and as pedagogists. While schools cannot solve all of America’s structural inequities, educators must be concerned about inequities that present barriers to student learning. We must be accountable for improving the conditions for learning.  If adequate learning conditions do not exist, professional educators have to bring this fact to the attention of the community.  In classrooms across this country, teachers recognize the impact an inadequate health-care system has on low-income children’s quality of life and school performance. Teachers understand the relationship between substandard living conditions with environmental pollutants and the increased incidence of students with asthma and lead poisoning. Teachers see the signs of poverty when children enter schools hungry and lethargic. We all know some schools have been pipelines to prisons or historically have limited students to poverty wages as adults.

In taking up the social justice call, schools of education have put in place a variety of initiatives for preparing educators to meet the diverse needs of students and the communities they serve. One high-impact example of this effort is the federal TEACH grant program, which requires a 4-year service commitment aimed at reducing teacher turnover and shortages in hard-to-staff schools and focuses on developing an educator workforce that is effective in high-need communities. As of February 2012, more than 2,500 TEACH grant recipients had entered their service obligations in high-need fields at low-income schools. The teacher performance assessment- edTPA, now being used in hundreds of programs around the country, is another example, requiring candidates to demonstrate how they will recognize and respond to the needs of diverse learners during clinical practice. In addition, 39 Teacher Quality Partnership grantees are working to build collaborative partnerships between institutions of higher education, high-need local education agencies, and high-need schools to develop a pipeline of effective new teachers.

Fifty years ago, on the National Mall, a coalition of people dedicated to raising consciousness about systemic injustice in this country rallied to make a difference for all Americans. Today, whether the momentum for change occurs on the national stage, in North Carolina’s Moral Monday protests, or in a classroom where the evidence of inequality is in a child’s hungry eyes, our candidates must understand that being an educator means being a champion for justice.  They must learn this lesson from us – by our example.


Sharon Robinson

President and CEO, AACTE