JTE Author Interview: ‘Change Happens Beyond the Comfort Zone’

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with authors of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Change Happens Beyond the Comfort Zone: Bringing Undergraduate Teacher Candidates Into Activist Teacher Communities,” from authors Kathleen Riley and Kathryn Solic. The article, featured in the March/April issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

This article shares findings from a qualitative study of an undergraduate urban education fellowship designed to connect teacher candidates with activist teacher communities and explore questions of social justice, equity, and multicultural teaching. Fellows attended conferences, professional meetings, and on-campus dialogues over one semester. Interview transcripts and meeting notes were analyzed through the lenses of teacher inquiry and transformative learning theory. Findings reveal how teacher candidates experienced shifts in their viewpoints through encountering new perspectives, discomfort with returning to their lives with new understandings, and a strong drive to further their learning about urban education. Within the context of a persistent gap between a mostly White, middle-class teaching force and a racially and socioeconomically diverse student population, this study offers an image of transformative preservice teacher education in which teacher candidates encounter professional communities outside of the confines of the classroom.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: We were motivated to pursue this particular research topic by several factors in our context. First, we recognized that Philadelphia has a rich and vibrant history of grassroots educator and youth activism that continues to be active today, and we wanted to explore how our teacher candidates would interact with and learn from their participation with these communities. Second, we had encountered a critical mass of teacher candidates in our courses who had shared a strong desire to prepare for teaching careers in the city, and expressed a passionate interest in opportunities to pursue that desire during their preparation program. Third, we recognized the need for more programming that would support preparation for urban contexts and social justice teaching and decided to act beyond our course structures to offer that programming.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: Yes. The School District of Philadelphia offers an interesting juxtaposition for our preservice teachers and our research. On one hand, the district has begun hiring again (after a series of deep funding cuts, layoffs, and a hiring freeze) and is a viable career option for our graduates given our proximity. On the other hand, teachers have been working without a contract in Philadelphia for four years and the district has been under control of a non-local, non-elected board since 2001. In addition, the privatization movement and charter school sector are active in this particular educational landscape as well. We wanted to provide preservice teachers with a chance to better understand the structural inequality in which the School District of Philadelphia was situated and engage with educators and organizers who were addressing these issues head-on.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

A: We weren’t able to observe our fellows directly in all of our fellowship spaces. For example, fellows selected and attended teacher inquiry community meetings on their own, and we weren’t always there in those moments to see what was happening. We learned a great deal from how they unpacked those experiences during on-campus group meetings, but we continue to negotiate tensions about how to collect rich data within spaces beyond those meetings.

Q: Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

A: We weren’t able to address the themes that were beginning to emerge from the specific types of inquiries our fellows were pursuing during the fellowship. For example, many of our fellows raised questions related to issues of race and racism, and the tensions inherent with being a White teacher working in non-White communities and schools. We hope to share more on this topic in future articles.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: We are continuing to research the work of the Urban Education Fellowship, and are currently following fellowship graduates as they begin their teaching careers in urban classrooms. We are excited to learn how the spaces of the fellowship might have impacted their teaching lives. We are also interested in further inquiry into a concept that we are calling “collective mentorship.” We believe that these teacher organizations are serving as a type of mentor to our teacher candidates, just as when they work with individual mentor teachers in classroom placements.

Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

A: One new challenge we encountered is how to best prepare teachers for roles beyond the classroom. For example, our university teacher preparation programs have a strong focus on technical aspects of pedagogy, assessment, and instruction. Our fellows named that learning about what teachers can do as members of larger communities and organizations was new for them as a result of this specific experience. This has us thinking a lot about what it means to prepare teachers to be political actors, community agents, and social activists.

Q: What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

A: Be flexible and persistent. This project was borne out of a funding opportunity that we had originally pursued for an entirely different purpose. Also, partnership is such a valuable scholarly tool. We’re both incredibly grateful and excited for the opportunity to be research partners.

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