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Fostering Classroom Environments that Disrupt Inequities

Group of diverse young students standing together in classroom.

This article is part of a series that originally appeared on the Education First Blog and is reprinted with permission.

Here in the College of Education at California State University Sacramento, we’ve been in the business of preparing teachers for 73 years, and in the past few years have prepared approximately 380 teachers annually across 12 certification areas. A central aspect of our offerings across these programs is a focus on helping candidates understand the relationship between societal inequities and student learning, with special focus on race, class, gender, and other socially constructed categories. We knew that these understandings were key to our candidates’ success in developing equitable, healthy relationships with their K-12 students. 

But we found that this wasn’t enough. The mentor teachers who support our candidates in their clinical experiences started asking us faculty some tough questions about whether these aspects of our preparation really prepared our candidates to be ready to teach all children on day one. Was the preparation coherent and clear for candidates? Were candidates provided opportunities to practice the ways in which teachers cultivate equitable, culturally responsive anti-racist classroom environments?

In truth, we didn’t feel like we had good answers to either of those questions. We could certainly point to a robust strand on culturally responsive anti-racist research and theory, but there were two fundamental things missing. First, the strand wasn’t grounded in a coherent, sequenced set of definitions and practices that articulated clearly what it actually means for teachers to create culturally responsive, anti-racist classroom environments. And second, we didn’t provide structured, regular opportunities for our candidates to practice building those skills during their preparation with us.  

While we have benefited greatly from grant support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the US Department of Education Teacher Quality Partnership Grant Program, in this post I’ll focus on how we’ve used an incredible open-source resource developed by TeachingWorks to fill these gaps. TeachingWorks’ goal is to create a system for teacher preparation and support that will make skillful beginning teaching that disrupts inequity commonplace. TeachingWorks anchors their work in what they call “high-leverage practices.” Put simply, high-leverage practices are the fundamentals of teaching for equity. They are high-leverage not only because they support learning for all students, but because they are basic for advancing skill in equitable teaching. We were eager to participate in a TeachingWorks pilot that allowed us to use a new set of curriculum materials that help faculty like me develop candidates’ skill in high-leverage practices.

We are applying several of these TeachingWorks curriculum resources—which are housed in the open-source TeachingWorks Resource Library—in our preparation offerings. In this post I want to zero in on how we’ve used them to create coherent, practice-based opportunities for our candidates to build respectful relationships with all students and foster classroom environments that disrupt inequities. With three of my colleagues, we became TeachingWorks fellows, and were offered curriculum and support on how to teach our candidates to foster respectful relationships and create equitable classroom environments. This high-leverage practice is grounded in a few key ideas: first, that the quality of the relationships that students have with their teachers affects their success and flourishing. And second, because teachers’ explicit and implicit bias leads to the reproduction of social inequities, teacher candidates need to have explicit instruction on how to raise their awareness of their own biases, the effect of those biases on relationships with students and student learning and how to teach in a way that mitigates the effects of bias and supports high academic achievement for all students.

We participated in a four class session unit focused on fostering classroom environments that disrupt inequities, in which teacher novices—in our case, teacher candidates in our teacher preparation programs—consider how the structures and social environments of schooling contribute to the reproduction of racism in the classroom. They develop a mindset for equitable, just, and culturally-affirming practice for managing classroom dilemmas, and learn to acknowledge children’s competence, carry out organizational routines with attention to equity and engage in restorative individual conversations with children.

For example, in one of the lessons, candidates read a chapter from Milners’ work on classroom environments, which focuses on culturally responsive, research-based best practices for creating learning environments for all students that are both nurturing and rigorous. The work maps explicit routines and prompts teacher candidates to critically examine the idea of classroom environments through the lens of interrogating their own racial and class identity. For example, if candidates come from a background in which individual achievement is most important, they may set up their classroom that way, as opposed to engaging the students in more group work, or dialogic activities, which would better support high academic achievement. 

This is one of many examples of what we’ve learned and adapted from the aligned (and free) curriculum materials on TeachingWorks’ website to shape a curriculum redesign we call Justice-Focused Practice-Based Teacher Education. Within that broader curriculum—which includes a curricular frame based on the learning cycle as well as instructional plans for Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and ELA teacher candidates—we are developing foundational coursework that candidates across our certification programs experience that is grounded in high-leverage practices, including the high-leverage practice of building equitable relationships with students and fostering equitable classroom environments. 

We’re in the early stages of designing and implementing this new coherent, practice-based curriculum. Our long-term goal is through this work to create a two-semester scope and sequence designed to integrate the high-leverage practices throughout our coursework. In order to get on the same page, faculty, cooperating teachers and staff supervisors engage in monthly professional development on the high-leverage practices, and we are in the process of collecting candidate videos to use for calibration purposes on the practices among our teacher educators. 

I can already see the benefits. Even in this early stage, our teacher candidates have been very receptive. One recent experience in my class (co-taught by three professors) stands out for me as a great example. At the beginning of one of the TeachingWorks modules, we introduce an identity wheel, which is a set of charts posted around our room that lists several identities, like race, gender or primary language. We asked the teacher candidates to get up and go stand next to the identity poster that they think most accurately frames how they see the world and how the world sees them. Our students of color nearly universally congregated under the race poster, while our white students spread across several of the other posters. We asked the obvious question of the students as they stood at their chosen posters: why, did they think, did the candidates of color all congregate under the race poster, while the white students tended to scatter across other kinds of identity? This simple exercise and question set off a powerful conversation in which students were very candid with each other about why that might be, including the way that white privilege can give white people the mistaken notion that race doesn’t matter, and also allows white students much more latitude to choose their identity. Later, we got very strong positive feedback on the session because candidates felt like they were talking about real issues and really getting to the heart of what it means to understand and support their students.

Another exercise from the curriculum that resonated deeply with our teacher candidates is one grounded in Milners’ writings on organizational structures in classrooms I mentioned already. The framing question we posed for students was: what structures do we take for granted in a classroom? We asked them to think about common ones, such as everyone lining up or asking students to sit at desks as opposed to tables. We explored how those practices might be replicating power structures. We asked who in the classroom could talk about how they may have been impacted under these structures in their experience as a K-12 student. One of our strongest teacher candidates said she was suspended 15 times in high school, and spoke to the specific ways that school discipline systems worked against her as a Latinx woman. This led us to a conversation about how to interpret or “read” student behavior. In the Latinx woman teacher candidate’s case, for example, teachers and administrators saw her as defiant, but didn’t explore the roots of her behavior, or interrogate their own lens in their interpretation of her behavior. For her, schooling led to pain, confusion and lack of learning, because the school environment was based on an “invisible” white middle class culture that did not honor who she is. It is an honor to help her now build the skill to break the destructive patterns she experienced.

For us, this wasn’t just an interesting class or set of materials that we learned from as a faculty. We see our role as a preparation provider differently now. We know we can, and must, prepare our teacher candidates to not just understand the diverse cultures, socio-political realities and perspectives of their K-12 students and families, but to actively disrupt the inequities that are at play in our society, including in our K-12 classrooms.

Susan Baker is a professor in the Department of Teacher Credentialing in the College of Education at California State University, Sacramento.

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