Teacher Preparation Programs Focus on Social Justice to Transform Classroom Experience for Underrepresented Students

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At many schools of education, pre-service teachers are trained on classroom instruction with little attention paid to the systemic educational and societal barriers faced by marginalized groups. However, through a focus on social justice education, an increasing number of institutions are beginning to offer programs designed to prepare both current and future teachers to better educate and empower underserved youth.

[Above: An MAT: UESJ student works with children in a local elementary school.]

Patrick Camangian
Patrick Camangian

Social justice education seeks to bridge what Patrick Camangian, PhD, associate professor in the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Education, calls the “cultural disconnect” between traditional schooling and the realities that marginalized students face in their day-to-day lives. As head of the Master of Arts in Teaching: Urban Education and Social Justice (MAT: UESJ) program, Camangian helps prepare teacher candidates to remedy this disconnect, with a specific concentration on underserved schools in the Bay Area, where rates of income inequality — especially for minorities — are some of the starkest in the nation.  

Camangian’s research includes a focus on understanding the social stresses faced by children in underserved urban neighborhoods. One factor that often inhibits them on their path to academic success, he says, is the sense that they have little control over their environment and their own lives. The goal of social justice education is to show them otherwise.

“What we’ve tried to do [in the MAT: UESJ program] is focus on a more trauma-informed, culturally transformative, culturally responsive approach to teaching,” explains Camangian.

One of the most significant ways to do this is by recruiting teachers who are from similar backgrounds as their students, which is why Camangian conducts recruitment for MAT: UESJ in the communities that the program seeks to serve. This approach allows underprivileged students to gain exposure to role models who, despite coming from comparable difficult circumstances, were able to succeed.  

Furthermore, teachers who reflect the ethnic and racial identities of their students “intimately understand the implications of oppression for students of color … and have had to navigate those social conditions and overcome those intersecting systems of oppression” to earn a college degree, Camangian says. He believes it is necessary for these candidates as well as those from more privileged groups to understand how their own cultural identities and life experiences shape the way they view issues of equality and how this understanding can inform their teaching. 

With an emphasis on self-reflection, MAT: UESJ attempts to help students become more aware of the effect their background and the opportunities that have been available to them may have on their classroom instruction. Specifically, many courses require them to reflect on and examine their experiences with and understanding of difficult topics such as racism and how they personally benefit from or are harmed by systems of oppression. 

Completing this kind of self-analysis and discussing determinations with classmates, Camangian says, is essential for improving pre-service teachers’ understanding of how social identifiers, such as race and class, can affect their interpretation of course content as well as their educational goals, beliefs, and differences in perspective. 

Additionally, such experiences force them to think about the type of person they need to be in order to best serve, inspire, and support their future students.

Ruby Rodriguez, who is Latinx, grew up in one of the neighborhoods served by MAT: UESJ. She says being in the program has required her and her classmates to consider “the inequalities we have seen or have faced” and “[pushes] us to examine our own prejudices, mis-education [about other cultures], and the potential baggage that we might bring into the classrooms in which we teach.”  

“We self-reflect, unlearn and re-learn, are vulnerable, and accept the idea that we are being pushed out of our comfort zones in order to better who we are and create community amongst ourselves while going through this process,” she adds.

Alix Snyder, who is white, discovered MAT: UESJ through her work with local nonprofit agencies. She agrees that the learning process facilitated by the program is necessary to effectively teach underserved students through a social justice lens. “The most valuable thing that is constantly reinforced in this program, that I’ve taken with me in my practice, is the need to make education for and about my students,” she says. “This seems like a simple concept, but there are deep-rooted histories of oppression that have affected [these communities] that need to be intentionally and thoughtfully addressed.”

To teach her future classes about the culture and history of their communities, Snyder plans to use local resources such as stories and lessons from people whose lived experiences reflect those of her students. 

Recent evidence indicates that such an approach can empower students to become advocates for change in their own lives and communities, both in the long and short terms. A 2016 article in The Atlantic, for example, tells of students at a predominantly African American high school who, after learning the history of the Black Panther movement through a social-justice-oriented literature course, were inspired to run a campaign to decrease police presence in their district’s schools. They used individual testimonies about negative interactions with police officers to illustrate how heightened police presence can be detrimental to the well-being and safety of black students.  

A University of Pennsylvania study recently found that social-justice-oriented courses can inspire African American teenagers to become civically engaged in their communities and to select careers related to service and advocacy as adults. These findings reinforce the goals of programs like MAT: UESJ, which aspires to transform urban communities by empowering students to be agents for change, says Camangian. 

The USF School of Education’s campus
The USF School of Education’s campus

In addition to having a positive effect in urban K-12 schools, social justice education has the potential to improve the educational experience for underserved and marginalized populations everywhere. At the University of Nevada, Reno’s (UNR) College of Education, the Equity and Diversity Education (EDE) program prepares students to work with individuals from a wide range of sociocultural backgrounds and identities. Established in 2005, the program has experienced substantial growth in recent years due to demand from professionals not only in the field of education, but also other sectors, says Lynda Wiest, PhD, professor of mathematics and educational equity at UNR. 

“Our original intent was to help educators learn how to work with diverse students in order to serve their learning needs better, so we were expecting primarily practicing teachers to enroll,” says Wiest, who formerly served as director of EDE and now oversees its doctoral program. “But, to our great surprise, a lot of people who aren’t educators came to us because they want better strategies and methods for working with diverse groups of people.” 

Unlike USF’s program, EDE does not grant a teaching credential. Instead, students can earn a master’s degree or a PhD. Wiest estimates that half of EDE students are practicing teachers, while others come from fields such as educational services, human resources, and even the U.S. military. Many of those who enroll say they are drawn to the program because of its flexibility; students have the option to complete their degree online and the ability to create a unique specialization. 

“Equitable education is learner-centered rather than content-centered,” says Wiest, explaining that while the program focuses primarily on K-12 education, its overall purpose is to help students understand the unique needs of diverse student populations. “If you want to learn how to teach geometry, you may understand the content, but you’re not going to be very effective if you don’t understand the learner.”

She notes that the program recognizes a broad definition of diversity that encompasses many different characteristics — not just race and ethnicity. As such, all EDE students are required to take four courses that explore a range of sociocultural subgroups. “Our core classes are intentionally created to allow broad exposure [to] diversity, looking at factors like race, gender, ESL, [and] social class that relate to a lot of human experience,” Wiest says. 

After completing these courses, students can specialize in one or two subgroups — such as individuals with disabilities or LGBTQ youth — as well as subject areas that relate to their profession and research interests. Several UNR employees have been inspired to pursue EDE degrees because of their work with diverse students. For example, Wiest says that two of the school’s financial aid officers specialized in issues related to socioeconomic status so that they could better understand and assist low-income students. 

“[EDE] opens one’s eyes to understanding the different ways the U.S. educational system operates and methods for change,” says Noelle Renee Garcia, a current EDE graduate student and career services coordinator for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The topics in our courses are what we are living through, and the courses show how important these [issues] are in our daily lives.” 

Unlike other trends in education, Wiest believes the growing interest in social justice education will become a permanent aspect of teacher training. “This is absolutely a hot topic and for good reason,” she says. “In education, we’ll have certain fads that really catch on for a while and then fade away. Caring about diverse learners is going to endure, however, because [these issues] mirror our world.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.