Teaching Profession

Teacher-Candidates Get a Safe Space to Air Touchy Issues of Identity

By Madeline Will — March 03, 2020 11 min read
Anne Beitlers, the director of the secondary teacher education program at the University of Washington, oversees a white caucus group discussion. In focus groups organized by personal identity, teacher-candidates work to understand how their identities could affect their teaching and to process their own experiences in a supportive space.
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What does it mean to be a teacher of color? How can a white teacher support students of color? How have teachers’ race and other demographics shaped who they are and how they’ll act in the classroom?

Teacher-candidates at the University of Washington are mulling over these questions on a regular basis, in what are known as caucus groups with others who share their identity.

Caucuses, which are nonpolitical affinity groups, are places where people can talk in a structured format with others who share a part of their identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. In these groups, people can unpack shared experiences and reflect on how their identity shapes their worldview.

The most common form of caucusing is based on race, where white people are given a chance to work through structural racism and internal biases without the fear of offending people of color, and where people of color are able to talk about their experiences without feeling like they have to educate white people.

Caucusing is often seen at conferences with a social-justice bent, or at equity-minded companies. It has also been done in some education settings, including during professional development. But the University of Washington might be one of the only colleges of education in the nation that has made identity caucusing mandatory for teacher-candidates in elementary and secondary programs.

“We want to signal that for us, this is a central part of teaching,” said Manka Varghese, a professor at the university who has done research on caucusing in teacher education. “It’s important to connect ... who teachers are, and what questions they can ask of themselves, and how who they are relates to what and how they teach.”

For all candidates, caucusing is a chance to explore their teacher identity, Varghese said. But their experiences will be vastly different based on what group they’re in.

“Often for teachers of color, the sense is more like, ‘Well, I’ve never had a teacher of color. Am I going to be an effective teacher?’ ... And also battling [with] what are the expectations of what good teachers are supposed to be, because a lot of the models that are out there have been based on white female teachers,” she said.

“And for a lot of white teachers, the goal is to be asking deeper questions around, what are the effects of certain things that they do and say in the classroom when they have students and families of color, and then how do they try to ask questions and interrogate themselves around that?”

These conversations, teacher-educators said, are meant to be uncomfortable. But they’re critical, especially in an education system where 80 percent of teachers are white, but less than half of students are. (In Washington state, about 88 percent of teachers are white, compared to 53 percent of students.)

“It scares me to think about being a teacher without caucusing, because it really helped me to understand and navigate conversations about race,” said Jacquelyn Betz, a kindergarten teacher in Seattle who got her master’s degree in teaching at the University of Washington and was part of the white caucus there. “If I was not comfortable with the idea of talking about race, I would automatically be stifling my students of color.”

Race at the Forefront

University of Washington teacher-educators in the secondary program started this work six years ago, with the elementary program following suit and making caucusing mandatory in 2016. At first, faculty members said, it was tough to get buy-in.

“Students didn’t see the value in it necessarily,” said Teddi Beam-Conroy, the director of the elementary teacher education program. “There were even people on our instructional team who thought this isn’t valuable: What are white people going to learn from sitting in a room with other white people?”

But over time, she said, it has become an integral part of the program. When applicants interview for the program, they’re told to expect this.

Vance Baker, a secondary teacher-candidate at the University of Washington, listens during the people of color caucus.

Students self-identify their race and ethnicity at the start of the year, and teacher-educators put them in caucus groups, which vary year to year based on student demographics. For example, there might be what facilitators call a white caucus, a combined black and brown caucus, and an Asian caucus. Another year, there might be a white caucus, a person of color caucus, and a multiracial caucus.

The groups are led by experienced faculty members or doctoral students who share students’ identity. In the secondary program, candidates meet in their caucuses 26 times over three quarters, and in the elementary program, candidates meet four times a quarter, although Beam-Conroy said many voluntarily meet outside of the scheduled times.

Students do guided readings and reflective writings throughout the caucus period. In the secondary program, facilitators collect exit slips each time the caucuses meet and ungraded reflections two or three times a quarter to gauge students’ takeaways and experiences, said Anne Beitlers, the director of the secondary teacher education program.

Race is at the forefront of the caucusing, but faculty are experimenting with how to incorporate other aspects of identity, including gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and disability. This year, for instance, there were enough LGBTQ candidates in the elementary program to create a “white queer caucus,” Beam-Conroy said.

And in the secondary program, facilitators divide the race-based caucuses by socioeconomic status—identified by where candidates fit when they were in middle or high school, the same age as the students they will teach—for two weeks, Beitlers said. (The biggest group is typically middle-class white candidates, she added.)

During the sexual identity caucusing period, candidates might start in what the program deems a straight caucus and then move to a queer and questioning caucus as the quarter progresses and students learn new things about themselves, Beitlers said. Facilitators have also had to work with transgender or gender-nonconforming candidates in the past to customize their experiences and make sure they are not excluded from the gender binary groups.

That’s one concern about the structure of caucusing, said Christopher Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who has written about race and education.

“The nature of social life is so complex and layered,” he said. “It’s particularly challenging for a person whose identity is in flux to be able to identify an identity they want to connect to within an established and rigid structure when their experience is much more fluid.”

That said, there’s a lot of value in meeting with others who have a shared experience, Emdin said. Teachers College’s Reimagining Education Summer Institute, which is an annual conference for classroom teachers focused on integrated schools, has the opportunity for attendees to participate in affinity groups, he said.

“Being a man of color myself who’s worked in education for quite a while, I think that sometimes you take a little pause with sharing the complexities of your experiences, because you don’t want to offend or you don’t want to hurt or you don’t want to be misperceived,” Emdin said. “When people convene based on shared culture, it always makes for more freeing, more rich, more authentic dialogue, which is essential to teacher preparation.”

‘Stark’ Conversations

Conversations in caucus groups require a lot of vulnerability, and they can be intense. Betz, the kindergarten teacher, said some people in her white caucus were initially reluctant to open up.

“It feels scary to talk about the things you’ve been trained not to talk about,” she said. “It’s a very stark conversation—you’re really noticing the ingrained biases that you have, and the moments in your life where you have been a bystander or even possibly a major factor in an act of racism and you didn’t know, or you were simply [focusing on] your own perspective.”

But as the year progressed, Betz said, the group became a safe space to ask questions and process how their experiences differed from their nonwhite classmates.

Janaki Nagarajan, a contracted substitute teacher in the Northshore School District in Bothell, Wash., joined the multiracial caucus while going through her master’s program in elementary teaching. She’s white and East Indian.

“I think there was always this sense of discontent in that identity—feeling kind of conflicted and confused and not really sure if you’re there all the time,” she said. “I spent a lot of time cultivating this white part of me and that identity, and not so much feeling like I could be or had any part in this other community, or maybe I didn’t really want a part in it.”

But through her conversations with others in the caucus, Nagarajan felt affirmed: “We were able to say things that a lot of us have felt most of our lives, but didn’t really have an explicit place to bring that up with other people,” she said.

Those conversations have helped her in the classroom, she said. It has made her conscious of whose voices and experiences she was centering in her curriculum, and helped her see her own background “as an asset to bring forward instead of hiding it away and pretending it wasn’t there,” Nagarajan said.

Even so, the discussions that are taking place during caucusing can be fraught. Students used to all come together for a large group conversation about some of the issues they’ve worked through in their own caucuses, but faculty decided to nix that practice and devote more time and resources to the individual caucuses.

“We found that in the end, because they’re not really ready to talk to each other about what they’ve learned yet, they don’t quite have the words, that it ended up doing damage to the community that’s being built,” Beitlers said.

In their own caucuses, candidates feel “less on stage,” she said. “We feel like these backstage spaces allow them opportunities to be vulnerable and make sense of their positionality.”

Still, Carolyne Abdullah, the senior director of the strengthening democratic capacity team at the Connecticut-based Everyday Democracy project, said sustained change comes through conversations with everybody at the table.

“We are not homogenous in the broader society we live in,” she said. “It’s really important that we learn how to interact, how to interface, and how to navigate differences, and you can’t navigate unless you’re put in a situation where you have to.”

After that larger conversation, Abdullah added, it’s important for students to go back to their own caucuses to debrief.

Beam-Conroy, however, said the spaces where students come together naturally—like class—are where they can enact the work done in caucusing.

Moving Past the ‘Rage’

Not all students are receptive to caucusing. A common complaint at first is that this feels like segregation, facilitators said.

And in an essay published in April by the online magazine Quillette, which calls itself a platform for free thought and opposes “identity politics,” a person who said he graduated from the secondary teacher education program slammed caucusing, where, as he put it, “white people are asked to sit around to free-associate and express how badly they feel about race relations in America.”

“Eventually, you learn that who you are is irrelevant because all that really matters is what you are in terms of your group identity,” wrote the author, who published the essay under a pseudonym.

There’s often a lot of “rage in white caucuses,” said Julia Daniels, who was a white facilitator at the University of Washington as a doctoral student and now works at Antioch University in Seattle.

She often started the caucus sessions off by addressing candidates’ anger: Why are they uncomfortable? What assumptions are they making?

“There’s a lot of learning to be done in discussing that,” Daniels said.

And proponents say it’s critical for teachers to grapple with their discomfort on issues related to race.

“If we’re not picking up the people that are not ready to have those conversations, or haven’t even discussed their race, then we’re not going to get any further in schools, and our kids are not going to have us as our best teacher selves because we haven’t unpacked this huge part of our teacher identity yet,” said Santasha Dhoot, a 1st grade teacher in Seattle who was part of the black and brown caucus during her master’s program at the University of Washington. “It’s just a huge disservice to everyone.”

Dhoot, a Punjabi Sikh woman, is the only brown teacher at her school, an experience that she said has been “really isolating.” But her experience caucusing gave her a toolkit of strategies to take care of herself, she said, and she still texts her facilitator when she’s had a hard day.

Now, Dhoot is facilitating a caucus for people of color who work at her elementary school. There are also two white caucuses at the school. It’s an optional professional development for staff, but Dhoot said it’s an important start to those tough conversations.

“We impact so many kids, and especially in the area that we work in, these kids aren’t white—they come from all types of different experiences,” she said. “We just need to be able to relate to these kids, find access points, and see how our identities impact them. Because it does, and [our identity] impacts every single thing that we do in the classroom, whether we say it or not.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as A Space for Teacher-Candidates to Air Touchy Issues of Identity

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