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Teacher Preparation Q&A

We All Live Racialized Lives: The ‘Identity Work’ Teachers Need to Do

By Sarah Schwartz — September 23, 2020 3 min read
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Education Week staff writer Sarah Schwartz talked with LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies at the University of Missouri’s College of Education, about what teachers need to know when they bring in new resources and how schools of education should prepare them to do so. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Read Schwartz’s article, “You Have Anti-Racist Curriculum Resources. Now What Do You Do?

Sarah Schwartz: What do teachers need to know in order to change the common historical narrative that is both Eurocentric and treats progress as inevitable? What’s the role of teacher education there, both inservice and preservice?

LaGarrett King: One of the first things that people need to do is identity work. By identity work, I mean that the majority of white people must learn to see themselves as racialized individuals. They see themselves as normal, and everyone else is a race. Race is a social construct, so that means “white” is socially constructed. Before they can teach about any racialized history, they have to understand themselves as racialized individuals.

The second aspect is continued professional development on different histories. Teachers always have to ask themselves: Who is left out of the story? What are their perspectives? Teachers have to understand that race is real and has influenced the lived realities of racialized people. And professional development cannot be just one time. It has to be constant throughout, and we have to allow teachers to grow.

Schwartz: Do you think that this is a turning point in any way?

King: It’s not like, historically, we haven’t had these particular moments before. You have to have momentum and sustain momentum. I’m cautiously optimistic about that.

Schwartz: How would you want to see teacher-preparation programs addressing this moment?

King: Many, many education schools do not see their students until their junior year of college. It is a teacher ed. problem, but it’s also a university problem. We need to examine general educational requirements for teacher education students. I think it should be mandatory that future teachers take ethnic studies or Black studies or Asian-American studies. So they can get that grounding before they even get into teacher education. Then, diversity needs to be a constant thread throughout the teacher education program, not just a course. The syllabus should be filled with scholars of color.

Schwartz: Going back to your thoughts about identity work—is that different for white teachers than it is for Black teachers or other teachers of color?

King: I don’t want to say that future teachers of color know it all because they have been educated in the same system as everyone else. But there are spaces that people of color have that teach them about their history: church, community, and family.

Schwartz: Is there anything else that is a big piece of this question of preparation for teaching a more expansive, more diverse, anti-racist history curriculum?

King: We have to deal with teacher educators who are not educated about this issue. If they don’t know it, then how can they teach their future teachers? These particular teacher educators have to have a willingness to learn more and invite experts in their field to help them understand, help them diversify their syllabus. We can’t hide behind, “I wasn’t taught that.” But it’s a cycle that starts in K-12 schooling.

Schwartz: How and where can you interrupt that cycle?

King: You’re supposed to interrupt it in college, right? This is where you begin to become a bit more open in the ways you think. But from my research, many teacher-candidates are resistant because we’re dealing with 12 years of education that didn’t prepare them to understand racialized power dynamics. What I hear a lot from teacher-candidates is they don’t believe that learning about racism and learning about diversity in education is learning about teaching. “Well, he didn’t teach me how to teach. He just talked about race and Black people and Black students, but you didn’t teach me how to teach.” And you’re sitting there like, “No, I taught you how to teach. You just don’t think this is part of the teaching process.”

But what’s interesting: I may have these particular people as undergraduates, and five years later when they are back to get their master’s, it’s different: “Wow, thank you for teaching me this. I really need this.” Now that they’ve been teaching for a while, they understand that this is an important dynamic—to understand the histories of their students, to understand the racialized identities of their students.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Anti-Racist Teachers Ask, Whose Perspective? (Q&A)

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