In the scope of my professional life, one of my strong areas of interest is the development and delivery of research-backed professional development that enables teachers to increase their students’ achievement. So, as I read author Tyrone C. Howard’s piece, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection, I was intrigued by what he outlines as, “ways that teacher educators can equip preservice teachers with the necessary skills to critically reflect on their own racial and cultural identities…” (Howard, 2003). This line, in particular, stood out to me because he is speaking directly to me and others that serve in this and similar capacities.
The process he details, attempts to get participants to tackle several deep philosophical questions that would cause, even the most reflective among us, to struggle. The questions seek, I believe intentionally so, to strike at the very core of the one’s being, posing things such as, “Who am I?” and “what do I believe?” with the intent that reflections on such questions will yield insights as to how a teacher’s identity coexists with those of his or her students, and the interplay between the two or more differing identities (Howard, 2003. p.199). I see this presenting several unique and distinct problems that, unless specifically addressed, might confound the ideal outcome of truly critical and constructive reflection on one’s own teaching practices, biases, prejudices, race, and culture.
The first challenge I foresee for many schools is one of access. As I try to envision the qualities and qualifications of a person who would be competent and command enough authority on the subject to successfully facilitate a 3-day long preservice discussion, I expect that very few people, in a majority-White teaching population, could complete such a complex task (Howard, 2010). Perhaps this would not necessarily be the job of one person, but rather of a diverse team of people, working together within their own particular contexts regarding race. Further, in Howard’s later (2010) work, he discusses the paralyzing effect that conversations about race can have on people in the White majority, suggesting that discussions are often crippled by, “our fear, our sweaty palms, our anxiety about saying the wrong thing, or using the wrong words” (Howard, 2010, p. 102). These difficulties underscore how important it is to create a space in which participants feel safe enough to share, whether through writing, as Howard suggests, as it is more personal and private, conversations, or other activities, and comfortable enough to make themselves vulnerable to their peers in such a sensitive subject.
From my personal experience as an external professional development and implementation coaching provider, I know how essential the tone and culture that the facilitator sets is to the success of the session. Additionally, I have found that teachers and other educational professionals are often skeptical of someone coming in who doesn’t explicitly know them or their students, which can result in hostility, anger, passivity, cynicism, or unengaged participation. Therefore, I foresee a second layer of access issues for many campuses; if they’re able to find someone who can successfully navigate the difficult terrain of race-related conversations, there is the second requisition that the person also be able to relate to the participants to the point that he or she can set a tone and culture conducive enough to compel colleagues to share very personal thoughts and feelings.
The final issue I found in Howard’s suggestion, was not with the logistical and implementation issues of critical teacher reflection, but rather the emphasis that teachers answer questions like, “who am I?” and “what do I believe?” (Howard, 2003, p.199). I imagine that the average response of a teacher to such philosophically profound and esoteric questions would result in very reductionist answers that, instead of truly capturing who one is (if such a notion can even be put into words), would result in a person’s being being reduced to a set of criteria, or a list on paper (e.g. I am a mother, a teacher, an American, etc.), neither of which can approach the essence of who that person is at their most fundamental level.
It is with the above sentiments that I am skeptical that Howard’s suggestions of critical teacher reflection can be so easily implemented at the schools most in need of culture transformation, to one that moves away from deficit-based thinking to being culturally responsive to the diverse needs of a diverse student population.
Howard, C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory Into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.
Howard, T. C. (2010). Why race and culture matter in schools: closing the achievement gap in America’s classrooms. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.