Critical Teacher Reflection – Teaching Who We are

What does one see when they look in the mirror and is what they see a true reflection? One of the most powerful quotes in the article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” by Tyrone C. Howard (2003) for me is, “effective reflection of race within a diverse cultural context requires teachers to engage in one of the more difficult processes for all individuals – honest reflection and critique of their own thoughts and behaviors. Critical reflection requires one to seek deeper levels of self-knowledge, and to acknowledge how one’s own worldview can shape students’ conceptions of self” (Howard, p. 198). The reason why I find myself in agreement with this passage is because I equated this to Palmer’s statement, “we teach who we are” (p. 198, Howard 2003).

I was raised in a culturally diverse home. My father is Hispanic and my mother is Irish, with family from the Kentucky/Tennessee border. Both of my parents have strong accents and were raised in vastly different homes. My father was born in 1940 and was raised by an aunt and uncle. His mother had passed away soon after childbirth. My father did not have any siblings and no possessions of his own as he moved around a lot. He entered the military soon after turning 18. My mother was the youngest of seven children. Being from a large family she could not wait to leave her family home. My parents met while working at a factory in Northern Illinois. Back when they fell in love, it was still “taboo” to be in a mixed-race relationship. However, they made it work and are still happily married and in love to this day.

The phrase, “We teach who we are” hits home for me. I was fortunate enough to have my multi-cultural training begin in my home at a very early age. The reflective process questions posed in the article by (Howard, 2003) can result in a terrifying journey if one does not prepare for what they may uncover. I believe the sooner a person takes the time to self-reflect, the better impact they will have personally and in the classroom, either as a teacher or a student.

One of my son’s closest friends, Casey, is about to complete his first year as an elementary school teacher for the Chicago public school (CPS) system. Recently, Casey and I were discussing his first year as a teacher. Some of the challenges that he spoke about was that he was raised in a small farming community that was 98 percent Caucasian and two percent “other” as the school district’s student body. He said that while he is not racist in the slightest way, he felt unprepared for the menagerie of race, ethnicity and culture. Even though he student-taught in the CPS system, he felt that once he was the teacher responsible for his own students, the stakes became much higher and the ability to make the largest impact became increasingly elusive.

One suggestion that the author makes is to, “avoid reductive notions of culture” (p. 201). In a story that Casey related to me during our discussion was when he assumed that he could make an impact on a student just as simply as he could the next. In one lesson he planned to introduce a subject using a pop culture reference. He said that he just assumed that all of the students watched this particular TV show because it was “popular.” He soon realized that some of the students did not know what he was referring to. He felt terrible that his exercise to learn something, but to also to have fun, highlighted the differences in home lives, culture, etc.

The author’s statement, “critical teacher reflection is essential to culturally relevant pedagogy because it can ultimately measure teachers’ levels of concern and care for their students. A teacher’s willingness to ask tough questions about his or her own attitudes toward diverse students can reflect a true commitment that the individual has toward students’ academic success and emotional well-being (Howard, 2003, p. 199). Because of this statement, it is my belief that if pre-service teachers are exposed to the practice of self-reflection they may have a greater likelihood of developing personally and professionally in a way that will greatly benefit the student and themselves.


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy : Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, 42(3), 195–202.

Preparing Our Teachers

In my career role, I play a large part in influencing how we prepare teachers at Arizona State University. I have been thinking about bias in teaching-our own biases as well as our assessment and measurement of student learning practices. How do we best prepare teachers to work in racially diverse schools?

Before jumping right in to address this question, I want to address the political nature of teaching and assessment measurements. Teachers are being held accountable for impacting student learning. Although this idea sounds practical and reasonable in nature, there are so many variables that play a role in this. The No Child Left Behind Act (2001), states that school and districts must disaggregate achievement data by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, and disability. All of these variables affect how students perform, yet teachers are being unfairly judged using Value Added Measures that are biased. (Paufler, N.A. & Amrein-Beardsley, A. 2013).

With the political nature and high stakes of the teaching profession, teaching is quickly becoming one of the most challenging jobs. So, I revert back to my question- how are we preparing teachers to be ready for this battle, specifically, equipping them to teach all of their learners? Prior to answering this question, it is important to understand the makeup of the 21st century classroom.  Who are our students?  Tyrone C. Howard (2010) in his book, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools, presents staggering data regarding the achievement gaps amongst different racial groups, as well as our demographic makeup of our schools.

Howard (2010) cites a study conducted by Concha (2006). The study exposed the role of race, specifically focusing on African American and Latino youth. Three prominent areas stood out as negatively affecting student achievement: racial segregation was still occurring, there were evident divisions within racial groups and school support varied by race (p.101).

Howard (2003) claims that it is essential for teachers to be self aware of their cultural knowledge and understandings. He states, “one of the most fundamental elements of cultural competence is the development of ongoing critical self reflection” (p. 200). He goes on to say, “being able to effectively initiate and facilitate reflection about race and race-related issues requires the ability to critically examine one’s own personal beliefs, opinions, and values about racial identity, and the race of others; and the ramifications of these intersecting and colliding values” (p. 200). Palmer (1998) echoes this notion of self-assessment and recommends that teachers ask themselves, “does who I am contribute to the underachievement of students who are not like me?” (p. 114).

I think these biases go even further than just racial differences. Gould, (1981) in “The Mismeasure of a Man” presents data charts (written in the 1800s) of brain differences, including cranial capacities and abilities. After studying this summary data, he concludes, “Morton’s summaries are a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest of controlling a priori convictions” (p. 54). Many of these early beliefs, however, are still with us whether we recognize them or not.

From my experiences as an educator and an educational leader, eliciting reflection that gets at the heart of our biases would be extremely powerful and revealing. I don’t think any teacher intentionally elicits bias; however, I think through systematic reflection, many teachers would discover that they do have biases and that they are prevalent in their teaching practices. Freire (1973) states that this critical self-reflection might be difficult for white teachers if they come from “racially privileged or dominant positions” (p. 115). Moreover, he asserts that white teachers, “bring virtually no conceptual framework for understanding visible inequalities rather than the dominant deficit of framework…generally ignorant of color, fear them and fear discussing race and racism” (p. 115). Although it might take some time, nurturing an environment where teachers could fearlessly talk about racism and biases could yield tremendous benefits for our students. Because of this, one might argue that self-reflection and critical self-analysis would be the first step in preparing teachers to work in racially diverse schools.

Another important idea that Howard (2010) asserts is focused on a teacher’s mindset and beliefs about learning. He states, “A teacher’s ability to know and understand students is not restricted by his or her race; it is tied to a willingness of educators to know and understand the complexities of race and culture, develop a healthy sense of their own racial identity and privilege, develop a skill set of instructional practices that tap into cultural knowledge, reject deficit views of students of color, and have an authentic sense of students’ ability to be academically successful” (p.74). Instilling a belief that all students can achieve at high levels will prepare teachers to work in diverse schools.

Finally, once teachers understand who their students are, this understanding should influence teaching practices. Howard refers to these teaching practices as culturally relevant pedagogy. Howard (2003) emphasizes that it’s “based on the inclusion of cultural referents that students bring from home” (p.201). Howard explains that culturally responsive teaching encourages students to share viewpoints and perspectives, connects curriculum to students’ lives and experiences, teaches students to think critically as well as engages students in conversations. Furthermore, teachers need to teach through the strengths of the students, making learning more relevant for them as well as making them feel successful.

In conclusion, we have begun to touch the surface of our question, “How do we best prepare teachers to work in racially diverse schools?” To start, we need to engage our pre-service teachers in critical self reflection about their own experiences, beliefs, and biases. Secondly, we need to instill a belief that all students can learn, regardless of their race. Finally, we need to teach them how to respond through relevant pedagogical practices.


 Conchas, G.Q. (2006). The color of success: Race and high achieving urban youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Garcia, S.B. & Ortiz, A.A. (2013) Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research in special education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32-47.

Gay, G. (2000) Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gould, S.J. (1981). The mismeasure of a man. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Freire, Paulo. Education for critical consciousness. [1st American ] ed. A Continuum    book. New York,: Seabury Press, 1973.

Howard, T.C. (2003) Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection, 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.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paufler, N.A. & Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2013). The random assignment of students into    elementary classrooms: Implications for value-added analyses and interpretations.   American Education Research Journal, 51(2), 328-362.




Critical reflection of identity toward access, excellence, and impact

Knowing oneself intimately, in part through a practice of critical reflection – independently as participant in dialogic exercises with those whom you share a history and a worldview – is integral to becoming a socially responsible scholar, activist, or teacher.  This is a challenge we must pose to ourselves, as we embark upon our roles as educational leaders; regularizing reflexivity may make us more aware of our roles as learners ourselves, and our immense obligation to our students and our institutions to participate in a culture of excellence, providing all students with equitable access to fruitful learning experiences.  Parallels between the important messages of Aurora Levins Morales in Medicine Stories (1999) and Tyrone Howard’s “Culturally Relevant for Critical Teacher Pedagogy: Ingredients Reflection” (2003) emerge around one’s own identity and the relationships one has with content and their context, including the fabrication of “the other.”  The experiences, cultural traditions, positionality in terms of power and the socio-economic landscape, and education are part of what make up one’s identity.  These factors also cultivate the perspective, including judgments, biases, and imaginings, one carries with him/her.  Critical reflection is a “personal and challenging” process of looking at “one’s identity as an individual person and as an active professional” (Howard, p. 201), and that “gives attention to one’s experiences and behaviors, [wherein] meanings are made and interpreted from them to inform future decision-making” (p. 197).


My professional agenda involves developing a college preparatory independent learning program, delivered online, for grades 7-12.  It is precisely the broad acknowledgement that each individual student has his/her own context, impacting his/her learning needs, preferences, and abilities that led to this endeavor.  The new charter school is a part of the Arizona Online Instruction Program, and will attempt to support each student to clarify goals, connect academic expectations to nonacademic interests, and creatively pursue aspirations within the flexible program structure.  I recently engaged in research on online learner characteristics, which proposed that certain characteristics seem to lend to greater success in online education settings (or, that the absence of these characteristics may require more substantial or targeted support and intervention strategies).  This work helped me think about how I would build a program that understood and was designed to adapt to each student’s characteristics/context from the moment of our first meeting.  The combined works of Morales (1999), Howard (2003), Garcia and Ortiz (2013), and Gould (1996) have helped me see the immense value of my participating in the exploration of [my own] personal characteristics and how they may impact my performance as mentor, program advisor, parent counselor, facilitator, and administrator.


Howard quotes Palmer (1998) who wrote that “we teach who we are,” and “knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject” (Howard, p. 198).  It may be that our positionality enables a blindness to our beliefs and the behaviors that stem from them.  Teaching is not a neutral act (Howard, p. 200), neither is storytelling (Morales, p. 25).  Morales encourages us – scholars, teachers, socially-responsible citizens of the global society – to make ourselves visible (to ourselves, in our writing, in verbal our story telling), as she has chosen to do.  This, in and of itself, is an act of resistance against the dominant approach – the imperial history is one where the narrator is detached, and makes no explicit moral judgment, or demonstration of partisanship, though, this story is an unabashed construction of the oppressors.  For Morales, the work of the “oppressed” or the underprivileged breaking silence and voicing memories, experiences, including and especially about trauma, offers a pathway for collective healing, empowerment, and a way to restore our sense of humanity.  The author advocates for the crafting of “medicinal histories” which “seek to re-establish the connections between peoples and their histories, to reveal mechanisms of power, the steps by which their current condition of oppression was achieved through a series of decisions made by real people to dispossess them; but also to reveal multiplicity, creativity and persistence of resistance among the oppressed” (Morales, p. 24).


Morales’s “handbook” for medicinal histories recommends similar actions as Howard, the broad purpose for both seems to be to enhance the access to personal and collective narratives not born entirely from the dominant narrative, and enhance equitable access to quality education and to achievement, not entirely fraught with invisible devices of the privileged, that unconsciously or consciously deploy to impact learning opportunities and outcomes.  Morales urges the inclusion of nonwritten, and, for lack of a better characterization, nonobvious or mainstream media or sources of “evidence.”  By this she does not mean fabricating data to report it as science (which might invite the reader to recall the example of craniometry, which was hailed as scientifically justifiable in the nineteenth century (Gould, 1996)); rather, the objective is to offer a space or an ear to the voice of the silenced, which may yield a yet untold story or perspective.   She encourages proposing questions as an important investigatory tool, even very broad-based or seemingly unanswerable ones, as they can lead you in directions perhaps underrepresented in the dominant narratives.  The author contends that we perpetuate injustice by not revealing power dynamics and by not revealing the agency and the “real people” among the oppressed; the new narrative must be as complex as the reality it tells, embedded within and expressing connections from its context.


Then, it is up to the story teller to further make meaningful the narrative through careful choice of language and approach, and an understanding of the contexts within the audience – much like a teacher.  By not making accessible, which for Morales involves the actual “delivery,” or digestibility (p. 36) of the story, the narrator has effectively excluded some.  Sharing stories and working to understand each other’s contexts may help denigrate the myth of the monolithic oppressed or “unprivileged” class, reducing cultural variations, and rendering insignificant major differences within groups – including within one classroom.  As Garcia and Ortiz (2013) point out, “a master category like race/ethnicity fails to account for within-group diversity based on people’s multiple social identities” (p. 36), which, in the context of teachers and students, can have real impact on how educational institutions address the particular learning styles and needs of individuals.  Much as “ecology undermines ownership” (Morales, p. 100), because it is inherently full of highly variant, dynamic, and interrelated components, whole groups of people, irrespective of their commonalities, cannot fairly be referred to as a unit devoid of internal contradictions, inconsistencies, and uniqueness.


Howard is concerned particularly with deficit-based characterizations of non-dominant or culturally diverse students, suggesting that this may lead to the reification of these individuals as better suited for special or remedial education or even directly impact their achievement.  Culturally relevant pedagogy may well be a way to help “increase the academic achievement of culturally diverse students;” it “uses ‘the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant to and effective [for students]. …It teaches to and through strengths of these students. It is culturally validating and affirming” (p. 196).  Strategic critical reflection among teachers, facilitated by skillful and open teacher-educators is the neverending process that can engender culturally relevant pedagogy.  It must be guided by specific questions or foci, e.g. “Who am I? What do I believe? Does who I am and what I believe have ramifications for the students I teach?” (p. 199), the musings on which inform one’s behavioral modifications.


It is through purposeful critical self-reflection, along with iterative, reflexive, behavior change that we may be able to push back against the status quo to strive for excellence in our educational institutions, providing an environment better suited for all students to feel comfortable and to participate fully in the learning experience toward individual academic success.  At the very least, we can use this as a tool to interrogate that which guides our own behavior and the potential impact it has on those around us, particularly our students, and remind us that part of our identity is as active participants in the context within which we engage with our students and our schools.  Sounding the rallying cry of a sustainability scholar (which appeals particularly to me, having done my graduate work in sustainability), Morales writes that “the denial of our interrelatedness is killing the planet and too many of its people” (p. 14).  It is not just to the detriment of our ecosystem that we ignore the interconnectedness of all things, it is a social justice issue and truism that can guide teacher critical reflection.  Because of this role and our individual and collective desire to have a(n) [evermore] positive impact on our students’ intellectual pursuits and lives more generally, we have a responsibility to make visible the invisible, including things about ourselves, from where we came, our positions [of privilege], and interrogate and take action on how they affect our outlook and approach.

Garcia, Shernaz B.; Ortiz, A. A. (2013). Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research in special education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32–47.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. In The Mismeasure of Man (p. 444). Norton.

Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.

Morales, A. L. (1999). Medicine stories: History, culture and the politics of integrity (p. 135). South End Press.