The debate about how to best prepare K-12 teachers in the U.S. over the last 50 years has largely centered on whether theory- or practice-based training works best to produce and retain high-quality educators.
Folks on one end of the spectrum have argued that the most important “ingredient” for teachers’ success in classrooms is in-depth content knowledge coupled with an understanding of pedagogical theories. Folks on the other end of the spectrum have argued that there are “scientific” instructional and classroom-management practices, and teacher preparation should be built around the rehearsal and enactment of those practices.
In both cases, the assumption is that a one-size-fits-all approach to teacher training works—that what you learned in your undergraduate teacher education classroom in say, Alabama, could apply to the classroom teaching you might do in Alaska, for example.
But the one-size-fits-all belief about teaching is limiting. A generic approach to teaching can reduce students, families and communities to generic abstractions. It emphasizes the notion that teaching is something one does to others, never considering the agency, interests and cultures of those they are doing it to.
This transactional approach to teaching—depositing knowledge into the minds of passive recipients—is even more problematic when the teacher is White and teaching students of color.
While the population of public school teachers has gradually become more diverse, it remains predominantly White. According to a U.S. Department of Education report released last year, less than 1 in 5 U.S. public school teachers—18 percent—are individuals of color, while approximately half—49 percent—of public elementary and secondary school students are individuals of color.
This demographic reality along with common one-size-fits-all approaches to training teachers reveals a critical need for education programs that embed teachers-in-training into communities, not just isolated classrooms, and foster a deep understanding of the cultural contexts in which they will work, not simply theoretical and subject-matter knowledge.
We know that schools, students, families and communities possess unique cultures and histories, and teacher education programs must recognize this. They must center teacher-training work within both schools and communities to help teachers internalize the social, political and economic realities in which they will teach.
Practice What You Teach
This context-specific approach to teaching is what we use at the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program. But what does this mean, in practice?
It means that we, as teacher educators, become students and members of the context, ourselves. We teach within communities, not just classrooms, and give teacher candidates opportunities to learn alongside community members, inside community-based organizations.
It also means helping teacher candidates unlearn some of their socialized, preconceived notions about what it means to be a teacher: providing forums for intentional, critical, honest conversations about race, class and unconscious bias, and exposure to the specific education, housing and economic policies that have impacted the communities in which they will teach.
Finally, it means developing an understanding of the particular challenges many students will face outside of the classroom. Teachers in high-violence communities, for example, need to be aware that many students have encountered and experienced trauma, and understand how to enact trauma-informed teaching practices.
What happens when you prepare and support new teachers for the specific environments in which they will work? They stay in the classrooms and low-income communities.
Schools serving low-income, minority students turn over half of their staff every three years and research has shown that new teachers often leave urban schools because they feel inadequately prepared and supported for the environments they enter.
We’re upending this norm with a context-specific approach to teacher training that has resulted in 90 percent of our graduates still teaching in low-income urban communities after five years, compared with 50 percent of teachers nationwide.
We can better prepare our developing teachers to face any situation with confidence, understanding and, ultimately, success by fostering their cultural competence.
Critical cultural competence and community-informed knowledge are the prerequisites for establishing inclusive and productive learning environments in which students from all backgrounds, from all of our communities, are set up to succeed in school and beyond.