By Victoria Trinder, PhD
“Why would a candidate who has learned over the decades of their own outsiderness inside a school system be motivated to work within it?”
Editor’s note: in July, WBEZ Chicago reported a decline in the proportion of Black teachers in Chicago Public Schools from 40 percent to 23 percent over the last 15 years. Victoria Trinder, PhD, clinical professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, responds in this op-ed.
If we adopt a critical lens of schools as embodiments of “white institutional space,” as my colleague Danny Martin, PhD, professor of curriculum and instruction, terms it, then the focus of “remediating” the situation shifts to the institutions, not the students.
I certainly agree with key parts of the discourse regarding the declining numbers of Black teachers, but we must trouble discourses that label the problem as intrinsic to students and teacher candidates of color. Researcher Lisa Delpit labels “codes of power” as representing the inherent biases that serve as gatekeepers in our schools: absence of resources, the literacies of standardized tests, the values embedded in curriculum and the biases of the types of experiences implemented as “neutral.”
And so, we must shift our focus to the institutions. In our program, we are clear about understanding and analyzing schools as neo-imperialist institutions—colleges of education included—and so we must ask: why would a candidate who has learned over the decades of their own outsiderness inside a school system be motivated to work within it? If we present an opportunity to students to enact decolonizing principles from within, then perhaps we can tap into a different motivation.
Yet, a key structural obstacle stands in the way: a simultaneous discourse around “high quality” teachers coupled with legislative assaults on teaching, which serve egregiously to deprofessionalize the field. We absolutely know that brilliant Black students exist in droves who can demonstrate their brilliance within Anglo-normative arenas. But at this moment, why on Earth would they consider a career in teaching over other professions that are valued more in our society? Why would they sacrifice a STEM opportunity to spend a lifetime defending their value as a teacher? Why would any advocate of Black youth set up a student for this?
Of course, at the College, we’re actively attempting to recruit Black undergraduate students, in particular Black male students, to enter the field of urban teaching. If we are to get this right, we have a lot of work to do to navigate competing value systems and an ecology that places immense burden on the individuals who have already borne the burdens of history. It is time to shift the reform lens to the structures and to the systems that exist in schooling and education writ large:
-Can we tear down the keystones of White institutional space through the ceasing of policies that manifest it?
-Can we complicate the definition of high quality teaching and allow for the cultural richness and brilliances that are currently invisible in compliance mandates?
-Can we elevate the profession so that it is attractive to the students whom we most desire? And can we assure them of the layered rewards truthfully?
-Can we shift all discourses away from coloniality so that school spaces are more than hospitable and become places of humane growth rather than constant dehumanization?