Shining a Light on Cultural Blindspots through Teacher Education

I have tweeted a bit about this interesting and important research in teacher education by my doctoral student Elizabeth Self. It always generates a lot of queries and conversations. Liz has really developed and conducted the research, with me and others as a guide, so I have not felt right about explaining her work myself. Instead, I invited her to share the clinical simulation work she has developed to help our pre-service teachers become more culturally competent educators.

Every semester that I teach a social foundations class at Peabody, I end up telling the story about an incident I had at a charter school in Chicago where I was teaching. About how I made a dumb comment without thinking about the context – a White teacher of mostly Black and Brown students – and how, when a Black colleague tried to confront me with the racism inherent in what I’d said, I did everything wrong that White people do in these situations. I was defensive. I tone policed him when he sent an email later. I told friends that I hadn’t mean it “that way.” Then I cried. At some point, I finally got to the place where I could hear what he was trying to say. I can’t say specifically when I finally started to listen or what made me do so, but I can say without a doubt that this incident in large part led me to where I am today.

Now a doctoral candidate at Peabody, I focus on preparing pre-service teachers for culturally responsive teaching, particularly the interactional work. In my first few semesters as an instructor, I tried a variety of approaches to get my pre-service teachers feel the same way I did in the days and weeks that followed that incident with my coworker. When I would share my story or similar examples from case studies, they would gasp in astonishment or groan sympathetically, but at some level, they all thought, “I would never do that!” Nothing seemed to have the effect I was looking to get them to see their own blind spots. It was then that I read about Benjamin Dotger’s work at Syracuse University, using clinical simulations to prepare teachers and administrators for common problems of practice. I thought that with some adaptation, I could develop clinical simulations that served as potential critical incidents for my pre-service teachers.

Clinical simulation is an instructional tool in which pre-service teachers encounter an actor, playing the part of a student, parent, colleague, or administrator, in a way that mimics a real-life event. Participants receive a protocol ahead of time that gives them background on the encounter and provides them with some of the information they would likely have based on when in the school year the event is said to happen. They usually have a few days to a week to prepare. The actors also receive a protocol that they use to prepare so that all actors present the part in a standardized way. The simulation lasts between 15-30 minutes, depending on how it’s designed. Afterwards, participants may do a “raw” debrief right away, but they usually watch their video back before doing a group debrief with the instructor.

While Dotger’s published simulations focus on common problems of practice in secondary education, mine focus on the kinds of incidents that, as Gadamer (1960) wrote, cause someone to be “pulled up short.” To see his assumptions about a person or event go unmet. The simulations I ran this fall were examples of this – talking with a student about an outburst in class, only to learn there is a much more serious problem to deal with; conferencing with a parent about her student, who may have a reading disability, and facing unexpected communication issues; soliciting input from a veteran teacher about new students, and getting way more than what was asked for. In the end, the pre-service teachers who participated in these simulations overwhelmingly came away feeling “pulled up short.” They did not expect the encounter to unfold the way it did, often because they did not pay attention to the relevant information in the protocol that would have prepared them for what occurred. They also struggled (by design) in the simulations because they framed the situations in unproductive ways – as opportunities for telling, rather than asking; as situations in which they wanted to defend, rather then respond. The simulations did not do this on their own; I made careful decisions each cycle (more and less successfully) about how to shape the re-watching of their own videos and what to do during the group debrief. But by the end of the course, the teachers seemed to have become more open to learning about the why and how of culturally responsive teaching and were thinking more productively about how to interact with their future students.

My goals in these simulations are multifold. First and foremost, I want teachers to understand that their knowledge is always partial. Without knowing their students, and in ways deeper than a first-of-the-year interest inventory reveals, they will have difficulty reaching their students, especially those who have been historically marginalized in US society and underserved by our schools. Next, I want them to recognize their blind spots and realize that they will always have some, but must be ready to acknowledge them when someone points them out. Finally, I want to give my pre-service teachers an opportunity to fail in a setting that is supportive of them but also safe for their students. Often in teaching, we send pre-service teachers out to tutor in low-income communities as their first interaction with students. In my mind, this raises the potential harm for students who are already underserved and may reinforce stereotypes for pre-service teachers. Clinical simulations in no way replace the need for teachers to spend time in the communities where they teacher or to interact with real students, but I do hope that they help provide teachers with a better starting place for those interactions.

It occurs to me periodically that I am an unlikely person to be doing this work. Surely, it would seem more reasonable for the person doing this to come from an insider perspective – someone who has personally suffered the effects of racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, or homophobia. For that reason, I make efforts as I develop each simulation to draw on cultural insiders to help make the simulation authentic to their lived experience. Furthermore, I see it as imperative that people of privilege work – thoughtfully and reflectively – to spare these insiders some of the burden they have carried for so long in providing this education to folks like me. It is my desire that by doing so, my own children – both White and Black – will encounter teachers a little more ready to teach them than I was.