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Can We Get You There from Here? Political Clarity in the Teacher Education Admissions Process

Allysa sat across from me, nervously twisting her curled hair as she introduced herself.  It was clear she had put time into her appearance for this admission interview for the elementary teacher education program at my institution.  As a faculty member, I regularly interview nice, young, predominately White women who dream of becoming teachers. When I asked her why she wanted to be a teacher, I could almost predict her response.  Her mother/sister/aunt/cousin had been a teacher.  She lined up her dolls as a child and played school.  She just loves children…

Answers to this question provide a window into aspiring teachers’ philosophy of education.  Responses such as Alyssa’s may point to a lack of a broader analysis of the political nature of education because teaching is framed as an individual act in which she is the one receiving the benefit.  In contrast, equity-minded educators often respond by naming the role they want to play in providing all children a quality education or ensuring equal educational opportunities, particularly, for students of Color or children underserved by schools.  Without this broader political analysis, teachers can uphold inequality because they are unaware of the issues of social justice at play within the context of schooling (Freire, 2018).

Thus, concurrent to teaching content and methods, teacher education programs must also equip teachers with racial, cultural, and structural analyses of schooling (Picower & Kohli, 2017Zeichner, 2009).  Many studies have argued the need for teacher candidates to understand students’ racial and cultural identity as a precursor for teaching for social justice (Love, 2019; Nieto & Bode, 2011).  Confounding the need for teacher education to develop teachers’ political clarity is how that is shaped by who teachers are.  Because 80% of teachers in the U.S. are White (NCES, 2018), teacher education needs to attend to the racial identity of teacher candidates and how race shapes their understanding of the political nature of education (Love, 2019Picower, 2012).  If teacher education programs are serious about preparing teachers who can address issues of equity, it is therefore critical that we have political clarity during admissions about who our candidates are and if we believe will be able to get them to where they need to be within the time constraints of the program.

After responding to the warm-up question in the interview, I started to ask Allysa the more challenging questions designed to provide evidence for this broader question: “Describe an experience with someone of a different race/ethnicity. How did that relationship impact you?” Allysa froze.  Her expression appeared panicked.  She was searching for words.  “Well… I guess it is when I went to Epcot Center and saw the ‘It’s a Small World’ attraction…I went to the exhibit with a little part of Japan and a little part of France and that’s the only time I can think of.”

After the interview with Allysa concluded, I distracted myself from the challenging decision I was going to have to make by checking Facebook.  There was an article on my feed about a young White middle school teacher in the Bronx who singled out her African American students during a social studies lesson and had them lie on the classroom floor to simulate the Middle Passage.  She then put her foot on one child’s neck and announced, “See how it feels to be a slave?”  This is one of many similar examples I have been collecting for a book about racist lessons I am working on called #CurriculumSoWhite.  As I collect these stories, I often wonder, “Who were their teacher educators?”

Returning to my task at hand, I think about how students like Allysa are often admitted into our programs because our institutions feel a responsibility to help fulfill these women’s lifelong dreams of teaching.  It is imperative, however, that we, as teacher educators, shift our sense of responsibility from our immediate students to the future children whom they will teach.  Should elementary students of Color be the next ‘attraction’ in Allysa’s growing awareness of the world?

When students of all races who have limited critical consciousness are admitted to teacher education programs, the consequences are often dire.  My early research points to the ways in which White pre-service teachers conceptualize students of Color and their communities as deficient, dangerous and deviant, and the tools they use to resist embracing a more critically conscious view of diversity.  Such students engage with courses addressing diversity in ways that create racially hostile environments for pre-service teachers of Color, further alienating this important group from entering into the profession where they are desperately needed.  There is also evidence of the way such students terrorize professors, typically professors of Color, for having an ‘agenda’ when teaching about race and how they use social capital such as course evaluations to create a racially hostile environment for pre-tenure faculty of Color.

It is part of the responsibility of teacher educators to ensure that we have the adequate time, resources, and political will to transform future teachers’ understandings of race while within our programs. Because students typically complete our programs in 1-2 years, we must attend to the justice-minded dispositions potential candidates exhibit at admissions.  We have a finite amount of time to transform students like Allysa; one year is not enough for me to feel confident that she will not show up in my Facebook feed as yet another example for my book.  Will she be able to get there from here?

Many of our programs have mission statements about social justice or teaching ALL students.  If we are to stay true to this mission, we have to be honest about how far we can actually move students like Allysa.  If we can admit that it would take more than a year to prepare Allysa to become the kind of teacher that students of Color deserve, then we need to apply that political clarity within the admission process and provide some level of control over who will become teachers.  Two strategies can support this work within admission interviews.

  • Look for justice-minded dispositions. In one of the urban education programs that I coordinate, we have created a rubric to look for behavior indicators for justice-oriented literacies.  We listen for the language candidates use to frame urban communities: Is it asset- or deficit-based?  Do they look to systems or individuals as causes for inequality?  What is their orientation toward social change- do they express hope and possibility or a belief in the intractability of the status quo?
  • Be explicit about the racial justice realities of the program. As of late, I have become increasingly explicit about what students can expect within the urban education program I co-direct.  Here are three such examples:

1.  In interviewing a White woman for the program, I explained: “This program is made up of predominately students of Color. If accepted, you may be one of the only White people in the program.  We will spend a lot of time talking about race, and we will not be centering your feelings in this process.  Describe how this makes you feel and how you will handle it.”

2.  I also described scenarios that have actually happened that require a certain amount of comfort in sensitive cross-racial interactions. “You are eating lunch with your mentor and her colleagues who are all Black.  They start talking about how White people are ruining Harlem.  How will you engage in this conversation?”

3.  During an interview, a candidate used deficit language to describe what urban students “aren’t getting at home” and how their parents “don’t value education.” I stopped her and confronted her language explicitly.  This allowed me to assess how open to feedback and challenges she was.  I explained, “The exchange we just had will be similar to the kinds of conversations we will have in class.  Is this something that you are open to, and how do you imagine you might handle this?”

These explicit questions meet two goals.  First, they allow me to assess the candidates’ dispositions within racialized situations.  Second, it simulates the nature of the program clearly enough that the candidate can make an informed decision on whether they want such an experience.  When I eventually did accept these two women into the program, I felt confident in how they would engage with the curriculum.  One candidate later emailed me explaining how much she appreciated the conversation and that she was hopeful for the opportunity to continue to grow.  Treating this as more “evidence” from the interview, this allowed me to see that despite her initial negative framing, she was open to reflection and transformation.  It allows her to prepare for the kind of difficult conversations we will have, and to make a choice to participate in this kind of experience willingly.

In deciding Allysa’s admission, it became clear that there isn’t enough time to get her where she needs to be within the confines of our program.  To be introduced to diversity, see it through an asset lens, understand institutional inequality, develop cross-cultural competency, develop a social justice mindset AND learn to teach is too much of a lift in one year.  By applying this kind of political clarity during the admission process, teacher education can focus our energy on candidates who are further along in their development of becoming justice-minded urban educators.


Author Biography 

At Montclair State University, Picower is the founder and Co-director of the Newark Teacher Project and the Faculty Lead for the Newark Montclair Urban Teacher Residency Program.  Through these nationally recognized programs, she works to prepare critically conscious and racially literate new teachers for urban schools.  She also co-coordinates the Critical Urban Education Speaker Series which brings nationally recognized leading scholars to MSU to share their research in ways that informs the practice of our local community. 

Blog topic: Teaching for social change: What does the research evidence show?