Transcription of the episode “Toward Antiracism: The evolution of an undergraduate teacher ed program”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Marsha Daria, a professor in the Department of Education and Educational Psychology at Western Connecticut State University. Dr. Daria teaches undergraduate courses in social studies, curriculum, and child development. Her research interests include school health matters, educational psychology, and issues affecting multi-racial children. Welcome, Marsha. 

Marsha D: [00:00:26] Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:29] Marsha, would you tell us about Western Connecticut State University and the community it serves?

Marsha D: [00:00:35] Sure. Westconn, as we like to call it, is located on the New York- Connecticut line. We have over, I believe now it’s up to 60 languages spoken at the high school. Western Connecticut State University is the only university in Danbury, Connecticut, where it’s located. We draw from, you know, surrounding areas, Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and it’s just a great place to be. It used to be a normal school for teachers. We started out as a normal school, and it has since grown into a full fledged university. Some of our popular majors besides teaching are nursing, psychology, criminal justice, finance, business management. And we have a slew of majors that are very popular.

Jon M: [00:01:32] I have a question. I’ve always heard the term normal school, but I’ve never really known exactly what it is. And I’m sure many of our listeners may not. What were or are the normal schools? 

Marsha D: [00:01:43] Normal schools were teacher training schools that, the students had to prepare for everyday living, you know, normal living. And so we were called normal schools because of that.

Jon M: [00:01:58] Thanks.

Amy H-L: [00:02:00] What are the demographics of the students at the university?

Marsha D: [00:02:04] I don’t have all the numbers In our department, we have over 3024 students that are considered Caucasian. We have 21.1 Latino or Hispanic. About 448 students who are considered African-American. So it’s majority Caucasian. We have a mixture of Latino, African-American, Asian-American and others. 

Jon M: [00:02:33] That was 21%. 

Marsha D: [00:02:35] 21%. I’m sorry. Yeah, there’s a mixture here of percentages and numbers. I’m not sure.

Amy H-L: [00:02:40] This is largely a working class community.

Marsha D: [00:02:43] Yes. 

Jon M: [00:02:44] You’ve said that the education department felt a need to evaluate its program in light of George Floyd’s murder and the movement it sparked. What has that evaluation led to?

Marsha D: [00:02:55] It led to us re-evaluating our program, coming up with changes in courses on how we train our teacher education candidates, our outreach, our relationships with the surrounding school districts. And, um, I can go even further into that. We created a new course on social justice and equity schools, and basically, we’re just trying to train teachers in the areas of how to work with students who have been marginalized for so long. They’ve been accustomed to the Euro-centric curriculum, which really gives them just a one dimensional approach or a one dimensional view rather than one that’s inclusive or diverse, you know, there may be bits and pieces of diversity, but we are now infusing more social justice and equity into all of our classes with the addition of the new course as well. It also includes us creating better field work experiences, where students, our teacher education candidates, are able to teach lessons in social justice and equity in the schools. As I’ve mentioned before, the local school district is very diverse, but unfortunately the curriculum has not kept up with that diversity. And so this allows students to present lessons in the areas of social justice and equity.

In addition to that, we have a social justice service learning experience or component where students go out into the community and select a problem per semester and try to solve it or have an impact on it. So I think that’s kind of different from many teacher education programs. And then at the end of the program, they will take a social justice and equity assessment to determine what they have learned, how they had changed. What are some eyeopening experiences have you had through this process, just to evaluate where they are. And if they still need assistance, maybe clarification about certain areas that we can provide for them.

Jon M: [00:05:14] What does that assessment look like? How do you do that?

Marsha D: [00:05:17] Well, it’s just a list of questions that we ask. I don’t have it in front of me now but “what is your belief about students of color” or “what do you know now about diverse communities?” They’re pretty much open-ended questions, allowing our teacher education candidates to reflect on their feelings and beliefs and if they have changed since going through the program.

Amy H-L: [00:05:43] And this is a shift, right, this emphasis on self reflection and examination of one’s own biases.

Marsha D: [00:05:51] Absolutely. We’re hoping that this’ll be an empowering and encouraging experience for our teacher education candidates. We want them to reflect in different ways that will help them to analyze their views and their injustices, perhaps their ignorance. Maybe there were things that they didn’t know about. We also want to expose them to different opportunities for possible changes in judgment. And so that’s why we’re doing a lot of the outreach. We want them to reflect on their teaching practices and by changing the usual monoculture approaches to instruction, in other words, meet students where they are. Do they need more time? Are they deficient in an area, you know, if they are, you can’t just keep going, you have to stop, analyze, assess, and take them where they need to be. And so we hope to just really make them more sensitive and change their mindset as best as possible, but also the curricula that they teach their classroom environments and how they approach all students.

Jon M: [00:07:06] What are some of the key biases and issues that you’ve been encountering and that you’re addressing in your students’ understanding, especially White students?

Marsha D: [00:07:16] Well, one, they’re not familiar with communities of color. They pretty much go to the school and then go back home, so they’ve never been immersed in a community of color outside of the building. So the outreach is very, is pivotal, is very important. They have no clue how racism works. You know, many of them will say, “I’m not racist. I like everybody.” But they don’t really understand how it works. Or they may even have low expectations for students of color or students that have been marginalized. And so we’re trying to change that as well, their mindset concerning that as well.

Amy H-L: [00:07:53] How do undergraduate teaching students balance their academic and practical experiences?

Marsha D: [00:08:03] Well through their field work, they apply what they’ve learned academically in a practical setting. And so our hope is that they will glean from the students they work with, not take them for granted, and be more sensitive to their needs so that students will excel in the classroom.

Jon M: [00:08:25] I wanted to go back a second to, when you were saying that students response sometimes is, you know, “I’m not racist,” and that they don’t really understand how racism functions. So how do you address that? If a student says that, what does the teacher or other students say, as a way of sort of making clear that that’s not really a meaningful response?

Marsha D: [00:08:47] Yeah. Well, we don’t tell them not to say it, right. We just expose them and then they self-evaluate, they reflect, and many of them will come back and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was racist” or, “Oh, I didn’t realize, I wasn’t supposed to say that.”

Jon M: [00:09:04] How do you expose them?

Marsha D: [00:09:05] You know, asking “Is your dad at home?” You know, something as simple as that. “Do you have money for a field trip” or something like that, you know, something that’s related to the micro-cultures of everyday living. Just taking for granted that if a child comes to school dirty, their parents don’t care. It could be that they don’t have the money or the resources, but yet they feel that education is important so they’re still sending that child to school. So you just can’t assume anything. You have to get to know your students, learn more about their background and help them to move forward.

Jon M: [00:09:46] So, your department has several initiatives to recruit high school students from the local community to go into teaching. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Marsha D: [00:09:56] Sure. We’ve all always had programs in place to encourage students to become teacher education majors. As you know, many teachers in public education are Caucasian, yet the student body is majority students of color. And so just like every other university, we’ve had some difficulty recruiting more students of color into our program. And so we’ve always had these programs in place in hopes that they will come and become teachers.

One is the minority bilingual teacher pipeline, and it was established as a partnership between our department, the education department, other pre-collegiate college programs on campus, and a local school district, to provide an opportunity or students who recently graduated and have been recently admitted to our program to take a three hour credit hour course in the summer. And it’s, this is like a TESOL class. And they, during this class, they also intern at a school just to expose them to students who are different linguistically and to apply the information that they’ve learned in the classroom into a real life, real class setting. So that’s one.

Then we have a task force on minority recruitment and retention, which is designed to set goals for admission so that we can construct plans for high school outreach in the metropolitan area for those students who are interested in becoming teachers. We also have the Teaching Fellow Academy in the high school, which is pretty much a club for those students, high school level, who are interested in becoming teachers. So, we’ve always had these programs in place and hope that we can recruit or encourage students, once they get to college, to become teacher education majors.

Not only that, but we also have a fifth grade program. We try to get students thinking about college early. And so we call that the Diversity at the University program, where they come to campus to visit, they learn what it takes to be admitted. They learn about financial aid. They learn about housing. They even visit a dorm room. And throughout the year we invite them to different events, just so that they become familiar with college, the college process. They’ve never been on a college campus. I remember one student asking our president if he owned the college. And another student asked if immigrants, you know, go to college. So it’s interesting to hear their conversations, uh, once they come to campus about college.

Jon M: [00:12:52] And you mentioned the free summer program. So what does that like? What’s that class like?

Marsha D: [00:12:59] It’s a TESOL program.

Jon M: [00:13:01] And TESOL, for our listeners who may not know, is Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Marsha D: [00:13:08] And so the instructor will prepare them to work with students in a school that’s in our area, to apply some of the strategies for enhancing their academics.

Jon M: [00:13:20] And do you find that it’s working in terms of having students become more interested in teaching as a career than they might’ve been thinking about?

Marsha D: [00:13:29]  Yes, it allows them to get their, let’s say pinky, toe dipped into the profession, you know, to see what it’s like, what it’s like to work with students who are different from them, who may speak a different language or students who are struggling. It’s really an eye opener for many of our students. They really like it a lot. One, because they’re in schools, they’re in a real setting, they’re working with students who are different than them. And they’re also able to take a three credit course on campus to earn college credits. So they, they really like that.

Amy H-L: [00:14:03] Marsha, am I understanding correctly that these students otherwise would be unlikely to, first of all, to go to college and, second of all, to go into teaching?

Marsha D: [00:14:14] I can’t say if that’s true or not, I’m not sure if they would be unlikely, I would say that they have not really been exposed to college. Or are you talking about the fifth grade students I mentioned, or yeah, many of them have not been on a college campus. They’ve heard the word. They may have a cousin that went to college. But a lot of them would be first-generation college students.  

Jon M: [00:14:37] And is there any, after fifth grade, between then and sort of when they’re graduating from high school, are there other continuum kinds of things to keep them interested in and engaged with the idea?

Marsha D: [00:14:49] We don’t follow them as cohorts, but our students, our teacher education students, have to do practicum experiences starting in freshman year. So many times they see these students, ranging from kindergarten through high school, during their practicum experience. Now, our students are placed in cohorts as soon as they come to campus, so they do learn from each other. And they also learned from their mentor teachers, they learn from students in the classroom, and they also learn from their professors on campus.

Amy H-L: [00:15:27] Marsha, you have an article coming out the spring discussing your department’s approach. When will that be appearing and what can you tell us about it?

Marsha D: [00:15:36] It will be appearing in July in The School -University Partnership Journal, and it pretty much covers what we’re talking about today. How the George Floyd murder really illuminated us to train our candidates in a different way. As I mentioned before, our candidates are majority Caucasian and may not be familiar with some of the injustices that all students encounter. And so that really spurred me to write an article about what we went through or how we decided to change. We were so upset about it that we felt like we needed to make a change. And so we got together and looked at our courses to determine how we could make changes to our courses at the undergraduate level. What other pieces are missing, such as the social justice and equity pieces that we could add to our content.

Amy H-L: [00:16:37] Marsha, has there been any pushback from anywhere in your department or elsewhere in the university?

Marsha D: [00:16:44] None, none whatsoever. Our department’s very receptive. Our university encourages it. And so we have not received any pushback at the highest level of the university  [inaudible] to our department.

Jon M: [00:17:00] In some of the interviews that we’ve done with folks, which have mostly been people teaching at the graduate school level, so it’s been really interesting listening to you talking about it, the work you’re doing at the undergraduate level, but a lot of people have said that many education departments tend not to have many professors, faculty, of color and that various universities are working to, you know, expand the number of faculty of color in the university. Is this something that that’s an issue and that you’ve been working?

Marsha D: [00:17:35] Oh, absolutely. It’s an issue that we always work on in my department. We’re fairly diverse. I think. I would say that we have representation, of course, from the African-American community, the Latino community. We’ve had Asian Americans represented. They since left, you know, because of the job situation with their spouse, but we are very mindful of our professors and we want them to represent our society. And so whenever there’s an opening, of course, we interview everyone. But we are interested in interviewing those people who are from diverse backgrounds.

Jon M: [00:18:19] And the Danbury schools, are the kids in the Danbury schools diverse? You were mentioning that there’s something like 60…

Marsha D: [00:18:27] Yeah. I think it’s up to 60 languages that are spoken at the high school. 

Jon M: [00:18:30] It sounds as though it’s not fully reflected in terms of who ends up coming to the college.

Marsha D: [00:18:34] Yes, that is correct.

Jon M: [00:18:36] Why do you think that is? What are some of the…

Marsha D: [00:18:38] I think money is an issue. Of course they all start out, possibly at junior colleges. You know, a lot of them go to work for their families. Some of them, as I mentioned before, have not been exposed to college. They’ve heard about it. They know someone who went to college, but they don’t really understand the concept of college. So I think there are a lot of variables involved as to… Maybe financial. Maybe they’ve tried college and became intimidated and dropped out. You know, we’ve heard that. So I think there are a lot of reasons why they do not come.

Jon M: [00:19:12] Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about yet?

Marsha D: [00:19:16] I know that she asked about challenges at the university level and the department level. I would say that perhaps the challenge would be with our candidates. For some candidates, it may be difficult because maybe they have an opposing view about some of this that we’re talking about, or they may not be as receptive or comfortable discussing social justice and equity. You know, for a lot of people it’s an uncomfortable situation or a topic to talk about, and so that’s why we are, we’ve made all these changes, to make them aware of what’s out there in terms of social justice and equity, and to allow them to self reflect and to be exposed to ways to enhance learning.

Amy H-L: [00:20:06] Thank you so much, Marsha Daria of Western Connecticut State University. And thank you, listeners, for joining us. We’d like to hear how you’ve incorporated ideas you’ve heard on our podcasts or read on the Ethical Schools blog. Let us know if there topics you’d like to hear more about. Email us at hosts@ethicalschools.org. We work with consultants to offer professional development in SEL, with a focus on ethics, for schools and afterschool programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Check out prior episodes and articles on our site, ethical schools.org. We’re on Twitter @ethicalschools, Instagram and Facebook. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week!

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