Each year, I am afforded the opportunity to engage with a group of pre-service teachers at The Pennsylvania State University through the Philadelphia Urban Seminar. The seminar boasts attendance of over ten institutions in the United States and several from countries in Europe. In this two-week, immersion course, I work alongside a phenomenal teaching team dedicated to facilitating a holistic experience for the pre-service teachers in what is often the students’ first time in an urban context.
What is most exciting about the experience is seeing how our decisions as a teaching team influence the pre-service teachers’ perspectives about urban contexts and youth. For example, many of the pre-service teachers begin the course not having any interest in even considering teaching in an urban context upon graduation; however, their two weeks in Philadelphia seem to really challenge some of their preconceived notions about teaching in environments unlike the ones to which they are accustomed.
As someone whose focus is in higher education, and not primarily K-12 contexts, I’ve been challenged over the years to sincerely examine the ways youth in urban contexts are taught, and by whom. Hence, my experiences serving on the teaching team have been valuable!
The pre-service teachers who we get to engage with are all passionate about teaching. As future educators, I strongly believe in the importance of their exposure to experiences that they may perceive to be qualitatively different than any of their own (in their own educational experiences). What I’ve learned is that sometimes, pre-service teachers use difference as an opportunity for them to become saviors – and even more, to vilify the schools, parents, teachers, and communities for the challenges that the students sometimes face. However true this may be, the team is conscientious about meeting students where they are in their understanding of urban education, as well as challenge them to think beyond any normative prescriptions of what they believe education should look like in this country.
So, I wonder how can we, as teacher educators, prepare and implement a curriculum that gives pre-service teachers the necessary exposure to educational contexts unlike their own, while at the same time nurturing their curiosity, as well as challenging their leanings to “save” children? I recognize that it’s possible to encounter challenges if pre-service teachers identify themselves as saviors of children in need. Pre-service teachers who want to “save urban children”, may engage in behaviors that detract from the education of their students, and instead maintain the belief that they are the next star of a movie like Dangerous Minds, valuable time is lost addressing larger systemic issues in education.
Issues linked to resource disparities across school districts, school closures, and access to schools (e.g. proliferation of charter schools), to name a few, are important issues to address. I’m clear, though, that a two-week course may not be the most appropriate place to address such concerns, especially given that the pre-service teachers under our purview are at the beginning of their education. With that said, our pre-service teachers do have the opportunity to hear from former seminar participants who currently work as full-time teachers in the Philadelphia school district. Though the narratives of these full-time teachers are simply glimpses into what it’s like to teach in an urban context, our pre-service teachers have have clung to what they’ve heard.
The teaching team and I are working towards systematically exploring the experiences of the pre-service teachers in our course. We’re finding that specific concentration on the pre-service teachers’ development of their teaching philosophies (e.g. how they intend to approach teaching) are important in helping them more fully understand the differences they’re immersed in for the two weeks. Stay tuned for some exciting findings!
In the meantime, I make these suggestions for all teacher educators out there – identify numerous opportunities for pre-service teachers to actively engage in contexts that are dissimilar to their own, be willing to tackle difficult (sometimes sensitive) topics in the classroom, and create communities of support and resource sharing in your teacher circles. While it’s likely that no one person can make significant change alone, a person can band together with other passionate people who care about the cause.
Be bold. Consider your influence on the future of education in our country. Continue learning. Teach with fervor.
Talia K. Carroll