Preparing Pre-service Teachers for Schools in Historically Vulnerable Communities
Initial Teacher Education is under constant scrutiny for the quality of its delivery and its capacity to prepare teachers. It is held accountable, not only for whom it graduates but also for the future academic outcomes of their graduate students. Those responsible for Initial Teacher Education are increasingly pressured to standardize curricula and comply with standards set by local and national education bodies. They must develop coursework and offerings that bring in more students, appear relevant and practical, and meet the needs of a wide and increasing variety of stakeholders, such as government bodies, schools, and parent groups. And all of this is done in an environment in which private providers and other industry groups claim they can do teacher education better.
This ever-prescriptive, overregulated, reactive field of teacher education has resulted in a decline in social justice education, including the foundational teaching of sociocultural studies or sociology that used to be taken for granted as something pre-service teachers should know. While nearly all Initial Teacher Education programs, at least in the Global North, claim that they are oriented toward social justice, how these programs devote their time to specifically preparing teachers to work in historically disadvantaged schools varies. Nonetheless, many teacher educators have devoted their careers to ensuring that pre-service teachers are equity-aware and both suited and prepared to work with students from historically vulnerable communities.
This essay maps some of the ways that dedicated teacher education scholars are working with pre-service teachers, schools, and communities to ensure that some, if not all, teachers are completing Initial Teacher Education with the skills, knowledges, and dispositions to teach the vulnerable students who need them most.
Discourses of Disadvantage
Writing an overview of teacher preparation for historically disadvantaged schools is reasonably straightforward, but deciding which language to use to describe these schools is more difficult. Describing schools or communities where students and their families are educationally disadvantaged because of such things as their social class, race, citizenship, or postal code presents discursive challenges.
While some communities and students are indeed historically and currently disadvantaged or marginalized, the word disadvantage carries the same deficit connotations that teachers are instructed to resist. Schools also generally dislike being referred to as disadvantaged because it labels them deficient, stigmatizes them, gives them a poor reputation, and makes them less desirable for parents who can choose where to send their children.
However, referring to schools more euphemistically as challenging or special seems to mask the genuine and lived disadvantage experienced by some groups more than others. The use of euphemism here is, as Freire (1987) notes, merely a paternalistic social action apparatus, as though the communities they describe do not know they are disadvantaged.
In the USA, the term urban schools is code for poor schools with high numbers of Black or Latin@ students, but this terminology does not work internationally because nations such as Canada and Australia need ways of referring to the rural and remote schools where much poverty resides.
Some of the other terminology used in the field highlights the challenges that some schools have in retaining their teachers, including hard-to-staff, high burnout, or high-turnover schools. More critical understandings of the experiences of teachers in these schools purport that difficulties related to staffing and teacher attrition may not be attributable to dangerous classrooms, poor student behavior, illiteracy of students, or even inequitable school funding models or poor resourcing. The causes of low teacher retention rates are just as likely to be inadequate institutional support for teachers in these schools, lack of teacher support or mentoring, or pressures on teachers to focus on data and reporting, at what teachers perceive to be the expense of attention to the academic, social, and cultural needs of vulnerable students.
Finally, some scholars are using the terms culturally diverse, high needs, or high-poverty schools to describe certain settings.
All terminology in this entry is used only tentatively because each term falls into similar deficit traps and some provoke an unwanted savior mentality. This essay mostly uses historically vulnerable schools, although, for readability, I also vary the terms used. Historically vulnerable schools, while clumsy and inadequate for the reasons already explained, provide a coverall self-explanatory term. It is intended to be read as though it has “scare marks” around it, though placing them around every instance of its usage would interrupt the flow of the writing.
Social Justice and Teacher Education
Social justice education is variously defined and its implementation takes many forms. However, most teacher education programs would claim that their graduates engage in some degree of this type of education, whereby they learn to theorize, recognize, and practice in ways that are inclusive, equity-oriented, and culturally appropriate. For example, in many nations, national standards require graduating teachers to demonstrate competencies in communicating with diverse groups of students and their families. However, these are competencies required of all graduating teachers, not just those specially prepared to work in high-poverty or vulnerable communities.
This essay is focused on teacher education programs specifically designed and delivered to select teachers and prepare them to work in historically disadvantaged schools, but there is inevitable overlap with social justice education taught in many mainstream teaching programs. Ideally, all pre-service teachers would have some grounding in essential theory that assists them to understand issues of race and culture, gender and sexuality, dis/ability and inclusion, and social class. However, this knowledge is especially relevant for teachers who are being purposefully prepared to go into these kinds of schools. As a result, they may receive extra preparation in these areas.
For example, the theory of teacher education for social justice proposed by Cochran-Smith et al. (2018) combines knowledge, teaching strategies, methods, skills, and advocacy with and for students, parents, colleagues, and communities, as well as an inquiry stance to become agents of democratic reform.
Selecting the “Right” Kinds of Teachers for Historically Disadvantaged Schools
One strand of literature on how to prepare teachers to work in historically disadvantaged schools focuses on attributes and dispositions. On this topic, we find debates about which kinds of people make the best teachers for these schools and which experiences are desirable in the selection of pre-service teachers for targeted Initial Teacher Education programs that are oriented toward social justice.
Various beliefs are held in this domain. For example, many programs include interviews with pre-service candidates as one selection criterion to assess suitability. These might look for attributes such as being warm, caring, and empathetic or evidence of resilience. Other criteria might be candidates with strong social justice principles and knowledge of, for example, poverty and disadvantage. Cultural awareness, or a background in low socioeconomic communities, or volunteer experiences in such settings are also used as evidence of commitment to social justice.
Some programs recruit from historically disadvantaged groups themselves, believing that people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be better suited and more effective in teaching young people from similar backgrounds. This belief addresses the mass of literature that criticizes teaching as a middle-class profession, sensibly extrapolating that a powerful relationship will develop between teachers and students who share a worldview.
Other Initial Teacher Education programs claim that at least some of these attributes can be taught. That is, some exceptional social justice teachers may not know they have an aptitude, passion, or orientation toward teaching in historically disadvantaged communities until they receive good teacher education.
Nonetheless, these are common decisions that staff in every Initial Teacher Education program with a focus on disadvantage makes: how to select the right teachers and what is meant by “right.” There is agreement, though, that whether innate or learned, pre-service teachers must counteract the deficit narratives that surround working in historically disadvantaged schools and must have high expectations of their students.
Additionally, with respect to pre-service teacher selection, some teacher education programs focus on attracting future teachers in areas where there is a gap. For instance, it is a common finding that teachers in disadvantaged schools teach out-of-field more often (e.g., Physical Education teachers end up teaching Math because of teacher shortages or staffing difficulties). In many historically disadvantaged schools, academic subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are not taught at all, or not at senior levels. Areas such as special education (inclusive education) are perceived to be a particular area of need.
In recent years, some Initial Teacher Education programs have tried to identify the highest achieving teacher candidates, arguing that middle-class or private schools often snap up the “top” graduates from teacher education programs, leaving disadvantaged schools with the least qualified graduates. This is a contentious point and often invokes argument about what is meant by “high achievement” and perennial debates about whether high grades attained by teachers in their own studies mean they will necessarily be good teachers.
Arguments abound on all sides about what is more important, teacher empathy or teacher content knowledge, as though the two cannot coexist. In general, it is agreed that to genuinely build aspirations among historically disadvantaged students, teachers are required who can deeply teach content knowledge; it is also generally agreed that just the content knowledge in any given subject area is not enough, unless teachers can teach in anti-deficit, culturally safe ways. Some theories that expound the combined teacher attributes of warmth and demandingness recognize the value of both. While teachers in historically disadvantaged schools must be subject experts, teaching is perceived not as a technical skill but as a political and even a moral pursuit (Falkenberg 2007).
Teaching in Historically Disadvantaged Schools: Skills, Knowledges, and Dispositions
The selection of teacher candidates provides one point of discussion, but another large body of literature attends to the specialized skills, knowledges, and dispositions perceived to be required by teachers in historically disadvantaged schools. For example, students in these schools may have lower literacy and numeracy; may experience hardship at home and require more in the way of counseling, extra resourcing, and wrap-around services; and may experience financial hardship.
Teachers headed to jobs in schools with vulnerable students are sometimes given extra mentoring in classroom management skills. However, assumptions about what life will be like in certain schools are also highly critiqued. For example, Milner et al. (2018) reminds us that there are complex reasons that students in these schools may fall behind their peers and that fear-mongering about behavioral issues in certain schools reinforces race and class stereotypes. All of these issues require understanding; teachers need to understand the context, reflect on the circumstances that lead to their students’ challenging lives, and may also at times need to focus on their own well-being and practice self-care.
Pierre Bourdieu’s theories that schools reproduce class stratification concern teacher educators who are committed to changing, rather than reinforcing, beliefs. This is a difficult balance for teacher education: pre-service teachers need to know how to teach students who require extra support but also need to know how not to fall into stereotypical traps or default to unproven myths. Ladson-Billings (2006) explains the moral imperative on teacher education to address inequities in order to repay a “teacher education debt.”
A critical understanding of the underlying inequities that produce issues related to topics such as literacy, numeracy, and classroom management may be informed by critical theory, understood through a place-based lens of poverty studies (with every context differing), or unpacked through reflection. Nonetheless, the skills-based knowledges taught to pre-service teachers include an emphasis on these areas: literacy and numeracy, teaching languages other than English, special education, classroom management, and, sometimes, parental engagement.
Some of the approaches taught to pre-service teachers are based on the premise that students in disadvantaged schools will need more scaffolding (hence, literacy approaches such as Direct or Explicit instruction, which break language down in prescriptive, methodical ways). Whole industries have developed around teacher preparation and professional development that prescribe “solutions,” such as packaged Math instruction programs, to what are perceived to be the problems of young people in these schools. Focusing on panacea solutions to what are, in fact, systemic and societal issues of poverty, racism, or unequal distribution of school resources is believed to exacerbate problems rather than solve them. Scholars such as Cohen and Grossman (2016) remind us to see “value-added” instructional tools as contributing to repertoires of practice, rather than being solutions to a much larger issue.
Most teacher education programs for historically disadvantaged schools focus less on skills and toolkits and more on developing theory-informed social justice dispositions in teachers. For instance, almost all such programs hope to produce culturally responsive teachers who understand why and how diversity is such a common element of high-poverty schools. These teachers also know how to develop curriculum and pedagogies that are anti-racist, culturally safe, and, perhaps most significantly, avoid deficit thinking.
Much time is spent in preparing teachers who have positive and high expectations of students, who in turn have high aspirations for themselves. A large part of the reflective practice required by teachers in these schools requires resisting deficit stereotypes, such as talking back to friends, family, or colleagues who may repeat deeply held myths about people in poverty, such as making claims that some parents from certain socioeconomic or cultural communities do not care about education as much as middle-class families do. These engrained taken-for-granted beliefs about “some people” (identified as Other) can be default positions, even among practicing teachers who one might expect to know differently.
Practice-Based and Experiential Learning
One element of preparing teachers to work in historically disadvantaged schools is an emphasis on professional experience placements or practicum. While school-based experiences are a key part of all teacher education programs, many perceive this as particularly necessary for familiarizing teachers who may ultimately work in schools serving students who have very different experiences from their own. An abundance of research points to teachers who experience culture shock and unpreparedness and feel a lack of self-efficacy when they gain their first teaching appointments in schools in underserved communities. For this reason, it is seen as crucial that teachers have not just any experiences but highly mentored, reflective experiences during practicum in historically disadvantaged schools.
Finding alternative funding that allows teacher educators to spend more time supervising their pre-service teachers in schools
Working out ways, including online networks, to create reflective communities of practice for students to reflect and debrief while working in schools
Sending pre-service teachers in pairs to support each other
Engaging in critical readings
Working alongside experienced teachers to help pre-service teachers develop a critical consciousness to understand what they see, feel, and experience during their placements
The length of time pre-service teachers spend on these placements also varies from clinical programs in which most of the carefully managed teacher preparation takes place at school sites to programs in which several school sites are used over several placements. Regardless, the key aspect of successful placements for historically disadvantaged schools includes carefully managed opportunities for critical reflection so that pre-service teachers do not finish these placements with deficit beliefs, stereotypes, poor practices, or even fear of teaching in schools where they may have uncritically observed teacher burnout.
In addition, it is generally perceived that teachers need to be cautioned against developing “savior mentalities” or “missionary” identities. Many scholars discuss the importance of time spent in the classroom for teachers to develop an understanding of teaching’s social context (Darling-Hammond and Bransford 2015).
Conclusion: Emerging Directions in Teacher Education for Historically Disadvantaged Schools
Teachers are increasingly blamed for their students’ poor academic outcomes, without taking into account their students’ social context. And universities are blamed for failing to prepare and produce effective teachers, especially for urban schools and in shortage areas. The political agendas that are highly critical of teacher education have resulted in the rise of alternative pathways into teaching, many targeting teaching in historically disadvantaged schools. The UK is often noted for its vigor in preparing School Direct teachers, who are trained in schools, on the job, as an alternative option to traditional Initial Teacher Education programs in university classrooms. However, the program that has the most worldwide influence has been Teach First and, more specifically, Teach for America and all its offshoots.
The Teach First programs recruit “high-achieving” candidates, many of whom have been successful in industry or achieved high grades in their undergraduate degrees. Teach First offers an employment-based pathway into teaching, paying these candidates while they do their training in historically disadvantaged schools. Criticisms of the Teach First program include the brevity of their coursework before they go into schools as paid teachers, the lack of evidence about the low retention of teachers after they graduate, and their savior “mission,” which claims that one good teacher can change a child’s life. Teach First responds to some of these criticisms by positioning their program as one of “leadership development” not “teacher preparation.” Nonetheless, there are an increasing number of such alternative pathways into teaching.
Other directions are now emerging and having an impact on how teachers are prepared to work in historically disadvantaged schools. The field of trauma-informed learning is gaining momentum, bringing a largely psychological lens to supporting teachers who recognize the effects of trauma and adversity on students. These theories often include understanding the effects of trauma on the brain, which are believed to help teachers understand behaviors that may be misunderstood without this knowledge.
Another pedagogical field of knowledge that is rapidly emerging as important in informing teachers about the schools in which they may teach is place-based learning. This includes, for instance, providing specific local, contextual knowledge that has different impacts in urban, regional, or remote communities.
Finally, and somewhat relatedly, there is increasing attention on community-engaged teacher education programs. In these programs, pre-service teachers engage with the historically vulnerable communities they teach in but in deeper ways than merely volunteering or “providing service.” Some Initial Teacher Education programs are now pairing teachers with community mentors, providing tutorials at community sites, and engaging in guided walks around communities. These activities always include reflection.
- Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (2015). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
- Falkenberg, T. (2007). On the grounding of teacher education in the human condition. Journal of Educational Thought, 41(3), 245–262.Google Scholar
- Freire, P. (1987). Pedagogy of the oppressed (trans: Ramos, M. B.). New York: Continuum.Google Scholar
- Milner, R., Cunningham, H., Delale-O’Connor, L., & Kestenberg, E. (2018). “These kids are out of control”: Why we must re-imagine ‘classroom management’ for equity. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar