Shanker Blog: The Teacher Testimony Project: Mobilizing and Lifting the Voices of Teachers of Color

Our guest author today is Conra D. Gist, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas, and 2016-2017 Spencer/National Academy of Education Post-Doctoral Fellow. The following blog describes the genesis of the Teacher Testimony Project, an American Educational Research Association (AERA) Education Service Project designed to work with aspiring and current Teachers of Color.

Given the wealth of research indicating the value Teachers of Color* add to the teaching profession (Villegas and Irvine 2010), it is always surprising to encounter critiques that overlook their contributions. Yet, the Teacher Testimony Project was developed in a hostile political climate in which a deficit narrative began to arise about a grow-your-own program committed to their recruitment and retention.  This was troubling since numerous education scholars have noted the potential of home-grown programs to address teacher shortages (Learning Policy Institute 2016) and high attrition (Shanker Institute 2015), as well as to increase the likelihood of producing community minded teachers with cultural capital that benefits students’ learning experiences (Sleeter and Milner 2011). Scholarship further indicates that Teachers of Color often have knowledge of community and ethics of care (Skinner et al. 2011), positively impact academic and nonacademic outcomes for students of color (Gershenson et al. 2016), and have commitments to racial and social justice (Gist 2014).  Despite this research base, the negative rhetoric that began circulating about these teachers threatened to misrepresent their strengths and contributions. Thus, a pressing question arose: how could Teachers of Color reframe the discourse in ways that are authentic to their strengths and lived experiences?

One answer seemed to be the development and circulation of teacher testimonies.  As a critical education scholar, I created the Teacher Testimony Project to: (a) document and feature teacher testimonies by Teachers of Color committed to social justice efforts in education; (b) develop qualitative maps of unseen resources and strengths being invested in schools and local communities by Teachers of Color; (c) challenge and debunk deficit perspectives about the value that community-based Teachers of Color add to the teaching profession; (d) create communal spaces of healing and renewal for Teachers of Color through the writing and sharing of testimonies; and (e) center the voices of Teachers of Color to speak the truth about the ways in which they can work to be change agents in their communities.

As a pedagogical process, I organized and led a small group of Teachers of Color from the grow-your-own program through a testimony workshop series that incorporated articles, thinking prompts, conceptual maps, application activities, and partnership work to ground their thinking in educational justice frameworks and the cultural wealth inherent in communities of color. They were challenged to write teacher testimonies as a type of critical knowledge effort that centered their lives as worthy sites of contemplation and inspiration.  The production of knowledge about their lived experiences interrupted narratives of inadequacy with counter-narratives of abundance and possibility.  The testimony development process functioned as a witness of how alternative methodologies and pedagogies can be taken up as transformative tools when working with and for Teachers of Color.  A Teacher Testimony Project participant, Fawn Pochel, shared: 

I now see myself not only working with youth in my community fighting for the right to represent ourselves as Indigenous people, but working with black and brown youth within the classroom. Representation matters and as long as the teacher pool is not representative of our communities, our voices and needs will continue to go unheard and our children’s children will continue to suffer through the same struggles we still battle today.

The experiences of Teachers of Color in drafting these testimonies allowed for the cathartic shedding of the weight of oppression they too often shouldered. Writing in community from a strength-based perspective fostered solidarity that enabled them to be open with one another about their pain and triumphs. The need for such cleansing relief underscored the historical and contemporary burden of the racist, sexist, exploitive, classist, and uncivil practices and discourses they have endured and continue to face.  For example, Fawn explains,

Everyday I’m confronted by microaggression and I struggle to find the words to make them resonate in the hearts of people who uphold the systematic belief system of the American Dream that is fed to us. I’ve come to the point where I have internalized my civil unrest and the only way for others to know or see the injustices I see in my everyday life is to educate them. I can never undo my experiences but I can work toward a future that is safer and more inclusive of Indigenous people and all people of culture for not only my nieces and nephews but the next generations to come. I applied to grow your own because I believe that it embodies a movement of change within the education system that has failed so many.

The tears and laughter that circulated the room when teachers of color read their written testimonies evidenced powerful socio-emotive responses. In this sense, the sharing of written testimonies in community functioned as both a healing and fortifying agent for participants, as they continue to work toward a just and equitable educational experience for all students – and, in particular, those students who carry a history of marginalization that generates present-day manifestations of inequity. Fawn reflects,

In the face of suffering there is no bigger need than for our communities to stand up and represent themselves. In my lifetime there has never been a bigger spotlight on racial unrest with our youth  crying out for guidance. We send our children to school for seven hours out of the day with the promise that they’ll be safe. Yet our education system isn’t a safe space. Our kids still face the same prejudices and stereotypes that we faced.

The intentional creation of spaces that center the voices of Teachers of Color (Gist 2016) enables their philosophies and approaches for empowering and advancing communities of color to come to light in ways that may have otherwise remained unknown.  The inspiration drawn from listening to these educational journeys can help other teachers to gain the hope and support they need to remain in the profession. These outcomes from the Teacher Testimony Project affirm other research highlighting the importance of differentiated and tailored induction supports for Black males (Bristol 2015) as well as the need for racial justice-focused professional development institutes that equips Teachers of Color with knowledge and tools to thrive as change agents despite finding themselves in hostile school environments (Kohli 2016). As an organizing vehicle that brings Teachers of Color together in solidarity, the Teacher Testimony Project, through critical reading, writing and dialogue, lifts the strengths that distinguish Teachers of Color, in positive ways, in plain sight for all to see and learn. 

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* Teachers of Color share sociopolitical histories of marginalization by education institutions, structures, policies, and practices, as well as transformative pedagogical and resistant community based practices, in which positioning them from a group standpoint when theorizing and conducting research affords more comprehensive and complex understandings of their experiences (Dilworth & Brown, 2008).  The term Teachers of Color is capitalized to acknowledge this collective history and give credence to more contemporary efforts to view group standpoints from a perspective of solidarity to create equitable and engaging educational opportunities.     

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Conra D. Gist

Corn D. Gist is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas, and a 2016-2017 Spencer/National Academy of Education Post-Doctoral Fellow.