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Preparing transformative teachers
At Naropa University, anti-racism and mindfulness are pillars of the teacher preparation program.
Sep. 10, 2020
Preparing transformative teachers
At Naropa University, anti-racism and mindfulness are pillars of the teacher preparation program.
Sep. 10, 2020

For decades, researchers and educators have advocated classroom practices proven to increase educational justice for all students—anti-racist education, culturally responsive teaching, social emotional learning, and mindfulness. In the first half of 2020, the simultaneous pandemics of COVID-19 and institutionalized racism have renewed this focus. Now the widespread acknowledgement that these pedagogies are essential feels different—more urgent and more hopeful. 

As schools across the country work with teachers and staff to increase educational justice, teacher preparation programs must also play a critical role, ensuring new teachers are prepared to approach their content and teaching from an anti-racist lens. 

In the elementary education and teacher licensure program at Naropa University, culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogies are embedded in every course, and mindfulness for teachers and students is incorporated throughout the curriculum to create an authentic and holistic approach to social and emotional learning. Through such integrated approaches, new teachers enter the classroom ready to support and empower all students.

A “we” that includes all of us

Decades ago Lisa Delpit wrote, “When one ‘we’ gets to determine the standards for all ‘we’s’ then some ‘we’s’ are in trouble.”   As public school teachers, it didn’t take us long to realize that our teacher preparation programs had prepared us to teach all "we’s" using the standard we—white folks.

We, like many teachers, had been prepared to create an orderly classroom with high expectations. What we had not been taught was the ways that curriculum, school norms, and instructional methods often silence and erase the accomplishments and values of diverse cultures, thereby marginalizing low-income students and students of color.

Because of scholars like Lisa Delpit, Geneva Gay, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Christopher Emdin, we were able to question the status quo and find our way to culturally responsive teaching.

As an African American girl growing up in a predominately white, affluent, New York suburb, I know first hand the long-standing, negative impact of not being represented in the classroom culturally, and being the only or "the other”. When I first became a teacher, I continued to witness the impact of traditional schooling on underrepresented students and became devoted to changing the narrative.

Dr. Jennifer Bacon

Culturally responsive teaching

The one size fits all system characterized by standardized curriculum and tests is not effective. Not only is it not effective, it is often quite damaging, particularly for underrepresented groups such as students of color, students with learning differences, and English language learners. By contrast, culturally responsive teaching can rejuvenate the classroom. Culturally responsive teachers no longer nag students to work or use negative consequences to motivate, but listen to students and try teaching strategies that harness collectivist approaches to learning. All students have the opportunity to recognize their own power, self-worth, and leadership capacity.

Because my family is white-passing, my mom's generation assimilated so much as to make my experience and childhood cultural norms white ones. Through culturally responsive teaching practices, I built authentic relationships with students and families, and I was challenged by facilitating discussions about racism. I was doing my own inner work of unpacking my unconscious bias and reclaiming my family's language and my Chicana identity while acknowledging that I benefit from white privilege.

Professor Betsy Blohm

 While all teachers must be culturally responsive, it is also important that students have teachers who share their cultural background. Research shows that students who have at least one teacher that looks like them achieve at higher levels and are more likely to graduate high school and attend college.  

Currently about 80 percent of the teaching force is white while 80 percent of students are students of color. At Naropa University, we actively recruit highly deserving candidates from underserved communities to our program.

Culturally responsive pedagogy starts in teacher education

As inspiring as it feels to work with students, some colleagues and administrators push back; they are not ready to decolonize curriculum and teaching methods. Training can help, but there is rarely enough time in professional development workshops to give teachers enough tools to fully understand and embody this way of teaching. We must also train pre-service teachers in cultural responsiveness from the start.

Naropa University’s Elementary Teacher Licensure program recognizes that this culturally responsive, social justice pedagogy must be the foundational approach through which teachers teach rather than an optional add-on. For that reason, every student in the Naropa bachelor’s program earns the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education Endorsement automatically because culturally responsive, anti-bias pedagogy is woven into every class. It is the lens with which students learn to teach math, science, social studies, and literacy.

Students are taught the often-untold history of the US so that they are able to decolonize curriculum and teach elementary students to be critical thinkers who interrogate whose perspectives are being taught and whose perspectives are missing.

We must transform what we teach and the way we teach so that it is responsive to the diverse cultures in our classrooms. Culturally responsive and transformative pedagogy is inextricably linked to becoming effective and self-reflective teachers who are committed to empowering and inspiring diverse students.

The process of becoming an effective culturally responsive teacher involves risk-taking. Teachers must allow themselves to get out of their comfort zone and do the inner work of unpacking their unconscious bias and internalized oppression in order to disrupt it and the myriad ways it shows up in schools. Naropa University uses mindfulness to support teacher candidates to cultivate self-awareness and critical consciousness, as well as to sustain a grounded presence and love for teaching. 

We look forward to welcoming the next cohort of preservice teachers ready to transform themselves and transform the world.


About the Authors

Jennifer N. Bacon, Ph.D. is an Associate Dean of Naropa College and an Associate Professor in the BA Elementary Education Program at Naropa University. She specializes in curriculum and instruction,  culturally responsive pedagogy, and exceptional learners.  She has extensive years of teaching experience in special education in the United States as well as experience teaching abroad.  

Professor Betsy Blohm is an Assistant Professor in the BA Elementary Education Program at Naropa University, specializing in biliteracy and culturally responsive pedagogy. Professor Blohm taught in K-12 public schools for ten years, teaching Spanish for Heritage Speakers and Spanish as a world language and earning the 2017 UNC Language Teacher of the Year Award. 

Want to learn more about Naropa's teacher licensure program? Head over to their profile for the details.