Preparing Teachers to Talk About Race and Racism in Schools

Kelly Allen, School of Education Urban Education Doctoral Program student.

Kelly Allen’s research on how social studies teachers are being prepared to talk about race and racism in the classroom grew out of her own experiences.

Allen, who is in the third year of her doctoral program in urban education, didn’t really hear much about Black history in high school. It wasn’t until she started at UWM as a piano performance student that she discovered her passion for education.

She chose Africology as one of her general courses. “As a Black woman, this was the first time I really learned about Black history. “All these dots started connecting in my mind. I changed my major to social studies teaching.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UWM’s School of Education, she started teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools. “All my students were African American or Black and this was the first time they had been taught about Black history,” Allen said. “I realized this was a systemic issue.”

Her students told her they thought she should teach other teachers and that planted a seed. “I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if all teachers knew how to teach history in a way that resonated with their students?”

Her dissertation research focuses on barriers and challenges of those preparing future teachers to address racial issues in the classroom. As part of that, she is following and interviewing 13 professors of social studies education—12 at universities in the U.S. and one in Canada.

“We already have a lot of research that says when people get out of school and go out into the classroom, they’re not really confident in navigating issues of race and racism,” she said. “I think it’s time to confront this topic head on and be explicit about what we’re doing,” she added.

While Allen is still collecting data for analysis, she does see some patterns emerging. One is that many professors are critical scholars, who can change their own mindset and research about race and racism, but aren’t sure how to teach others to do it.

Another challenge is preparing new teachers to navigate the sometimes murky political waters they may face when they get into classroom discussions on potentially controversial topics.

“They (professors) feel a responsibility to talk about it with their preservice teachers, but they also are very cognizant of the fact that this is a very controversial topic,” she said. Some classroom teachers and professors of education have had their jobs threatened, backlash on social media and, in a few cases, even received death threats, she added.

Allen plans to graduate in the spring of 2022. As a research assistant for the ACCESS grant, she has also looked at the role of professional development in creating more culturally responsive pedagogy. She has done other research with the ArtsECO program, with Jeffrey Hawkins, associate professor teaching and learning,  on hip-hop pedagogy, and is working on a project with Candance Doerr-Stevens, associate professor of teaching and learning, looking at teachers five years out from graduation. “We’re having them reflect on what their teacher education could have done to prepare them differently now that they are in the field,” she said. “On the flip side, what did teacher education do really well, especially related to culturally responsive education in practice.”

Allen’s eventual goal is to teach future social studies teachers and do research at the university level.

“When research is done right, it can be so beneficial to our field.”

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