Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting to Class

For June's monthly forum, I'm interested in conversation about ways in which we might complicate questions of class and social mobility in teacher education, in part by complicating teacher ed students' understanding of their own class backgrounds.

I’ve spent my 20+ years as a teacher educator on campuses that serve large numbers of students from working class backgrounds, so I’ve always done a bit of a mental lurch when hearing frequent references in the literature and in casual conversation among colleagues to the teaching force being “white and middle class”.

I’ve nodded in agreement at the “white” part but have been puzzled by the casual but common references to most teachers being from middle-class backgrounds, in part because the students with whom I’ve worked have not fit this profile, in part because I’ve looked in vain for any actual data on the class background of people who go into teacher education (it doesn’t seem to actually exist), and in part because it’s rare for researchers to even collect data on the actual class backgrounds of teachers in critical studies of schooling, as if teacher identities were formed independently from backgrounds of relative deprivation or privilege.

But beyond frustration with casual uses of language about class, I’ve wondered if we aren’t missing the pedagogical possibilities of opening richer conversations about class with students who do occupy a distinctive social space -- students who, while in teacher education, may be poised at the very point of crossing formidable class borders because they have methodically, if not consciously, constructed new social identities through school to enable their social mobility.

So I’ve wondered if, rather than dismissing upwardly-mobile students as “tokens”, who have been “allowed” to succeed to placate gullible others into faith in fairness (or worse, just seeing classed identities of White working- class students as something that needs to be “fixed” as a condition of academic success) , there wouldn’t be potential in interrogating the “complex social trajectory” (Reay, 1997, p. 19) of class border crossing as they progress through teacher education.

I do want to be clear about what I mean when I speak of class. I draw on the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu, and I’m challenged by feminist scholars writing about class at the intersections of gender and race (e.g. Adair, 2002; Furman, Kelly and Nelson, 2005; Reay, 1997a; 1997b; 2004; Walkerdine, 2003; Lucey, Melody, and Walkerdine; 2003; Skeggs, 1997, 2005) who understand class boundaries to be constructed and maintained not only in occupational hierarchies but also in the dailiness of social life. Sayer (2005, p. 1) elaborates:

Class matters to us not only because of differences in material wealth and economic security, but also because it affects our access to things, relationships, experiences and practices which we have reason to value, and hence our chances of living a fulfilling life. … Condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance typify relations between people of different classes.

Success in school has delivered first-generation teacher education students to the contested social spaces at the very borderlands of class, and they likely come with baggage that not even they can fully recognize. As Renny Christopher (2004) notes, class borders are essentially invisible to upwardly-mobile students until they stand ready to step across them. They’re likely encountering these (previously) invisible borders at the very time that they’re becoming teachers, yet the field seems to assume that most teachers have lived their entire lives on the privileged side of those class divides and have little to say about deprivation or exclusion.

So, my challenge in thinking about teaching these students is how to both honor the experiences of the White, working-class students but also “to encourage students from working-class families to form new political relationships with that experience” (Lindquist, 2004, p. 191).

My questions about this work, then, are about how we might attain two goals: a) to draw upon the distinctive perspectives of these class border-crossers to illuminate their “complex social positioning as a complicated amalgam of current privilege interlaced with historic disadvantage” (Reay, 1997, p. 25) and b) to complicate what Adair and Dahlberg (2001 p. 174) have termed a cultural “impulse to frame class mobility as a narrative of moral progress” .

Both goals, I think, could serve our work as teacher educators well, and perhaps could help to get us past the “resistance” that we sometimes see in teacher education when we try to teach critical perspectives on schooling.

Might there be potential in more explicit reflective/autobiographical work on class and social mobility in teacher education? Or at least in moving beyond our casual depictions of teachers as "white and middle class" when many may be facing formidable barriers to class mobility at the very time that they hear themselves described as middle class (and therefore ill-informed about social struggles) in our courses?

Do many of us actually know the class backgrounds of the teachers and teachers-to- be with whom we work, since identity is complicated upwardly-mobile students likely learned long ago that they have to "pass" as middle class to make it?

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