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Transforming Teacher Education for Racial Justice | An Education Project Story

Transforming Teacher Education for Racial Justice | An Education Project Story

  Teachers Tai Olasanoye and Rebecca Harmon with   Dr. Jessica Powell

Teachers Tai Olasanoye and Rebecca Harmon with Dr. Jessica Powell

Our conversation about improving schools rarely focuses enough attention on the importance of creating a classroom culture that equitably supports all students. Data shows that outcomes for students in US schools is largely determined by gender, race, class, ethnicity and special needs. It is no surprise that the systems that fail and disadvantage people in society also fail our students in schools. The racial divide between a mostly white teaching population and mostly brown and black student population in our cities and many towns across the country is real, and problematic for everyone. To truly transform our schools and outcomes for all students, especially black and brown students who are most failed by our schools, we must transform how our teachers are educated. 

On today’s show we will discuss an approach to transforming teacher education to address racial equity in schools. Teachers carry their passions and also their biases into the classroom. Despite the best of intentions, implicit biases such as racism can show up without teachers even realizing it. They may have lower expectations for black and brown students, choose books that prioritize white history, or see an upset student of color as a threat, rather than as a student that needs support. The cumulative effects of these types of incidents on students of color over months and years, can and does have a massive negative impact on their success in schools and in society.

“I don’t even like to use the language ‘classroom management’ because that really is about just controlling bodies, and what we really want is to be creating relationships and community in the classroom.”
— Dr. Jessica Powell, Professor of Education, SCSU

There is overwhelming data demonstrating the extremely high rates of suspensions for Black and Latinx students and how this can start children of color on a path into the school to prison pipeline.  This study clearly shows how white teacher's low expectations of Black students have a direct impact on student's long term success.  It is evidence like this, along with the lived experiences of today's guests that motivate them to work on transforming Teacher Education as a first step in addressing these issues and improving outcomes for children of color in schools, and hopefully in society as well. 

“I live in the city, in the community where my students might just see me, I might just see’ve got some explaining to do, you’ve got eyes on you.., so I think that’s really powerful, kids know their gonna be held accountable, their gonna have to answer to that.”
— Tai Olasanoye, High School Teacher

Over the past few years Dr. Jessica Powell has been working within the Southern Connecticut State University's Education School's Department of Curriculum and Learning to establish an anti-racism teacher education curriculum. This new training helps future teachers to understand the systemic racial oppression and implicit bias that exist in our society as well as in the actions of individuals. This framework is then used as a basis for learning new skills for building relationships and an equitable classroom community. 

Dr. Powell states: “I’m very clear with my students that what they see in (most) schools is about controlling bodies. It’s about controlling bodies to get to the curriculum...we have to flip that, we have to unlearn that completely and see supporting children’s social emotional growth as part of your curriculum... We are teaching children a very horrible and important message when we shame them. We’re teaching them it’s ok for people to treat you this way, for people who are more powerful than you to treat you this way, and for children watching this, that it’s ok to treat other people this way...We want to respond to the challenging behaviors in a way that maintains dignity, and that looks different for different children... Some children going back to their seat wouldn’t bring upon shame, especially in a classroom where you have developed relationships. Everyone makes mistakes, and it's about how do we repair the harm... when you are responding (to a child) if you are doing it with love, and students know you are doing it with love, it has a different impact.”

Rebecca Harmon is a recent graduate of this program, and shares her experience of learning anti-racism teaching skills as a white teacher who grew up in a predominantly white town.  Tai Olasanoye is a Black teacher who also graduated SCSU, and now teaches at Whitney High North, an Aces Regional School for students with social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Tai is also a professor of Education at SCSU, teaching the intro to Education course to New Haven high school students of color being recruited as future teachers. 

“ The true history of the destruction of the black the true history of this country, and a lot of educators may not be comfortable with presenting this information, but it is the history of this country, and kids need to know that.”
— Tai Olasanoye, High School Teacher

The topic of transforming teacher education is vast and this conversation is only the tip of the ice burg.  Anti-racist education and skill building are important, and so are learning skills for non-punative classroom management, developing culturally relevant and engaging curriculum, recruiting teachers of color from within the school district, and creating supports for teachers, students, and families to create meaningful transformation of school culture and practices to undo racial and other biases.  The solutions to undoing these inequities are complex, but they are possible.

 Tai Olasanoye, Rebecca Harmon, and Dr. Jessica Powell recording at Baobob Tree Studio in New Haven

Tai Olasanoye, Rebecca Harmon, and Dr. Jessica Powell recording at Baobob Tree Studio in New Haven

Today's Guests:
Dr. Jessica Powell is an Assistant Professor of Education in the department of curriculum and learning at Southern Connecticut State University and Co-Director of the Urban Education Fellows Program. Her teaching and researches focuses on issues of social justice, inequity, and teacher preparation.

Tai Olasanoye Is a 9th and 10th grade English and History teacher at Whitney High North, an Aces Regional School for students with social, emotional, and behavioral issues. He graduated with the masters in Education from SCSU in May 2017. He also teaches an intro to education course at SCSU for high school students enrolled in the Gear Up teacher recruitment program.

Rebecca Harmon Is a 1st grade teacher at Nathan Hale school in New Haven. She graduated from SCSU only less than 2 months ago, in December 2017.



Today’s show is part of The Education Project is a special series of stories addressing Equity in Education, both in the community and in schools. This work is supported through an Inspiring Equity in Education Fellowship with the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund.

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