Preparing Teachers for Urban Classrooms
Jacqueline Jordan Irvine is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Urban Education at Emory University. For more than 20 years, her research on the cultural context of teaching and learning and the development of urban teachers has lent new insights to educators on teaching in the nation’s urban school districts.
Jordan Irvine is the founder and director of the Center for Urban Learning/Teaching and Urban Research in Education and Schools, or CULTURES, which the U.S. Department of Education has recognized as a model of best practices in teacher professional development.
Jordan Irvine also is co-director of The Southern Consortium for Educational Research in Urban Schools. Her book, Black Students and School Failure received the 1991 “Outstanding Book Award” from the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education and the “Academic Book of the Year” award from the American Association of College and University Research Librarians.
Her edited volumes include Growing Up African American in Catholic Schools and Critical Knowledge for Diverse Learners. Irvine earned her doctorate from Georgia State University.
Black Issues In Higher Education Senior Writer Michele N-K Collison caught up with Jordan Irvine earlier this month as she gave a lecture at her undergraduate alma mater, Howard University. The following is excerpted from that conversation.
QCan you talk a little about your research for those who are not familiar with you?
AI am a teacher-educator. … My mission is to do research around issues of urban education and, more specifically, I am concerned about issues with teaching African American children, for obvious reasons. Those are the children that tend to do poorest on standardized tests. Those are the children who are labeled as [having] disciplinary problems.
We all know that teaching is about telling, facilitating and delivering knowledge of your field. My work is about identifying what I call different themes of good practice. For example, African American teachers in the tradition of African American culture talk about teaching as a calling. So, they tend to have a more personal attachment to the students that they teach. What I’ve been trying to do is identify these attributes that make a good teacher of African American children.
Part of the problem is the number of African Americans that are going into teaching is pitifully small — they’re going into other fields.
QRecently, the news has been full of reports of the gap in achievement between Black and White
children. What can teachers do to
bridge that gap?
AAmericans tend to see teachers as part of the problem but not part of the solution. I’m very interested in ways to maintain to the African American cultural conception of pedagogy, which is very different from traditional mainstream pedagogy.
The tendency is to say something is wrong with the kids. They’re poor. They come from single-parents families. Or we blame the teachers. We want to blame somebody. Blame the kids, the parents. But none of the research identifies what I talk about “identifying best practices.”
What does work? We already know the things that don’t work. But what does work? In order to understand it, you have to go all the way back to the late 18th, 19th, 20th century to teachers like Lucy Lane [and] Fannie Jackson Cooper. African Americans have a very long history of teaching. So we’re not starting this from scratch. We have a historical context. And to me that is what’s also missing.
There’s also this notion that anything all Black is bad. And because urban schools tend to be mostly Black, people tend to think they’re all bad. But we do know from before Brown v. Board of Education that we had excellent schools. They may have been resource poor, but they had other things to compensate.
QSeveral communities are getting away from busing and desegregation orders. Black parents are starting to say, ‘I don’t care about busing. I want
you to make the school down the street
from me a better school so I can send
my children there.’
AYes, we are, but something is still missing in teacher education. Even if you don’t have busing, what are you going to do when you have an all-Black school and teachers who know nothing about the Black children sitting in front of them? They don’t know anything about them. They don’t have Black friends. They don’t have any kind of relationships with Black people. So if they have these kids, how are they going to teach them? If you don’t know anything about what they know, then how are you going to teach them about making linkages?
These teachers can’t come back with examples and metaphors. When I want to teach you some new skill or new knowledge, I have to connect it with what you already know, something in your own experience that makes illustration or metaphor. If you know nothing about me or what I know, how are you going to teach me physics or biology? The examples you come up with are not out of my cultural repertoire. So even as smart as a White teacher might be, if you can’t make the linkages, you’re not going to be a good teacher.
QWhy does it matter if my children’s teacher is Black? Why can’t the teacher be White?
AI’m not saying a White teacher can’t do it. But where are they going to learn how to do it? Are they going to learn it at Emory? Where exactly is this teacher education program? The professors don’t know. So how are they going to teach the students? Tonight, I talked about the special charge of Black colleges of education. One-third of all Black teachers come out of Black colleges. [These institutions] need encouragement and support and finances to continue their colleges of education.
QBut there are not enough
Black teachers. So how do you
help other teachers who may be teaching Black children?
AWe do what we do at Emory. We help White students. Culture can be learned. Take a White teacher from Montgomery County [Maryland] who goes to Argentina. What do they do? They read about Argentina, they study, they make trips to Argentina. They meet people from Argentina. They talk to people from Argentina.
Teachers need to adopt the same spirit of learning that they adopt when they go to Europe, to Argentina, when they learn about the cultures of other children. But if they don’t think there’s anything to learn, or to appreciate, of course, they don’t learn.
QBut many people don’t think
there is anything to learn from
AThey try to deny cultural heritage, and put it down and say we’re going to teach you to act like White people. That’s equally bad. And when I look out on the street and see all these geniuses among these Black children — and people give up on them. Poor children are thought of as dumb children. There are very brilliant children out in the street. They many not be doing what they’re supposed to be doing. But there are brilliant children out there — brilliant children with untapped potential.
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