An Exploration of Teacher Education, Race, and Equity
A conversation with Crystal Belle, Ph.D.
Posted Feb 28, 2018
I am happy to share this conversation I had with an educator, activist, and teacher educator that I love and respect, Dr. Crystal Belle. In our conversation, we explore teacher education, race, and equity.
Dena: Crystal, in my last post, I ended by asking readers to reflect on the below quotation, and I wanted to begin this conversation by picking up where we left off by asking you for your response to the quotation, given your current work and research in increasing diversity in the teaching force?
The best of the Negro teachers will largely go because they will not and cannot teach what many white folks will long want taught. -W.E.B. Du. Bois, 1954
Crystal: This quote speaks volumes to me for many reasons, but particularly because it addresses the ways that Black teachers are pushed out of a career in education before they get their feet in the door. Most urban public schools are dominated by white middle-class women. As the Director of Urban Teacher Education at Rutgers University-Newark, one of my goals is to encourage a more colorful teaching force. In the age of standardized testing and state demands on teacher performance at every step of the way, it is very hard to recruit students in general in teacher education programs. When it comes to recruiting more Black/Brown students in particular, some of them are coming from oppressive K-12 backgrounds. As such, they are turned off from the classroom experience because of how they were treated. This is not the experience for all, but certainly some. Because many teachers and school leaders are middle-class white people without any prior training in cultural competence, many of their standards of excellence are wrapped in white supremacy. Thus, Du Bois is alluding to Black teachers being held to standards of white supremacy in the classroom, which will lead to their departure from the profession.
Dena: Like you, I think it is critically important to recruit more Black and Brown educators in the field, as this diversity benefits all students. The National Center for Education Statistics revealed that about half of our nation's students are children of color while only 18 percent of our teachers are of color. Those numbers are troubling for multiple reasons—some of what you discussed in your response already. Despite the problematic nature of our schooling in this nation, you and I went into teaching anyway. I am curious to learn what inspired you to go into education and do the work and research with which you are engaged now.
Crystal: I was inspired to go into education because I have always loved learning. I was the kid who cried when school was closed. As a proud lifelong nerd, school was always an exciting place for me. As such, after a short stint in journalism, I went into teaching because I’ve always loved being in schools! When I am in a school or university setting, it doesn’t always feel like work per se but rather an opportunity for me to teach, grow, and build upon providing the best education to urban students. As a Brooklynite who grew up in Flatbush, my love for urban communities is both personal and political. There is a dominant stigma that regards “urban” as “bad,” however, one of the original definitions of urban is directly connected to easy access to public transportation, affordable housing and cultural cuisine, to name a few things.
My research explores various aspects of Black masculinities, literacies, and poetry-as-research. I saw many of the men in my life struggle in school, and it was not because they were not intelligent, but rather that they were misunderstood and mistreated in schools through the curriculum and through the control of their Black bodies. Because I am a poet, literacies and using poetry as a research tool are my critical tools of exploration.
Dena: Your research sounds fascinating. Thank you for sharing! I agree that it is critically important to shift the problematic narrative of Black and Brown youth. If I could shift gears just a bit, could you tell me what the impetus was for you to be in teacher education, in particular?
Crystal: I started my career in education 12 years ago. From the moment I started, I knew that teaching students was one of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my life. The more years I taught, the more I became fascinated by how teachers actually teach and why. During my years as a teacher, I led various pedagogical workshops for teachers at local schools as well as universities. Fellow educators and scholars responded well to ideas that came intrinsically to me. That was the beginning of my drive to become a teacher educator.
Dena: I ask this last question to everyone, and I guess I save the hardest one for last, but if you had to list three to five steps that we can take to get closer to equity in education, what would you list?
The three steps that I believe we can take to get closer to equity in education would be the following:
- It’s important to practice a pedagogy of love, which operates under the notion that in order to teach well we must love our students fully.
- Teachers must realize that our self-care and self-love are vital to the kinds of educators we become. I have a YouTube channel called Self Love 101 that intentionally investigates how we see the world based on the way we love ourselves and others. Teachers need to understand that loving ourselves and reflecting on our flaws are essential to transforming education and striving for educational equity. It is through self-love and self-care that we are able to aptly discover our own biases.
- It is critical to acknowledge that race matters. In the current standardized testing race nationwide, we must examine the ways that Black/Brown youth in particular are targeted as inferior to everyone else in education. We know that is not true; however, in order to shift the narrative, we must be willing to have reflexive dialogue about race in classrooms everywhere, all the time.
Here are some more of my thoughts on teacher education and diversity:
Belle, C. (2016). Don’t believe the hype: Hip-Hop literacies and English education. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 60(3), 287-294.