Perspectives: Social justice teacher education in an era of division




By David Hernández-Saca

David Hernández-Saca is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at the College of Education. In his scholarly studies, he focuses on learning disabilities, emotion, culture and dis/ability studies in education.

David Hernandez -Saca PerspectivesSince the early months of 2020, each sector of society responded accordingly to meet the demands created by the COVID-19 crisis. However, the pandemic, and its associated effects, have put a spotlight on historical oppressions that Black, Indigenous and People and communities of Color (BIPOC) have had to and continue to deal with, due to the legacies of slavery.

As we enter mid-summer 2021, I, along with many others in the United States, realize we are witnessing more than just the COVID-19 pandemic. Another current pandemic is the wave of anti-critical race theory and “divisive concepts” policy bills introduced and passed through state legislatures, including Iowa’s.

The recent bills are born out of fear and ignorance and do not represent the intellectual foundations of critical race theory which was first introduced into sociological and legal studies by African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bios (1903) and later developed by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1991), an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and a leading scholar. 

As a gay Latinx dis/abled cisgender male dis/ability studies and special education faculty member at the University of Northern Iowa, I see how these bills are further dividing our country along race and other markers of difference. I further recognize that these divisions have a social and emotional dimension within educational contexts as well. I reflect on the urgent need for critical thinking, feeling and reflecting—what we educators call critical emotion praxis as part of social justice-focused teacher education within K-16 education. 

Defining a new normal in midst of crisis  

To put today’s events in historical perspective: After the U.S. Civil War, came a period of reconstruction (1865 to 1877), and after World War II, came a second period of reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement (1945 to 1968). Some have argued we are living in a third reconstruction period for race-relations, spurred by the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.  

During a lecture in January 2021, noted critical race educational theorist and teacher educator Gloria Ladson-Billings, PhD, called for a reset in education given these newfound challenges to justice, and rightly so. She spoke of at least three other pandemics: white supremacy manifested in anti-Black racism; a coming economic collapse; and an environmental/climate catastrophe. Ladson-Billings sees these multiple pandemics as an opportunity to resist going back to “normal,” since "normal" for BIPOC in education was unjust.

As part of a recent podcast with UNI colleagues Scott Ellison, Scott McNamara and graduate student Joyce Levingston, we identified another pandemic: misinformation. Prompted by Ladon-Billings’ challenge to educational equity researchers and teacher educators, we asked: How can we better respond? Individually and collectively? Personally and professionally? 

Today’s bills represent an ongoing historical narrative about the unimportance of identity within U.S. institutions, when nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, we came away from our discussion with the reflection: social justice change doesn’t just happen; it requires sustained activism and work.

Ensuring a human-centered education 

Social justice education is part of that activism. As a social justice educator, it’s really about a mind-and-heart-set and preparing teachers and others in education as reflective leaders who are open, collaborative and sharing and actively seek to create equitable learning spaces. 

One of the things I engage in with my special and inclusive education candidates here at UNI is accounting for critical emotion practice before we act within educational systems and relationships. These include the technical, contextual and critical components of educational practice. 

  • The technical components include the policies and practices such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or the Iowa Common Core
  • Contextual aspects are people, backgrounds, context(s), and local, national and global histories, 
  • Critical components are emotionality, power, privilege, difference, social justice and identities. 

Accounting for all three components is key to ensuring a human-centered education for teacher candidates and their pedagogical practices in K-12 contexts involving students with and without disabilities, especially BIPOC students, so they receive the equal educational opportunities entitled to them under both IDEA and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. Such education should go beyond technical compliance, humanizing our moment-to-moment interactions with self, others and macro-level policies and practices in educational systems. 

Through critical emotion praxis, it is our hope to enable critical consciousness and critical actions within teacher education, and foster vulnerability and courage in our teacher candidates so they have the capacity to reason and process emotions that may come up when engaging in their relationships with their students and implementing equitable educational practices. 

Closing reflection

In the backdrop of current legislation, it is important to apply such a framework across K-12 educational settings and to take a critical, yet humble stance against such fear and ignorance that erases the lived experiences of BIPOC students and communities. Such bills contribute to a culture of silence, fear, and inaction—which perpetuates the survival of structural racism—and represent the opposite of a spirit of democracy. The U.S. spirit should be one of inclusion beyond disability, and one that accounts for intersectional markers that are sources of decolonization, pride, identity, empowerment and transformation.

The future of teacher education, and K-16 and beyond education, should honor the ongoing civil rights movements toward transformative inclusion for ALL. K-16 educational systems would then account for race, gender, LGBTQIAA, and other forms of difference as sources of radical love—respect, knowledge, responsibility and care (Fromm, 2000)—and thus value, instead of fear and stigma, as recent bills represent. We need teacher education programs that account for the full humanity of our students and families.