Rocking the Boat: Preparing Culturally Competent Lutheran Educators

Aug 8th, 2017 | Category: Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Peter Renn

American society continues to become more diverse and our Lutheran teachers must be adequately equipped to serve students of color in the classroom. Many of our Lutheran pre-service teachers, raised in predominantly white communities and congregations, simply lack a deep well of cultural competence. This is not meant as a criticism; however, it does require our Concordia University System (CUS) institutions to be deliberate in their approaches toward preparing Lutheran teachers for classrooms in the 21st century. Terrill and Mark’s (2000) research alarmingly demonstrated that white pre-service teachers preferred white, suburban communities for field experience placements. This preference aligns with Kivel’s (2011) “geography of fear” concept, which posits that our perceptions of the world are based on race, class, and gender (p. 87). Pre-service teachers’ beliefs about diversity often are a result of a lack of interactions and a reliance on stereotypical conceptions created by the mass media and/or family biases (Milner, 2003; Swartz, 2003). This comfort level needs to be challenged by CUS teacher education programs by providing their candidates with field experiences in diverse communities and openly discussing matters of diversity by critically reflecting on these issues and expanding their worldview (Gay, 2010b).

Critical reflection.

Teachers cannot work for freedom on the behalf of others until they are free themselves (West, 1993). This freedom comes as a result of having the knowledge and understanding of their personal biases, prejudices, and limitations. A personal understanding of these factors will benefit any attempt at reflection due to the fact that increased awareness will enable the Lutheran teacher candidate to better analyze motives in decision-making and action taken in the classroom. However, Lutheran pre-service teachers need considerable teacher guidance and support to think critically about the cultural biases they bring to their experiences in schools (Whipp, 2003).

The need to successfully empower Lutheran pre-service teachers to begin reflecting on their beliefs is vital due to the profound influence a teacher has on a child’s learning. When a teacher brings a set of beliefs into a classroom that runs contrary to the students’ backgrounds, then this disconnect runs the risk of alienating children and negatively affecting their schooling experience (Adler, 1998; Burt, Ortlieb, & Cheek, 2009). The reality of this immense responsibility only reinforces the need for Lutheran pre-service teachers to understand how their beliefs are shaped by their own position in society (Hinchey, 2008).

A failure to properly examine the many injustices present in our nation, and their overall effect on student achievement, threatens to create a dangerous complacency within the teaching profession. King (1991) explained how the role of dysconciousness affects an individual’s day-to-day beliefs. Dysconsciousness is an uncritical habit of mind that fails to question practices, beliefs and assumptions, and justifies inequity and inequality as given facts. Individuals who fall prey to this practice fail to critically challenge societal norms and do not propose an alternate solution to the challenges facing people in our society. This dysconsciousness is often found in a school’s curriculum. Where is the information derived? Whose perspective is being portrayed in the text? Pre-service teachers do not realize that some very strong beliefs about cultural diversity can be conveyed through examples frequently used in teaching (e.g., Native Americans, role of African Americans, Western European perspective) (Gay, 2010b).

Critical pedagogy is an alternative to the practice of dysconsciousness as it seeks to analyze the power structures inherent in the practice of schooling and their overall effect in society. It is a way of reflecting and transforming the relationship among classroom teaching, the production of knowledge, the institutional structures of school, and the social and material relationships of the wider community, society and nation (McLaren, 1998). Paulo Freire (1974/2007), a Brazilian educator and philosopher, contributed to this field in a variety of ways, but one of his most influential proposals was his explanation of the concept of conscientization. This notion can best be defined as the “act of coming to critical consciousness” and is a vital component to the practice of critical pedagogy (Freire, 1974/2007, p. 17). It requires individuals to pull back from their lived reality to gain a new perspective on who they are and how they came to be this way (Kincheloe, 2007). Critical consciousness is the awareness that our ideas come from a particular set of life experiences and an acknowledgement of others having equally valid life experiences and ideas (Hinchey, 2008). Advocates of critical consciousness argue that teachers must identify how their racial and cultural identity positions them in relation to educational purpose and the lives of poor and non-white students (Kincheloe, 2007). Critical consciousness permits Lutheran pre-service teachers to address their own identities, explain how factors in their lives have created a lens to view the world, and provide a deeper understanding of the forces that affect the schooling process.

Lutheran pre-service teachers need to reflect on their own beliefs or they will perpetuate current teaching practices and the status quo will be maintained (Florio-Ruane & Lensmire, 1990). This is unacceptable as the student population has changed and many beliefs teachers and children hold are counterproductive to the teaching-learning process (Stuart & Thurlow, 2000, p. 119). There are several approaches to reflection, which encourage individuals to begin scrutinizing their beliefs and responses concerning a multitude of personal and professional practices. However, critical reflective practices hold promise for pre-service teachers to address their own identities and how factors in their lives have shaped their worldview. Brookfield (1995) defined reflection as being critical when it has two distinctive purposes:

  1. An understanding of how considerations of power undergird, frame and distort educational processes and interactions
  2. A questioning of assumptions and practices that seem to make our teaching lives easier, but actually work against our own best long-term (p. 8)

The use of critical reflective practices is based on an approach to teacher education which argues that schools help reproduce a society based on unjust class, race, and gender relations and teachers have a moral obligation to reflect on how their actions support such a system (Valli, 1990, p. 46). It requires Lutheran pre-service teachers to question social arrangements, like school, that are based on inequality and disadvantage (Thompson & Thompson, 2008, p. 27). Any attempt by a CUS teacher education program to incorporate critical reflective practices in course work should have a clear aim in mind. By connecting critical reflection with field experiences, teacher educators can begin the process of assisting Lutheran pre-service teachers to examine their own beliefs as they relate to diversity.

Research on the incorporation of critical reflective practices with field experiences demonstrates the potential for its effectiveness in teacher education. Critical reflection can help Lutheran pre-service teachers examine their beliefs about diversity, connect theory with practice (Coffey, 2010), and adapt teaching practices to meet the needs of their students (Recchia, Beck, Esposito, & Tarrant, 2009). When given the time, permitting Lutheran pre-service teachers to reflect on their own cultural assumptions in substantive ways and holds promise to increase their feelings of efficacy and better prepare them to interact with people from diverse backgrounds (Wenger & Dinsmore, 2005).

Adopting critical reflection within Lutheran teacher preparation programs has the potential to be a transformative practice to better prepare these candidates to effectively engage with students in their future classrooms. Culturally competent Lutheran educators can create a school climate where all students and their families feel valued and respected. What an incredible opportunity to model Christ-like behavior and create an environment to openly share the Word of God. LEJ


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Author Information

Dr. Peter Renn spent 24 years as a Lutheran teacher, administrator, and Concordia University Chicago faculty member. He currently serves as the director of the Center for Professional Education at Seattle Pacific University.

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