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Negotiating a Teaching Identity: An African American Teacher's Struggle to Teach in Test-Driven Contexts

by Jane Agee - 2004

This case study examines the experiences of a young African American English teacher over 3 years as she tried to teach multicultural literature. The study began in her senior year of college when she was enrolled in a progressive undergraduate preservice program in English education and continued through her first 2 years as a high school English teacher. In the university program, she expressed a desire to teach multicultural literature, to use constructivist approaches to teaching that built on students' personal experiences, and to broaden students' understanding of racial and cultural differences. Yet in her preservice teaching as well as in her first 2 years as a teacher, she found her goals difficult to implement. Her envisioned identity as a teacher who would help students to understand and celebrate racial diversity began to unravel as she struggled with the demands of school policies, mandated assessments, and racial bias. Teacher identity, as described here, is a discursive space where an imagined role is negotiated among possible roles. In this case, a young African American teacher found her imagined teacher identity thwarted by state mandates, mainstream constructions of a teacher role, and ideologies of curriculum and assessment. Her story speaks to the gap between progressive teacher education programs and the demands of mandated, high-stakes tests on schools and teachers. One result of mandated tests is their tendency to silence diverse points of view, a factor that may further contribute to the lack of teachers of color in American schools.

This article describes the tensions that Tina Wages, a young African American woman, encountered as she made the transition from a preservice teacher education program in English Education into her first and second years of teaching English in a public high school.1 Tina, a 21- year-old undergraduate when I first met her, was one of only two Black students in the preservice English education program at a large state university. Along with several other students in the program, she initially volunteered to participate in my 9-month study of preservice students in the English education program to examine their perspectives on reading and teaching literature. She later volunteered to continue the study after she accepted a teaching position at a large suburban high school.

As I observed Tina’s preservice literature class, it was clear in the class conversations and other data that many White students resisted the professor’s insistent messages about creating a more diverse literature curriculum and using student-centered methods of learning. Many of her White classmates wanted to teach canonical literature and work with academically advanced students. Although some saw multicultural literature as important, it was not the central focus of their imagined curricula but an addition. Tina, in contrast, saw multicultural literature as the centerpiece of her imagined curriculum, and the constructivist methods advocated by the professor offered her strategies for engaging students in discussions on culturally diverse texts. She especially wanted to use such methods with disadvantaged students to bring their voices and interests into the classroom. She also had concerns, unlike her White peers, about how she, a Black English teacher, would be positioned by the attitudes of White parents of students in mixed race classrooms. I was interested in working with Tina because her views on teaching literature differed in substantive ways from those of her White peers in the preservice program.

The focus of this case study is Tina’s struggle to construct a teaching identity and a multicultural literature curriculum amid a larger context of public policies that mandated a narrow definition of official knowledge (Apple, 1991). As Apple noted, the relationship between education and power is manifest in the ‘‘struggles by women, people of color, and others. . . to have their history included in the curriculum’’ (p. 2). The problems that she encountered in her early teaching experiences speak to these struggles and to recent debates on the impact of mandated assessments on teachers and students. Her story illustrates how dominant ideologies not only resist change but also can, in the guise of high stakes tests, present themselves as necessities. Her experiences also provide insight into how preservice preparation, even in a progressive program, fell short. She was not prepared for the constraints on teaching and learning that accompany testing agendas nor for the ethical decisions she would face.

As I observed Tina’s struggles, my research questions changed. Initially I was interested in preservice teachers’ perspectives on reading and teaching literature. However, as I continued to work with Tina during her first 2 years in the classroom, I focused on a second question: How is Tina, as an African American teacher who ended up teaching in a suburban school, able to develop her teaching identity in her first 2 years of teaching? Tina’s experiences also prompted larger questions: How do national and state policies that shape standards and assessments influence teacher identity formation, especially for teachers who want to use more diverse texts and approaches? Are teacher education programs unintentionally maintaining a White, Euro-American hegemony with discourse that makes teachers of color and their perspectives on curriculum invisible? Tina was in a preservice program that advocated constructivist methods and multi-cultural education, but the readings and the discussions in her literature class rarely addressed ideological issues surrounding mandated testing. Moreover, the teacher education texts used in the course made recommendations for using diverse texts or teaching diverse students based on the assumption that preservice teachers are White.


Three areas of theory and research frame this case study. First, identity theory, as it relates to teacher identity, offered ways to gain insight into Tina’s vision of Self as teacher and the conflicts that she experienced. Second, scholarship by educators of color served to frame Tina’s story against a larger story of racial bias and struggle. Finally, the literature on mandated assessments situated Tina’s struggle within concerns about racial bias and fairness that have been articulated in recent years.


Research on teachers has shown that they bring their unique histories to their pedagogy (e.g., Agee, 1998, 2000a, 2000b; Zancanella, 1991). Fully understanding practice, Goodson (1992) observed, requires understanding teachers’ histories. I propose that a teacher also brings a desire to construct a unique identity as a teacher and that in the various contexts of her work; she negotiates and renegotiates that identity.

I drew on the broader literature on identity to examine this beginning teacher’s construction of a teacher identity, especially as it relates to social and ethical concerns. For instance, many postmodern scholars such as Gergen (1989) argue that the self is constructed among shifting social contexts that make demands on an individual’s agency, social responsibility, and ethical positioning.

The ethical and social dimensions of identity, absent in earlier theories, are crucial factors in determining individual actions. Shotter (1989), for example, saw the Self as constructed in response to a sense of Other: ‘‘I act not simply ‘out of ’ my own plans and desires, unrestricted by the social circumstances of my performances . . . . My action in being thus ‘situated’ takes on an ethical or moral quality’’ (p. 144). This ethical positioning accounts for ‘‘communally shared ways of . . . making-sense [that] are deeply constitutive of people’s social and psychological being in quite a deep way’’ (p. 142). For Tina, though, communally shared understandings of students’ needs that were constructed in faculty meetings worked against her goals for teaching.

Race complicated Tina’s struggle to develop a teaching identity in schools where White mainstream values prevailed. As W. E. B. DuBois (1903/1969) noted, African Americans possess a dual consciousness: as Americans and as Blacks. This duality produced ‘‘a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment’’ (p. 221). Tina’s effort to construct a teacher identity reflects this duality as she wrestled with ideological and ethical conflicts that emerged as she sought to implement a multicultural curriculum and constructivist methods in schools where the value of traditional texts and methods were tied to mainstream norms and success on high-stakes tests.


Critical theory and research on African American teachers highlight some the dilemmas of they face as they construct themselves in relation to their students, colleagues, school, and community. Delpit (1995) observed that the teachers of color she studied not only had perspectives on teaching that differed from those of White teachers, but they also experienced racial bias on many levels. That bias, as Ladson-Billings (1996) noted, can position a Black teacher as an outsider even in discussions about multicultural education. As an example, she told of a White colleague who once claimed he could probably address or teach race, class, and gender more successfully than she [Ladson-Billings], a Black teacher, because students would perceive his approach as scholarly; whereas they would see a Black teacher as self-interested, bitter, or having a political agenda (p. 79). This experience speaks to the complex situations, rarely addressed in research on teaching, which Black teachers encounter.

Ladson-Billings (2000) argued that part of the problem in education is the reliance on generic, supposedly culturally neutral models of pedagogy that do little to address students’ racial or ethnic differences. Part of the problem, as Bartolome´ and Trueba (2000) noted, is that in the large literature on teacher knowledge and beliefs, there are ‘‘few systematic attempts to examine the political and ideological dimensions of teachers’ ‘beliefs’ and ‘attitudes’ and how these worldviews are part of a particular ideological orientation’’ (p. 280). I would add to these arguments that educators need to address narrow, ideological conceptions of teachers and to question hegemonic mechanisms that reinforce those conceptions.

Although little research has appeared on African American preservice and novice teachers of English, King (1993) and others (see Delpit, 1995; Franklin, 1987; Graham, 1987; Irvine, 1988) called for more attention to the problems of recruitment and retention of non-White teachers. King’s (1993) review of research on the declining numbers of minority teachers reveals many potential obstacles, from limited financial aid and traditionally low pay scales for teachers to issues such as teacher competency tests and licensing procedures. Shaw’s (1996) study of two Black students who elected to pursue college teaching rather than secondary school teaching confirmed earlier findings that lack of status and pay accounted in part for high attrition rates for teachers of color.

Yet the problems facing teachers of color are not always easy to identify because they are often deeply embedded in the very discourse that is used in teacher education. For example, Bartolome´ and Trueba (2000) pointed out that prospective teachers are generally prepared for teaching in schools of education that, in spite of their good intentions, neglect to offer the means to gain ‘‘ideological clarity’’ on teaching as a political act (p. 287). Thus, many beginning teachers enter their first classrooms having had few discussions on the ideologies implicit in curriculum and assessment or what strategies they might use to encourage real learning in a test-driven context. Without this preparation, novice teachers often have few choices once they are in the classroom except to follow what seems to be a pragmatic agenda. For a novice teacher of color who wants to introduce multicultural literature, these issues are doubly complicated by race and by the hegemony of curriculum and assessments that promote a narrow view of what kinds of texts and knowledge are important.


Tina’s story also reflects larger debates in education about educational policies that shape curricula and assessments. In recent years, educators have disagreed about what kinds of literature should be selected for secondary school English curricula and whose culture should be represented in school texts and discourses (e.g., Apple, 1979; Banks, 1997; Gee, 1996; Graff, 1992; Sims, 1982). Key issues in these debates ultimately center on the ideological propositions that drive assessment and how assessment, in turn, drives curricular decisions about text selections and methods of teaching.

In 1994, the Goals 2000 federal law, forced states to implement academic standards and testing to measure achievement. The more recent No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 takes these federal mandates and the resulting increased state-mandated testing one step further by instituting severe consequences for ‘‘failing schools.’’ One consistent critique of these new and strict accountability laws is that the policy makers who create them rarely consider socioeconomic disparities across schools or differing ideas about what counts as knowledge. Fortunately a number of researchers are questioning the full impact of standards and standardized tests on teachers and students (e.g., Hess & Brigham, 2000; Kohn, 1999; Ramirez, 1999). These authors concur that students and their learning environments are far from standard and that mandated assessments often serve to reinforce inequities rather than address them.

Mandated testing has also exacerbated long-standing debates on the hegemony of a White, mainstream curriculum. Scholars such as Gates (1992), Sims (1982), Willis and Harris (2000) argue that a curriculum should reflect diverse peoples and authentic experiences, a kind of literature that Sims (1982) calls ‘‘culturally conscious.’’ Looking more broadly at curriculum, Banks (1997) argued not just for multicultural content but also for policy that institutes a ‘‘transformative academic knowledge’’ (p. 72). Such policy questions ‘‘mainstream knowledge’’ and broadens ‘‘the historical and literary canon’’ (p. 72). However, high stakes tests and other factors tend to work against such transformations by predicating academic success entirely on canonical knowledge.

Gee (1996) described the function of such tests as both a reinforcement of dominant discourses and as a form of gatekeeping:

Very often dominant groups in a society apply rather constant tests of the fluency of the dominant Discourses in which their power is symbolized; these tests become tests of natives or, at least fluent users of the Discourse, and gates to exclude non-natives. . . . Non-mainstream students and their teachers are in a bind. (p. 146)

In examining the experiences of this novice teacher, issues surrounding race, the development of a teaching identity, and the far-reaching impact of mandated tests framed her dilemmas against larger debates in education. Racial tensions are especially important in understanding how teachers of color, as Delpit (1995) and Ladson-Billings (2000) noted, are positioned by a societal lack of understanding or interest in perspectives that differ from those accepted as ‘‘normal’’ by White policy makers, teachers, students, and parents. For a Black teacher, a curricular focus on White, mainstream ideas and texts in the service of testing agendas is emblematic of deeper societal tensions about what counts in school and in American society. This study examines some of those tensions, especially how ideologies implicit in mandated curricula and testing shaped a young Black teacher’s teaching identity.


This study is primarily phenomenological in that it examines an Africa American teacher’s experiences during her induction into the teaching profession. The primary focus is on the tensions that emerged as Tina’s developing teacher identity and her goals for teaching literature collided with mandated testing. Because I was interested in capturing her voice and experiences, I developed an interpretive case study, a rich description of her changing perspectives ‘‘with the intent of analyzing, interpreting, or theorizing’’ their significance (Merriam, 1998, p. 38). I used qualitative methods to elicit Tina’s history, her goals for teaching, her concerns, and her perspectives on the contexts in which she developed her ideas on teaching.

I spent 3 years observing and interviewing Tina. The first year focused on her preservice experiences, and the second and third years on her experiences in her first job as an English teacher in a public high school. During the study, my role was that of a researcher. I had no responsibilities for teaching or evaluating her before, during, or after the study.

I chose to work with Tina beyond the larger study of a cohort of preservice English teachers to learn more about her experiences as a novice teacher of color. As a White researcher and teacher educator, I wanted to have a better understanding of how teacher educators might support teachers of color. I know of no longitudinal studies that focus on the developing identity of non-White English teachers. This study attempts to bridge that gap.


Data for the first year included eight audiotaped interviews with Tina and one with each of her cooperating teachers, as well as and videotapes of Tina teaching on 2 consecutive days in a class of ninth graders, fieldnotes made during observations of her teaching in other classes, fieldnotes on weekly field-center seminars, and documents such as lesson plans and the planning log which she kept during her preservice teaching. During the second year (her first year of teaching), data included fieldnotes from observations of three classes in which she was teaching literature, four taped interviews, as well as documents such as lesson plans and tests. During the third year (her second year of teaching), data included fieldnotes from seven classes while she was teaching literature and five taped interviews. The final interview at the end of the year included reflections on her preservice experience and her transition into the profession.

The interviews with Tina were generally semi-structured, relying on questions about what I had observed in her classes, what I had read in her log or other written artifacts, and seen as her emerging concerns. In interviews after observations, I used questions that probed for her responses to amplify, confirm, or clarify my perspectives. Throughout the interviews, my questions were directed toward understanding her developing teacher identity and how larger contexts affected her understanding of her role as a teacher.


I analyzed the data using a method of analysis─ constant comparison and grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990)─ that is consistent with longitudinal qualitative research. Constant comparison analysis allowed the voice of Tina to emerge from multiple ‘‘constructed realities’’ (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) across time and across different contexts. With this method, comparisons generally are made with incidents, assertions, and events, as they occur, comparing them with prior ones. However, other comparisons can be made. As Strauss and Corbin (1990) noted, an actual event can be compared with theoretical dimensions. That idea was particularly useful in comparing Tina’s imagined role and actions against what she believed were the mainstream expectations for teachers and then comparing those against what actually happened in the classrooms where she taught. These analyses led to grounded theories about what factors shaped Tina’s imagined teacher identity and how various events and contexts affected her development of that identity.


When Tina entered the English education program as a college senior, she wanted to be a change maker who would promote racial understanding through multicultural literature as well as a role model for African American students. She believed it was important to help them understand that overcoming difficulty was possible. She credited her parents for shaping her attitude: ‘‘My parents always taught me to be proud of myself. They always taught me to never let people run over me, and so that’s why I think a lot of times, I’m very outspoken.’’ She said this sense of confidence about who she was, instilled by her parents, helped her to maintain her identity in a largely White university.

Tina had also attended secondary schools that were predominantly White where the literature curricula had consistently positioned her as an outsider. Her English classes, she noted, focused almost solely on White Euro-American literature with small tokens of African American literature. She recalled that this curriculum was ‘‘lacking.’’ She remembered reading The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, an assigned reading in seventh or eighth grade, which she saw as an overused token in a largely Euro-centric curriculum: ‘‘I got tired of that kind of literature, and I was looking for another world.’’ Tina found another world, not through school literature but through the public library and a network of African American friends. She said, ‘‘I don’t think that I really started just reading for the sake of reading until I got into high school.’’ At that point, she had friends who introduced her to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison: ‘‘I remember we would take Richard Wright’s novels and just share them.’’

This book sharing with friends outside school played an important role in her developing a more critical view of literature. She discovered that ‘‘my people have something to say, too.’’ She said, ‘‘We can write things that are so profound, and a lot of times I just can’t see that in . . . as one teacher said, dead White guys . . . so I think that’s something that I personally identify with and that’s what I choose to read.’’ She felt that personal connection was central to engagement with literature.

College offered her the opportunity to choose from a broader spectrum of literature and challenged her to consider some of the critical issues surrounding the study of literature:

I think it [multicultural literature] was so exciting because you really got into the lives of someone else, and you saw people struggling, and you can personally identify with them. Even though I come from like a middle-class background . . . I got to experience life through different people’s eyes that I haven’t come into contact with before.

The multicultural literature she encountered as a college student also offered her new possibilities for thinking about literature as a tool to help people understand the lives of those from another race or culture. She believed that the insights she gained from reading multicultural literature could transform her future students’ views on people from different races and ethnic groups.


The secondary school literature course in which Tina was enrolled as part of her preservice program helped her to affirm her position on teaching multicultural literature and offered her constructivist methods for achieving the kind of student engagement that she valued. The professor’s main goal for the course, he explained in an interview, was to ‘‘help students see themselves less as purveyors of knowledge about literature and more as experienced readers who are capable of orchestrating and structuring experiences that will help young readers gain confidence and power as readers.’’ To do this, he emphasized contemporary multicultural literature and a constructivist approach rather than what he called a traditional, transmission approach where a teacher dispenses knowledge through lectures. The ideas he advocated resonated with Tina’s goals and her envisioned identity as a teacher.

The professor was noted for his energetic stance on controversial issues surrounding the teaching of literature and for leading students toward confronting their own biases. Unlike other classes in this program, this one consisted of assignments that would push students to examine their assumptions about what kinds of literature should be taught in schools and how it should be read.2 These assignments gave Tina an opportunity to define her stance and to express some of her concerns about teaching English. Although many students were uncomfortable with the professor’s goal of challenging their assumptions, Tina found his approach refreshing.

When the professor invited the students to write to him about their concerns early in the course, Tina focused on how she might approach multicultural literature in her future classroom:

I believe that [it] is important that students be exposed to all types of literature. . . . I’m interested in how you would introduce multi-culturalism in the classroom. Do you recommend that teachers explain to students why they are reading a particular novel, or do teachers simply need to carry on with the novel without giving any type of explanation?

Tina explained that her concern arose from an incident in her younger sister’s class at a predominantly White junior high school: ‘‘When her teacher decided to have the students read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, many parents became upset and wanted to know the significance of the book.’’ Tina made it clear she wanted to be an agent of change, someone who could prevent such scenarios: ‘‘I want this class to prepare me to teach English literature. I want new and innovative ideas, or ideas that differ from the way I was taught in high school.’’

The professor did not respond directly to Tina’s or to other students’ concerns on an individual basis but summarized the major themes from their letters in a later class discussion─ such as concerns about using constructivist methods and losing control of a class or not knowing enough to teach. However, he did not address Tina’s fear of being challenged for teaching multicultural literature. She returned to the incident in her sister’s class in an interview after this class discussion, calling the situation in her sister’s class ‘‘outrageous.’’

At the end of the course, she still expressed fears of objections from White parents. She said, ‘‘I know I’ll probably be challenged a lot, even from parents, because there are still a lot of people out there that are still close minded.’’ Black teachers, she commented, were caught in a precarious situation: ‘‘What they are faced with is, ‘Well, why are you teaching this book, or why are you teaching that book? It’s really not important. You should be teaching such and such.’’’ Her comments underscored her attempt to balance what she knew about bias in schools with her vision for a different curriculum.

Tina began to formulate a defense for her position on multicultural literature in her written work for the class. For example, after reading several assigned articles on teaching multicultural texts, she wrote a short paper titled ‘‘Multiculturalism.’’ She began by objecting to the perspectives of some of the authors of the articles she had read: ‘‘My question is what determines ‘mainstream’ literature? And, are we to assume that literature that is not considered ‘mainstream’ inferior?’’ She believed the views of the authors of some of the articles she was required to read were flawed because they treated multicultural literature as an add-on to the literature curriculum: ‘‘I do not subscribe to views such as teaching literature written by and about those who are not of European descent by itself as a separate unit or theme, for I believe that simply infers that this literature is different; thus, it must be handled separately.’’ She concluded that her goal was to ‘‘include all types of literature written by all ethnic groups, and the only distinction that I am willing to make in my decision to teach a particular novel is by genres, movements, or geographical locations.’’ Articulating this goal helped her toward constructing her identity as a teacher who could use multicultural literature as an integral part of the curriculum to broaden students’ understanding of racial and ethnic diversity.

In contrast to the comment cited previously, Tina’s reflection in her learning log revealed her struggle to determine how she could meet institutionalized expectations for English teachers such as teaching canonical literature and standard grammatical constructions while developing the teaching identity she imagined: ‘‘As future professionals, we must bear in mind that literary devices and grammar are part of the lingo in our profession, and although there needs to be a great change in how we define successful English teachers, this is the reality that we as teachers must face.’’ Although she acknowledged that a ‘‘great change’’ was needed, Tina ended her reflection by writing about what she saw as very real constraints in making such a change, ‘‘We all want our students to experience literature, but we cannot emphasize this and short change them on what they will be expected to do in many settings. The bottom line is to be creative and learn to work around these parameters that we call literary devices and grammar.’’ For Tina parameters such as teaching canonical literature and grammar were central to larger cultural expectations for what English teachers should teach and what students should know. Her reference to ‘‘how we define successful English teachers’’ as a ‘‘reality’’ underscores the power of institutionalized constructions on her developing teacher identity.

In spite of Tina’s enthusiasm for the course and her strong stance on teaching multicultural literature, the realities of school as Tina knew them did not match up with the progressive ideas advocated by her professor and her course readings. The literature course, even with a focus on multicultural literature, did not deal with the perspectives of non-White teachers. As a result, Tina was uncertain about how a teacher of color might negotiate the politics of mainstream school settings. She questioned whether she could become the kind of teacher she envisioned and the kind of teacher advocated by the professor and the class readings in a test-driven context:

I am very concerned with promoting personal experience with literature; however, I do believe that I would be doing my students a disservice if I do not expose them to literary devices. . . . If we ignore these aspects of English, how will our students be prepared for other classes? What about those standardized tests that are not just representations of students’ abilities? These areas of literature are indeed on these tests.

Even though she was enthusiastic about the potential of multicultural literature and constructivist methods, she was unable to see how she could reconcile them with more traditional methods like literary analysis. She knew from her own experiences that standardized tests focused primarily on canonical works and interpretations and were key measures of both students and teachers.

In spite of her questions and concerns, at the end of the course, Tina still clung to her idea that teaching diverse literature was a powerful tool for change. She wrote in her journal:

Some believe that literature has the power to change people’s beliefs, and that could be dangerous depending on what they read. I submit that if we teach students to be thinkers as opposed to believing whatever they are told, then we will not have a society of ignorant people who follow blindly without question which . . . has been the case on numerous occasions in the history of the world.

Thus her mission as a teacher was deeply complicated before she entered a classroom. She wanted to change the literature curriculum and help students become thinkers, and she also wanted to help them do well with traditional skills like literary analysis and perform well on standardized tests. Some would argue that these goals need not be incompatible, but for Tina, they proved to be an ideological minefield. She would find that her goals were incompatible with the mainstream ideologies driving curriculum and assessment.


In mid-January, when Tina filled out a preference form titled ‘‘Who I Think I Am; What I Think I Want In a Cooperating Teacher’’ for her university supervisor, she checked African American literature and multicultural literature as ‘‘special interests.’’ However, in the margin beside multicultural literature, she wrote, ‘‘a little.’’ On a list of self-descriptors, each set up as a continuum between two extremes, she put an asterisk close to the descriptor ‘‘Prefer diverse population of kids.’’ Beside the descriptor, she wrote, ‘‘Prefer kids like me. There’s not a lot in [Sanders County].’’ When I asked her to talk about why her comment about teaching multicultural literature was such a contrast to what she had written in the secondary school literature class, she explained that the course emphasized ideal situations:

He’s [the professor’s] preparing us for, I think, idealistically how education should really be. I don’t know if it will ever get that way. I don’t know if it will get that way while I’m teaching, but I really think he made some good points.

She clearly realized the large gap between the ideal constructivist, multicultural education her professor had advocated and what she would probably encounter in public school classrooms.

Tina’s realization was drawn from what she knew of institutional standards through her prior experiences in school. She understood that mandated tests would have serious consequences for her students’ future lives. She recalled her own experiences─ ‘‘I remember we would have poems on standardized tests’’─ and lamented the consequences of tests that called for superficial learning: ‘‘I know it’s sad, but you’re caught in the middle. Do you try and go into depth, or do you say, ‘Okay, we’ve covered it?’’’ At this point, she saw no clear answer. Tina believed she was ‘‘caught in the middle’’ because no matter what kind of curriculum or teaching identity she envisioned or what her preservice program advocated, as a teacher she would be expected to help all students prepare for standardized tests that focused on canonical texts and knowledge. Thus she found herself in the middle of an epistemological dilemma as she entered her first teaching experience.

Aware of Tina’s concern about the predominately White student population (approximately 90%) in Sanders County, her university supervisor assigned her to Armstrong High School for her student teaching. Armstrong was one of the few schools in the county-wide district with a racially diverse population (approximately 65% White, 28% African American, and 7% other). Except for one Black teacher, the faculty was all White. In contrast to many of the newer schools in the county, Armstrong seemed worn and cramped.

Tina’s initial fears about teaching in the largely white Sanders County school district seemed to subside once she visited Armstrong. However her racial identity and her desire to teach literature from a different perspective eventually put her into an uncomfortable space as she tried to implement her goals.


The dissonance between what Tina had learned about teaching literature during her secondary school literature class at the university and what she was actually practicing in her classes at Armstrong created an ongoing dilemma for her:

He [the professor] would probably croak if he was evaluating me [laughs] at the back of the class . . . just having them do study questions and things like that. I still think it is wonderful for students to experience literature; however, you have to be realistic and say, ‘‘Okay, maybe if I had them for a whole year, then I could start off with study questions and move on to a more modern way of doing things.’’

She consistently framed her problem in terms of adapting to ‘‘reality,’’ a term that served as a code word for White, mainstream ideologies.

Her cooperating teacher during her preservice teaching experience was suffering with a health problem that caused her to miss many classes. Tina had to take over as the primary teacher much of the time. The gap between what she hoped to enact and what she confronted as a Black teacher became apparent in one of the classes that she had taken over for her cooperating teacher.

The 10th-grade class met in a room far too small for the 25 adolescents who occupied it. Although the students in the class were predominantly White, three were African American, two Asian American, and one Iranian. Tina had found no selections by African American authors or about African Americans in the class anthology. However, she found an old class set of Alas, Babylon (Frank, 1988) in the book storage room. She decided to use it because it dealt with the relationship of two characters, one Black and one White, and how the racist attitudes of the time shaped their interactions.

Tina’s lesson plan in this class centered on the first chapters of Alas, Babylon. The novel tells the story of a nuclear strike against the United States and of a small group of people in a Florida town who struggled to survive in the wake of devastation. In the novel, Malachi Henry, a Black man, and his family are introduced as ‘‘a special problem’’ for Randy Bragg. Randy, the main character, is White and lives off substantial proceeds from the family citrus groves. Missouri Henry, Malachi’s mother is Randy’s housekeeper. Randy describes his relationship with the Henrys as special; they were ‘‘closer to him than any family in Fort Repose’’ (p. 47).

Yet the relationship of these life-long friends was limited by the racial prejudices of the era, a situation Randy reflects on at length:

From the days when they fished and hunted together, he had always felt close to Malachi. They could still work in the grove, side by side, and discuss as equals the weather and the citrus and fishing but never any longer [could they] share any personal, any important matters. They could not talk politics or women or finances. (p. 48)

In the part of the novel that the students had just read, Randy is startled to discover that Malachi reads news magazines, service journals, and out-of-state papers. Randy is incredulous as he had ‘‘never realized that Malachi read anything except the San Marco Sun’’ (p. 49).

After a student read aloud the passage about the early relationship between Randy and Malachi, Tina sought to further explore the historical and racial implications of their relationship. She asked, ‘‘How does Malachi address Randy?’’ A White male student laughed, looked around at his peers, and said, ‘‘Oh, Master Mighty.’’ Other students laughed, but some stared at their desks, obviously embarrassed. Tina firmly asserted, ‘‘No, he doesn’t call him Master Mighty. Look it up in the book, Morgan.’’ The student grimaced, looked at his book, and mumbled, ‘‘Sorry.’’

Tina continued her efforts and asked the students to think about when the novel was written and how the values of this era influenced their relationship: ‘‘What about his relationship now? What’s the difference?’’ She asked Andy, a White student, to read the passage about their relationship to the class. Afterwards, she asked, ‘‘Yet he couldn’t talk politics and women with him. Why do you think he feels this way?’’ Andy said, ‘‘Because he was an Indian. He probably wasn’t too intelligent on the subject.’’ Tina shot back, ‘‘Who was an Indian?’’ Andy said, ‘‘Malachi.’’

Tina looked incredulous, ‘‘Malachi’s an Indian?’’ Other students began saying, ‘‘No, no, he’s Black.’’ Tina looked at Andy and said, ‘‘He’s an African American.’’ A group of male students near Andy broke into laughter. Andy slouched in his desk and retorted, ‘‘He’s like a native.’’ Tina asked, ‘‘Why do you think that?’’ Another male student said, ‘‘Maybe he doesn’t think he’s smart enough.’’ Tina replied, ‘‘Smart enough? Could it just be his mental abilities?’’ She ended the discussion by calling attention to the passage about Malachi’s reading habits: ‘‘Do you think Malachi is as unintelligent as some people thought before?’’ Several students said, ‘‘No.’’ She closed by asking, ‘‘So could this be used as evidence that it’s just a sign of the times? Does Randy appear to be a racist person?’’ A number of students answered in unison, ‘‘No.’’ Rather than the honest exploration of differences that Tina had hoped for in discussions of the book, the study question on Randy Bragg and Malachi Henry led to embarrassment and resistance on the part of some students.

After viewing the videotape of this class, Tina said she was chagrined about the behavior of a few of the students. She framed the events as an inevitable management problem: ‘‘It is a prime example that everything doesn’t always go according to plan, and some kids are going to be in one of their moods and try you, and you have to deal with it.’’ She seemed unwilling to talk about the racial tensions surrounding the lesson.

Although Tina went into her preservice teaching wanting to teach multicultural literature and to enact more student-centered strategies, she encountered not only racial bias but conflicts within herself about what she wanted to do as a teacher and what was possible. Teaching multicultural literature to broaden students’ perspectives on the world was more difficult than she had anticipated. Moreover, she had little guidance about how to handle racially motivated student resistance and a lack of available multicultural texts. Graduation and a job offer to teach high school English promised a fresh start. She would be teaching 10th and 11th graders in her new job. The school was more racially diverse and in a different district, but she would find that she was facing the task of preparing her students for a statewide graduation test.


The following fall, Tina began her teaching career at Newton High School, a suburban school in another city with about 1,500 students. In contrast to Armstrong, Newton was more racially diverse (approximately 58% Black, 36% White, and 6% other), and the administration actively recruited Tina because they were making an effort to hire more Black teachers. At the time that Tina was hired the new district superintendent and the assistant principal of the high school were Black and supported increased teacher diversity in the district. She believed she was finally going to be able to teach multicultural literature and to construct a more student-centered curriculum. Although she would be the only teacher of color in the English department, she said the department had been very supportive of her desire to teach multicultural literature in their initial meetings.

At the same time that Tina was interviewing, all schools districts in the state were learning the results of a state-mandated graduation test that had been implemented just two years before she began teaching. It required that all students seeking a high school diploma pass tests in English/ language arts, mathematics, social studies, and writing in their junior year of high school. Schools with large numbers of students falling below the pass rate were publicly identified as ‘‘failing’’ and fell under state review and remediation.

I first observed Tina teaching a required ninth-grade English class with mixed ability level students. The students were reading Zora Neal Hurston’s short story ‘‘Sweat.’’ Tina had found the story in a collection of multicultural literature and photocopied it for her classes, but in an interview she expressed misgivings about using the story with this class She said, ‘‘I was hesitant about teaching it to this particular class because of the dynamics of the class, with its being a predominately White class.’’ She said she did not want to rely on racial stereotypes, but she believed that White students might respond differently. ‘‘The story,’’ she said, ‘‘is written using the Black vernacular English or Black dialect. . . . I didn’t want them to think that this story is not on the level of the literature that we should be reading.’’ She was concerned with how she could defend African American literature and show that it was as worthy of study and analysis as canonical Euro-American literature. She realized when teaching at Armstrong that students had racial biases that shaped their ideas about the literature curriculum.

Her worries about White students’ possible denigration of African-American literature came up several times during this interview and in other data as well. With Hurston’s short story, Tina wanted her ninth-grade students to see that it had some of the same characteristics as traditional literature:

Her writing is just so vivid that you could get so many things, you could pull things out of it, metaphors and similes and different things that I can actually teach. Or figurative language that she uses. . . . I need to look at it from a literary standpoint and also point out some of the literary elements that are in there.

Tina was surprised by the students’ positive responses to the story: ‘‘What I found shocking is that the majority of the students really liked the story. Some of them said this is the best story that we’ve read.’’ Her concerns about the dialect were also unfounded: ‘‘They said it was difficult to understand, but after a while they could actually understand what she [Delilah] was saying.’’ What pleased her more was that ‘‘They got beyond the language, and they just thought about the story, and that made me feel good.’’

However, a few of the ninth-grade students objected to reading ‘‘Sweat.’’ For example, one White male student wrote in his response, ‘‘Almost every story we read has been written by a Black author. That wasn’t in the description of this class. I’m not complaining, but I think we should even out the # [number] of stories by Black and White authors.’’ Tina responded by writing, ‘‘If you look at the short stories, novels, and plays that we’ve read I think I cover all cultural bounds. I intend to continue reading all types of literature with the class simply because I think that literature is important regardless of the ethnicity.’’ She described her strategy in resolving one student’s challenge:

We got our literature book, and we went down the table of contents and said, ‘‘This is a White author, this is a Hispanic author.’’ Then I got copies of the short stories that I read aloud to them and said, ‘‘Now this is a Native American story, this is a Japanese American story,’’ and proved to him that that [his accusation] is not true.

Such incidents were rare, she said, and at this point she believed that including multicultural literature selections in the curriculum was still possible in the following year.

Tina ended her first year with some optimism about what she would be able to do in her second year. In an interview in May, she said, ‘‘I still believe in teaching literature written by and about all people.’’ Yet she had changed her perspective on how she would handle multicultural literature in future classes with different racial profiles.

In some classes you need to make a big deal that this is a Black author. . . if your students are predominately African American or if you have a class with predominately Hispanic or Asian students. I think you have to go through the part of making a big deal just so they can have pride and ownership.

For the 11th-grade honors class that she would teach the following year, a class that she had already learned would be predominately White, she said she would emphasize other aspects of multicultural literature: ‘‘I would tell them this is an African American author, but I would try to show more that it is normal and you can apply all literary elements to this particular story, too.’’ Her statement, especially her use of the term ‘‘normal’’ suggests that she was still struggling with the conception that traditional literature and ways of responding to it are not only more valued by White mainstream society but also perceived as ‘‘normal’’ preparation for academic success. Nonetheless, she was determined to show both White and Black students that literature by non-White authors also possessed literary merit.

Tina said the school district supported her teaching multicultural literature and would back her if she were challenged: ‘‘I am waiting for a parent to say that [challenge a book], and if they do I’ll handle that and let them know as far as this county’s curriculum, it is appropriate for school, and I am going to teach it. Nobody is going to stop me and it will be taught throughout the year.’’ Yet in the same interview, she expressed concern about conversations in the English Department on standardizing the curriculum the following year and instituting grade-level tests to better prepare students for the state graduation test: ‘‘We are trying to get some unity in what we are teaching in what grades so that it does not overlap, and I can understand that.’’ In spite of her determination to teach multicultural literature, the proposed curriculum, the grade-level tests, and the state graduation test all forced her to begin making significant changes.


During her second year of teaching English at the same school, Tina was assigned to teach three 9th-grade Project Success classes and one 11th- grade honors American literature class. Project Success was a program to help those who were performing below their level of ability and enrolled mostly Black students; thus these remedial classes would differ from the regular ninth-grade classes she taught the previous year. The honors 11th-grade class included college bound students who were predominately White. As Tina began her second year of teaching at Newton, she faced an ethical dilemma of wanting to implement a multicultural, constructivist literature curriculum but also wanting to do what was necessary for her students to do well on both the new grade level tests and the state graduation test. Both tests focused on Euro-American canonical literature and literary analysis.

When I first observed one of the Project Success classes in October, the students were preparing to read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. Of 16 students, 13 were Black and 3 White. They were working in pairs or individually to look up in reference books such terms as ‘‘carpetbagger,’’ ‘‘World War II,’’ ‘‘Ku Klux Klan,’’ and ‘‘The Great Depression.’’ Tina wanted to help the students to learn about the 1930 s ‘‘because not only will this help us when we read Roll of Thunder but it will also help us when we read To Kill a Mockingbird.’’ She also wanted them to learn to use reference materials and to do basic research.

She had originally planned to follow Roll of Thunder with a text by another African American author and to ‘‘introduce the kids to multicultural-type things by authors of different races’’ rather than To Kill a Mockingbird. However To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book addressing racial differences available in class sets in the book room. She felt the novel, although not ideal, could serve her purpose ‘‘because [it did] have poverty of the African American characters in the story’’ and exposed the students to ‘‘real life.’’

The 11th-grade honors American literature class that met the following period included 16 students: 11 White and 4 Black. They had just completed The Crucible and were preparing for a test the following day. The class began with small groups discussing study questions that Tina had given them. They moved into a lively discussion of the motives of the characters in the play as they went over the questions. Her goal was to encourage students to explore multiple views of a work, so she let the students decide the direction of the discussion: ‘‘I try not to put the way I feel into it.’’ If she did, she found herself ‘‘taking over the discussions.’’ She said, ‘‘I don’t want them to see my vision, I want them to trust themselves.’’ At this point, Tina was clearly drawing on her knowledge of the constructivist methods that she had learned about in her preservice literature class. More important, she found that she, as a Black teacher, could successfully use constructivist approaches to engage White students in discussions about the foibles of humanity that made The Crucible a powerful story.

Tina noted in our interview the next day that she was teaching The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter because they were required for the 11th-grade honors American literature course and the students would be tested on them in the grade-level test at the end of the year. As we talked, she picked up the required anthology for the 11th-grade honors class and showed me the table of contents, explaining that there were not many multicultural selections. She wanted to use some supplemental pieces in the 11th-grade curriculum like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Native American texts: ‘‘I will have to because it’s not there [in the anthology].’’

When I asked if she were still concerned about reactions from the largely White 11th-grade honors students or their parents about her use of multicultural texts, she said, ‘‘I was apprehensive but I think . . . the kids I have are such open-minded kids that I don’t think I’ll have a problem.’’ She concluded, ‘‘I’m going to try to find not just African American literature, but . . . all types of literature where it’s not just, you know, this girl is on her Black trip again. I don’t want them to say that.’’ In this comment, she used ‘‘them’’ in the context of talking about the expectations of her White students, but she would find that mandated tests would pose the most serious obstacles to broadening the literature curriculum.

When I observed Tina’s classes in December, the ninth-grade Project Success class was reading the play The Miracle Worker. The students volunteered for roles and began reading a scene from the play. Their engagement with the reading was evident as they, seated around Tina, took turns reading parts from the play. Everyone, even those without parts, followed the text closely as the play unfolded.

The climate of the 11th-grade honors class in December, however, was a stark contrast to the lively, interesting discussion I had observed in October. Tina began class by explaining an assignment on the chalkboard:

Explicate ‘‘The Cross of Snow’’ individually. Explicate ‘‘The Rope Walk.’’ Due sometime tomorrow.

Students quietly read the assignment and dutifully took out paper and pens to begin work. Their only questions were about what she expected of them: ‘‘Do you want these on separate sheets of paper? On ‘The Rope Walk,’ can we explicate it according to stanzas?’’ Afterwards, they worked individually on their explications for the remainder of the 50-minute period.

When I asked Tina to talk about the classes I had observed, she talked eagerly about the Project Success class. I had to prompt her to talk about the 11th-grade class and their work on literary analyses of poems. When I did, she began to talk about the grade level testing that the English Department had decided to implement in preparation for the state graduation test that was given in the spring of the 11th-grade year. The department chair believed that using a standard final exam at each grade level, one that consisted of the tasks similar to those on the state test, would improve students’ test performance.

Tina felt that the proposed grade-level tests were problematic for her and her students. The test, she said, would not allow students to express personal feelings; moreover, she emphasized, ‘‘I think it’s a bad thing when we’re teaching for a test.’’ She had made her concerns known: ‘‘I talked to the head of the department about the final exam and how it was really impossible with the number of students that all teachers have to create a final where they actually do some writing and expect us to read it fairly.’’ Tina also worried that her students would not do well on objective test items if she continued the kind of constructivist teaching that I had seen in her Project Success and honors class. She had started the year using a lot of personal response writing to assess her students, a method she had learned about in her preservice literature class, but she found the proposed objective test incompatible with her approach. Her frustration was evident: ‘‘I know they [the English Department faculty] need to give objective tests [to the students].’’ In spite of her acknowledgement that an objective test was more practical for the purpose of grading, Tina explained that she felt it was important to require some writing: ‘‘I try not to give multiple choice, but I may give short answer. . . . There may be a mini-essay where I ask for 75–100 words.’’ She said she would have to change her approach: ‘‘I believe in getting your own meaning from a poem, but there is going to have to be some kind of consensus on what this poem is about. Let’s not venture too far from what we really think as a class the poem is about.’’ Her use of ‘‘what we really think’’ suggests that she saw that only one interpretation was now possible. She also understood that her options for using constructivist approaches and multicultural texts were vanishing as test- driven teaching permeated the school.

Tina began to make changes in her curriculum and her approaches to literature. However, she was still trying to hold on to some of her goals. When I observed a Project Success class in March, she was working with the students to create their own folktales. As she moved around the room, she used questions to help them with their tales: ‘‘What is the lesson you want to teach with this tale? You want to sit down and plan your story. What’s going to be the situation? The climax?’’ These students, identified as capable but unmotivated, worked intently on creating their own folktales and shared them enthusiastically with others.

I had planned to observe the 11th-grade class, but Tina said they would be taking a test on The Great Gatsby for the entire period and that there would not be much to see. I asked if I could observe the beginning of the class. After she distributed their tests and gave directions to the students, they began working. The test involved multiple choice, short-answer questions, and a choice of items on which they were to write an essay on literary devices used in the novel.

In our interview later, I asked Tina how the Project Success students had responded to the study of folktales. She said, ‘‘They loved the unit, and now I am reading from folktales that they have written themselves.’’ I also asked her to talk about her goals for the folktale unit. She said that she had gotten the idea for teaching the unit from another teacher who taught the European folklore to ‘‘gifted’’ students. She wanted to show her Project Success students that African American folktales possessed the same characteristics that European folktales did. Tina felt that using the African-American folktales was important for these students:

I know there are plenty of Native American folktales. . . . But looking at my students, I think this was something that they could truly relate to. It took them all the way from American slave tradition to folktales. . . . They still can relate to it and really enjoy it and laugh.

When I asked if she were doing folktales in all her classes, she said she was not using them with the 11th-grade American Literature class because they needed to focus on the upcoming state graduation test. She explained later that she had seen samples of the tasks on the graduation test, and her students had to focus on literary technique: ‘‘If they don’t pass this, they don’t get a diploma. . . . So you’ve got to teach kids how to explicate a poem. They expect kids to know this when they graduate.’’

At this point in the interview, Tina also talked about how the mandated tests were pushing her to teach literature differently than she had planned. The ninth-graders were not going to have time to read To Kill a Mockingbird much less the multicultural literature she had planned for the curriculum, and there were problems with resources: ‘‘Aside from not having enough time to do it [To Kill a Mockingbird],’’ she explained, ‘‘there were not enough books because so many people [teachers] were standing in line for them [in the school’s book storage room].’’

Tina reluctantly decided to go along with the consensus in the English department. Her statements in this interview reflected her new ‘‘official’’ position, but it was also clear that she was privately troubled by the power of the testing agenda. She conceded that it was ‘‘necessary’’ to become ‘‘a little bit more standardized.’’ She said the department had agreed on having the same basic curriculum: ‘‘They think we need a little bit more uniformity so that kids have the same type experience and can communicate to people outside the school, ‘This is what we do in our English Department,’ as opposed to, ‘Well, my thing is folktales.’’’ She still felt some conflict about ‘‘teaching for a test.’’ However, she clearly felt compelled to take a position that was based on what she believed was best for her students: ‘‘I don’t want to set them up for failure next year when they get a teacher who delves into every aspect of a poem and is not interested in their own personal interpretation.’’

When I observed the ninth-grade Project Success class in early May, they were reading Romeo and Juliet, required reading for the new grade-level test. Tina began by asking students to summarize what they had read. Tina pointed out that this information was important and directed them to look at the text: ‘‘What is she [ Juliet] worried about?’’ Several students tried to guess, but Tina pressed for another answer, ‘‘What else does she fear?’’ Then she read a section of the scene to prompt them. The students guessed that Juliet was worried about the possibility that the friar was going to poison her. Tina pressed for another possibility. Her questions and prompts were directed toward the anticipated test.

I did not observe the 11th graders in May. Tina said that they were going to be working on a research paper in the library and computer lab. She did not feel it would be worthwhile for me to observe the class, and I agreed not to observe.

In our interview the following day, Tina talked about teaching Romeo and Juliet in the Project Success classes. She explained that her main goal was trying ‘‘to build their confidence level up.’’ She challenged them to read Romeo and Juliet just as any other class might: ‘‘I believe that you can read this, and I am not teaching an abridged version of it. . . . I will not show the movie before . . . we read.’’ She said the results had been gratifying, that ‘‘they need someone to believe in them and let them know I’m not accepting excuses.’’ Her one regret was that reading Romeo and Juliet had taken so long that they didn’t have time to read To Kill A Mockingbird. She had to settle for showing them the film instead.

When I asked how she felt about the state graduation test and the grade level tests that her department had created, she was frank, ‘‘I think it’s bad when we’re teaching for a test.’’ Yet she continued to have conflicting views on such tests. She reasoned that her students needed such experiences to survive in school and in the world outside school: ‘‘I also think it’s good to give kids these experiences.’’ Then she argued that ‘‘this is not a college setting,’’ and that it was ‘‘not fair to focus only on what we [the English department faculty] want.’’ Her proposed solution was to try and combine her goals with the demands of the test. She concluded, ‘‘you can still be creative and accomplish the goals that are expected of them where they can perform on that test.’’ This strategy─ combining constructivist methods and multicultural texts with drills for the tests─ was, in fact, the one she used with the Project Success students for part of the school year. However, she gradually moved away from this strategy, first with the 11th-grade honors class and later with the Project Success students because she was reluctant to use approaches that might put her students at risk of failure on the tests.

In our final interview at the end of her second year of teaching, I asked Tina to reflect on the past 3 years, from preservice experience through her 2 years of teaching English. She said the preservice secondary literature course, with its emphases on constructivist approaches, multicultural literature, and at-risk students, had been particularly important for her: ‘‘A lot of students did not like that course because he [the professor] was challenging their assumptions about the way that teachers should teach, the way people should select texts . . . . I found it to be very liberating.’’ She still hoped to be able to achieve those early goals, but she admitted that ‘‘the realities of school’’ meant trading those ‘‘liberating’’ ideals for what ultimately mattered in the world of school─ ’’passing those tests.’’ Tina had no help in understanding how she could prepare her students for academic success─ as measured by tests that represented for the most part White mainstream values─ and prepare them as well to understand other races and cultures through their reading. By the end of the second year, she realized there was no time for adding multicultural literature to a curriculum already packed with required readings for the tests, and she had moved to a largely teacher-centered rather than constructivist approach so that students ‘‘could perform positively on that test.’’ In this process she also gave up her vision of herself as a teacher who could bring new perspectives to the traditional literature curriculum.


The data from Tina’s preservice experience and her first and second years of teaching reveal the nature of hegemonic processes and the gap between her preservice program and the politics of teaching in public schools. She was ill-prepared by her preservice program, in spite of some attention to controversial issues in her course on teaching literature, for the formidable pressures of mandated assessments in her first 2 years of teaching. The state graduation test and the English department grade-level tests gradually pushed her to give up many of her original goals. She saw few options for developing the literature curriculum and strategies she believed would help students understand race and social relations. She also understood the difficulty of opposing tests that defined academic and life success. Thus, mandated tests presented an ethical dilemma: She did not ‘‘want to set them [her students] up for failure’’ by allowing ‘‘personal interpretation’’ nor could she include multicultural literature when so much time in the curriculum had to be devoted to traditional literature covered by the exams.

A related conflict grew out of Tina’s imagined identity as a teacher. She wanted to become a change maker, but had to examine the costs. She explained that she would be perceived by the White faculty as an outsider if she persisted in taking a different path: ‘‘‘This is what we do in our English Department,’ as opposed to, ‘Well, my thing is folktales.’’’ Her concern echoed what she had said 2 years before when she was learning constructivist approaches to literature: ‘‘I know it’s sad, but you’re caught in the middle. Do you try and go into depth, or do you say, ‘Okay, we’ve covered it?’’’ In the end, Tina found no easy resolution to these questions.

Tina found no comfortable space to develop her imagined role as an African American teacher. Ultimately she was unable to extricate herself from the intense pressure to comply with the perspectives of her White colleagues. Her story calls for reforms that look very different from those mandated in policies such the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The problem in effecting change, as Friere (1993) noted, is that it cannot be handed down but must be constructed in the realm of social interactions. This idea resonates with the observation of DuBois (1903/1969) that race relations rest on ‘‘the thousand and one little actions which go to make up life’’ (p. 203).

A systemic effort to support racial diversity in schools and curricula will have to attend to the fabric of ‘‘little things’’ (DuBois, 1903/1969) that characterize what knowledge is valued in schools. As Apple (1992), Freire (1974, 1993), and Williams (1989) noted, hegemony is reinforced by material resources such as texts that reify mainstream values. For example, in the schools where Tina taught, there were few books available that included literature by or about people of color. Limited funding could be blamed for the few multicultural texts available, but it also points to decisions that are made in favor of canonical texts that are represented as necessary for succeeding on standardized tests.

The decisions of policy makers and developers of high-stakes tests ultimately created a reification of all the little things that worked against Tina’s vision for curriculum. Her vision of becoming a change maker who used multicultural literature and constructivist approaches to help students understand and appreciate the lives of others also got lost in the small exigencies of a test-driven context. The works of literature and kinds of knowledge that the English department faculty decided upon as requirements appeared to be based upon ‘‘practical’’ decisions that would help students succeed on the barrage of mandated tests they faced. Ultimately, though, these decisions left no space for Tina to realize her goals.

In Tina’s case, it is also apparent that unquestioned assumptions about the identity and role of the teacher left her with no voice and little guidance in the realization of her goals. Much of the theory and research on teaching multicultural literature assumes that a White teacher is the one dealing with diversity in literature and in classrooms. Although the majority of teachers are White, directing every discussion of diversity toward them serves to make invisible the problems of teachers of color in White classrooms. There is little discussion about how a teacher of color might be positioned in these situations. Thus, even a preservice class that advocated constructivist approaches and multicultural texts gave her little insight on how a teacher, especially a teacher of color, might introduce new methods and texts into a traditional school setting. Moreover, new perspectives became largely irrelevant in schools driven by mandated tests.

Reform efforts will require teacher educators to question the discourses and models for teaching that imply there is one perspective or one approach to teaching. As Delpit (1995), Lalik and Hinchman (2001), and others have noted, this may also require raising questions about the language and models that researchers and educators hold up as evidence of best practice. Finally, Tina’s experiences suggest that if educators are serious about recruiting and retaining teachers of color, they need to address race as a central factor in American education in course readings and discussions. Perhaps conversations can begin by raising questions on commonly held ideas about what is normal or necessary in school curricula and how teacher educators can help those from differing racial and ethnic groups develop their own teacher identities.

The racial biases that emerged in this three-year study of Tina’s experiences made clear that exposing students to multicultural literature occasionally is not adequate for change, nor is it adequate to place teachers of color in classrooms and hope that their presence will transform the sensitivities of colleagues or students. Meaningful reforms will require a sustained effort by policy makers, administrators, and educators to have conversations about race and to examine the tendency of mandated assessments to reify one way of thinking and narrow conceptions of what counts as knowledge in the school curriculum.

The third year of this study was supported by a Grant-in-Aid from The National Council of Teachers of English Research Foundation.


1 Tina’s name and other names of persons and places in this article are pseudonyms.

2 For a fuller discussion of the preservice literature course in which Tina was enrolled, see Agee, J. (1998). The challenge of changing conceptions about reading and teaching literature in a preservice English class, Research in the Teaching of English, 33, 85-124.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 4, 2004, p. 747-774
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11534, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:08:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Jane Agee
    The University at Albany, SUNY
    E-mail Author
    JANE AGEE is an associate professor whose research interests include the teaching and reading of literature; English teachers’ conceptions of teaching and learning; and the ways in which social contexts shape literacy. Recent publications include ‘‘What is Effective Literature Instruction? A Study of Experienced High School English Teachers’’ in the Journal of Literacy Research, 3, and ‘‘‘Winks upon Winks’: Multiple Lenses on Settings in Qualitative Educational Research,’’ in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 15(5).
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