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La Educación in Room 320: Toward a Theory of Care-based Resistance in the Context of Neoliberal School Reform

by Kathleen Nolan — 2015

Background/Context: Research has illustrated that current neoliberal educational policy trends, such as data-driven accountability, the use of Common Core-aligned scripted curricula, and punitive classroom management approaches, have undermined teacher autonomy and compromised teachers’ ability to build meaningful relationships with their students. Nowhere is the impact of these policy trends felt more than in low-performing urban schools in the midst of intense reform. Research on the resistance practices of teachers in the context of reform frequently presents a negative conception of teacher resistance as a psychological reaction to change. Other more positive conceptions of resistance provide insight into the political and professional motivations for resistance. Little research to date, however, illuminates the subtle forms of resistance some teachers practice as they “push back” against the deleterious impact of neoliberal education policy on student–teacher relations.

Purpose: The study examined the ways in which urban teachers negotiate and “push back” against neoliberal reform. This article reports on what the author calls care-based resistance, a form of teacher resistance that is rooted in an ethic of authentic care and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Research Design: This study draws on a larger critical ethnographic study of policy enactments in two urban schools experiencing intense reform. In the current study, the author draws on critical policy studies and empirical studies of neoliberal school reform to explicate the transformation of teachers’ work and the ways in which current policy compromises authentically caring teacher–student relationships. The author then draws on care theory, theories of resistance, and culturally responsive pedagogy to develop the concept of care-based resistance. Finally, the author uses the method of portraiture to present an illustrative example of care-based resistance based on the practices of one bilingual science teacher.

Conclusions: The analysis and illustrative portrait of care-based resistance help to challenge the mainstream constructs of teacher resistance found in the organizational change and school leadership literatures that describe resistance in negative terms as an obstruction to school improvement. The author also distinguishes care-based resistance from other forms of teacher resistance that stem from teachers’ political or professional stances. Alternatively, a theory of care-based resistance provides a framework for gaining insight into the ways some teachers push back against the dominant ethos of reform in order to be culturally responsive and create a protected space for their students in which authentically caring relationships can flourish. The analysis draws attention to micro-level cultural practices and nuanced acts of teacher resistance that are often overlooked and sometimes even perceived as accommodation but that are indeed important modes of resistance in our current policy context.

 “Oh, you can just forget project-based learning! It doesn’t fit. We have this new [scripted] program, you know. Really, there’s no time for anything. . . . It’s just no fun anymore. The pressure is tremendous, and let me tell you, it [the new curriculum] doesn’t really always make sense for our kids. They didn’t have it last year or the year before, so they don’t really have the proper foundation for this stuff.”— Doris, veteran teacher during a discussion on how things have changed over the last 10 years

Doris’s lament reflects some of the many challenges public school teachers in the United States and elsewhere confront as a result of neoliberal, market-based school reform. Much has been written about this massive school reform movement, which is part of the larger global project of neoliberalism. In short, neoliberal school reform is characterized by curricular alignment to economic interests, test-based accountability and competition, “data-driven” practice, and privatizing trends, such as the establishment of for-profit charter schools—an endeavor that often begins with forced public school closures as a consequence of low performance on high-stakes standardized tests. Accompanying these trends have been new forms of punitive discipline aimed at teachers and students. Nowhere in the United States have these political and policy trends been experienced more intensely than in “low-performing” (in terms of standardized tests) urban schools like the one where Doris works. Such schools in urban districts around the country, under the threat of closure, are experiencing a massive barrage of new policy mandates. These mandates and their supporting discourses work to establish a “culture of productivity” in which the nature of teachers’ work and their identities as educators are transformed. Specifically, teachers’ professional value comes to be determined almost entirely by student performance on standardized tests. Local knowledge and culturally based ways of knowing are devalued, and any kind of student development that is difficult to quantify —social, moral, or artistic, for example—is given little, if any, attention. All of this compromises teachers’ ability to establish caring relationships with their students.

Drawing on an ethnographic study of policy enactment in two urban public schools—one high school and one middle school—in the northeastern United States, this article seeks to explicate what I call teachers’ care-based resistance practices. Care-based resistance refers to the broad refusal of teachers to accommodate the neoliberal reform ethos and “productivity” culture it inspires in schools. Instead, teachers who practice care-based resistance push back against the dominant ethos of reform in order to be culturally responsive and create a protected space for their students in which authentically caring relationships can flourish. Care-based resistance may refer to specific strategies used to circumvent, modify, or subvert neoliberal policy mandates. More generally, however, it is the assertion of a counter-ethos—a refusal to allow market-based policy mandates to define one’s practice and one’s relationships with students.

First, I draw on critical policy studies, specifically the scholarship on the impact of neoliberal education reforms on teaching and learning, to illuminate the forces shaping teachers’ work and identities. I then engage critical theories of resistance (for example, Giroux, 1983, and Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006), theories of care (Noddings, 1984, 2002; Valenzuela, 1999), and culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2010) to develop my concept of care-based resistance. As I explicate care-based resistance, I bring a theory of care—in particular, Valenzuela’s (1999) description of educación—to an expanded conception of resistance. The analysis helps to challenge the mainstream constructs of teacher resistance found in the organizational change and school leadership literatures that describe resistance in negative terms as an obstruction to school improvement. Care-based resistance is also distinguished from other forms of principled teacher resistance that are motivated primarily by political convictions or professional stance. Whereas motivating factors are usually complex and multifaceted, care-based resistance, I argue, is grounded primarily in the ways teachers conceptualize their relationships with students, the role they play in their students’ lives, and their strategies for creating protected spaces where meaningful, authentically caring relationships are forged. In short, a theory of care-based resistance draws attention to micro-level cultural practices and nuanced acts of teacher resistance that are often overlooked and sometimes even perceived as accommodation but that are indeed important modes of resistance. To illustrate this, I present a portrait of care-based resistance based on the practice of one of my key research participants, Mr. Vega,1 a science teacher in the bilingual English-Spanish program at the high school.



A considerable body of research has emerged over the last couple of decades that describes the ways in which prescriptive instructional policies deprofessionalize teachers’ work (Apple, 1982; Apple & Teitelbaum, 1986) and severely curtail teachers’ autonomy (McNeil, 2000). Other research highlights the ways current controls on teachers’ practices conflict with their commitment to the personal and academic development of their students in domains that are not testable (Ingersoll, 2003; Ochoa, 2007). This undoubtedly makes for difficult working conditions and negatively impacts school climate and culture.

Central to the current reform movement has been the adoption of the Common Core standards and the continued use of standardized high-stakes test scores as the primary measure of student achievement and the primary indicator of teacher effectiveness. As an outgrowth of standardization and test-based accountability, there has also been a sharp rise in the use of packaged and scripted curricula, particularly in urban districts facing the punitive consequences of school “failure.” Suggesting that teachers now work under a “new Taylorism,” Au (2011) explicated how standardized tests and prepackaged curriculum aligned with tests have resulted in the tight control of teachers’ labor. Crocco and Costigan (2007) showed that such controls frustrate new teachers and exacerbate teacher attrition. Ochoa (2007) demonstrated that these policy trends can contribute to higher rates of attrition among Latino/a teachers who find that the policies conflict with their commitment to caring for their students, and Sleeter (2012) noted that the policies have led to the marginalization of culturally relevant pedagogy designed to support students from nondominant cultural and social groups. Like these previous researchers, I also observed the pervasive use of scripted curricula, explicit test preparation, and other top-down controls that constrained teachers’ autonomy, limited their use of culturally responsive pedagogy, and compromised the development of healthy teacher–student relationships.

The development of large-scale data systems, a key component to the implementation of the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind education act and President Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grants program, has also had a major impact on teachers’ work. Some software has enhanced teachers’ ability to use data from assessments to inform instruction in meaningful ways (Marsh, Pane, & Hamilton, 2006; Wayman, 2005). However, not all data systems are designed to help teachers improve their instruction; rather, they are used for accountability purposes only (Weiss, 2012). Even when data systems are meant to support teachers’ practices, they do not always do so. As this research suggests, the data systems and curricula and assessments to which they are aligned are not always appropriate for the students. Additionally, the efficacy of using data to inform standardized test-driven instruction is questionable, and the inordinate amount of time spent on data production is hard to defend. Teachers in both schools that I studied reported that data entry was so time consuming that it often took away from meaningful preparation and direct contact with students, and much of the data recorded did not help improve instruction.

Another integral part of neoliberal urban school reform has been the rise of new forms of control and discipline to keep both teachers and students in compliance. These new forms of control and the discourses that support them work to shift the blame for school failure onto “lazy” teachers and their “culturally deprived” students. Teachers in low-performing schools, for example, are under greater scrutiny, in part through the use of new evaluation systems, than they have been at any time in our recent history. Likewise, punitive school disciplinary policies that criminalize students, such as the use of police officers as a first line of disciplinary intervention, have undermined teachers’ moral authority and place constraints on teachers’ positive interactions with their students (Devine, 1996; Nolan, 2011). The rise in the use of classroom management strategies that promote military-style regimentation (see, for example, Lemov, 2010) has also altered the ways in which teachers engage students.

In light of this, I would argue that classroom practice, rather than being guided by teachers’ own professional knowledge, experience, insight into child development, and knowledge of their students, as it once was (Clegg, 2005), has come to be defined largely by mandated curriculum, pacing guides, test prep materials, data-driven instruction, and new control technologies within the current paradigm. These policy shifts and their supporting discourses foster what I call—borrowing from Ball (2000)—a productivity culture in schools.


Ball (2000) used his concept of performativity to analyze how current political forces and policy mandates have produced new professional subjectivities. Performativity, he explained, is a “policy technology”—a culture and a mode of regulation—aimed at performance and productivity. Within this framework, teachers are compelled to live “an existence of calculation and put aside personal beliefs and commitments” (Ball, 2003). In the United States, performance on standardized test scores figures significantly into teacher evaluation, causing a “split” between “teachers’ own judgments about ‘good practice’ and student ‘needs’ on the one hand and the rigors of performance on the other” (Ball, 2000, p. 6), and as performance becomes prioritized, “there is a real possibility that authentic social relations are replaced by judgmental relations wherein persons are valued for their productivity alone” (p. 6).

Jeffrey’s (2002) ethnographic research in British primary schools supports Ball’s analysis. He illustrated how the introduction of “performativity discourses,” or discursive practices that establish behaviors and constitute these new teacher subjectivities, replaced more humanist discourses that focused on the whole child, subsequently causing a fundamental change in social relations between teachers and their students. As Ball (2003) put it, there is a struggle for “the soul” of the teacher as “market [reform] not only dissolves social relations, it also creates them” (Sayer, 1992, p. 126, as quoted in Ball, 1999) in new ways. For some teachers, this new imposed teacher identity evokes inner conflict, in-authenticity, and resistance (Ball, 2003).


“Resistance” has been used to describe a wide array of social practices, from organized political protest to individual, covert oppositional acts. Resistance has been conceptualized both as individual and collective, political and cultural, and intentional and unintentional. Yet, common to most definitions and uses of the term are the ideas of rejection, subversion, challenge, and standing in opposition (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004) to hegemonic forces. The kind of resistance to which I am referring shares some features with the small “everyday” acts of resistance that Scott (2008) described in that it is often very subtle and not always recognized as resistance. Moreover, it is usually enacted on an individual level despite being rooted in a collective cultural identity that demonstrates respect for and affinity with students’ cultural frameworks. That is, care-based resistance may not be understood as resistance by the teacher-resister or school administrators, and it does not necessarily constitute an overt act of defiance. However, it does, rather intentionally, push back against a dominant institutional culture and specific mandates in order to create an alternative cultural space.

Goffman’s (1961) notion of secondary adjustments in the context of institutions helps to explicate my use of resistance. He stated that within institutions, “we find that participants decline in some way to accept the official view of what they should be putting into and getting out of the organization and, behind this, of what sort of self and world they are to accept for themselves” (p. 304). In the case of care-based resistance, the teacher resists allowing neoliberal discourses and policy mandates to define her or his identity as a teacher, relationship with students, and classroom practice. Goffman (1961) noted that the collective and sustained use of secondary adjustments among “inmates” within what he called a total institution, such as a mental asylum, comprises the “underlife” of the institution. It is in the underlife where the inmates enact “movements of liberty” that serve to construct their identity against sanctioned norms. Similarly, care-based resistance entails the formation or maintenance of an unsanctioned identity and the creation of an alternative space of resistance. Nevertheless, unlike secondary adjustments or small acts of resistance, such as absenteeism (Goffman, 1961), foot dragging, or petty theft (Scott, 1985), the practices involved in care-based resistance are always prosocial and do not overtly stand in opposition to the stated mission of the school.

In critical educational studies, resistance has often been associated with the oppositional behavior of students in schools (Giroux, 1983; Willis, 1977). Although the behaviors described usually reflect antischool orientations and antisocial or illegal behaviors (Willis, 2003), oppositional behavior as resistance is viewed as having implicit political implications, and oppositional youth are conceived positively as social critics (Fine, 1991; Giroux, 1983). Care-based resistance similarly reveals an implicit critique of dominant institutional norms. However, it follows in the trajectory of more recent youth resistance frameworks (O’Connor, 1997; Quijada Cerecer, Cahill, & Bradley, 2011; Tuck &  Fine, 2007) in that it highlights constructive and prosocial forms of resistance that break the reproduction-resistance binary (Dimitriadis, 2011). That is, care-based resistance does not reproduce social inequalities through a rejection of middle-class values or academic achievement. Instead, it is implicitly critical of dominant cultural norms and rejects the alienating impact of neoliberal policy mandates. At the same time, it strives to support academic development, access to higher education, and social mobility.

The prevailing notions of teacher resistance come out of the organizational change and school leadership literature, which generally views teacher resistance in negative terms as an obstacle to presumably positive change. This literature presents a notion of teacher resistance as rooted in psychological processes, such as teachers’ fear of the unknown, their tendency to rest on old habits, and nostalgia (Evans, 1996; Fullan, 2001; Goodson et al., 2006; Greenberg & Baron, 2000).

An emerging but small literature presents an alternative framework to these negative and uncritical constructions of teacher resistance. Gitlin and Margonis (1995), for example, suggested that teacher resistance may reflect their “good sense” based on their political convictions, and Achinstein and Ogawa (2006) presented the notion of “principled resistance” against scripted curriculum rooted in teachers’ professional stances.

Some scholars provide examples of teachers’ practices that push back against neoliberal school reform through an assertion of a social-justice-oriented teaching practice (for example, Picower, 2011; Schultz, 2008; Solomon, 2011). However, these scholars focus on teachers whose practices are informed by explicit political perspectives and commitments to social justice. Although this scholarship offers important examples of alternatives to highly controlled, “teach to the test” pedagogy, it does not attend to the subtler practices that challenge dominant reforms through a privileging of social relations and authentic care.

Next, I consider the ways in which the literature on care and culturally responsive pedagogy can inform a theory of teacher resistance at this historical moment in the context of neoliberal school reform.


Central to Noddings’s seminal work on care theory (1984, 2002) is the distinction she made between “caring about” and “caring for.” Noddings asserted that, as humans, we desire and learn about being cared for in our early experiences in the home, which provides a foundation for learning to care about others outside our immediate social world. However, although caring about informs our sense of justice and establishes the conditions under which we learn to care for, it remains empty and at a distance if it does not culminate in caring relationships (2002). Caring for refers to relational caring that occurs in face-to-face encounters and is fueled by “engrossment” (Noddings, 1984), or receptiveness to what students are feeling. The relationship is dialogical; the teacher listens and learns from the students, and through that process, the students gain trust and confidence in the teacher. In this sense, there is reciprocity.

Valenzuela (1999) used and extends Noddings’s work on care in her ethnographic study of assimilationist practices and the politics of care in a high school serving Mexican immigrant and second-generation Mexican American students. Valenzuela argued, “Rather than centering students’ learning around a moral ethic of caring that nurtures and values relationships, schools pursue a narrow instrumentalist logic” (p. 22). She illustrated that mainly non-Latino/a teachers in her study demanded that students “care about” school, whereas students desired to be “cared for” before they could care about school. Further, she drew on Noddings’s distinction between aesthetic and authentic care. Aesthetic care is not grounded in relationships or an understanding of students’ perspectives; it is an insistence on conformity to school norms that may conflict with students’ world views and lived experiences. Authentic care, on the other hand, is akin to the Spanish educación, a cultural construct that is broader in meaning than its English cognate; it refers to the inculcating of a sense of moral, social, and personal responsibility that serves as the foundation for all other learning, and it encompasses the development of a social competence wherein one respects the dignity of others. Thus, the authentically caring teacher rejects entirely dominant representations that pathologize students from nondominant social and cultural groups and resists the prevailing behaviorist classroom management approaches, which are antithetical to the relational aspects of educación.

Given the cultural orientation of “educación,” it is important to note its relationship to culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995). Culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy (CRP) challenges deficit models by viewing the students’ home cultures and languages as valuable resources for social and academic development. Although much has been written on culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy, perhaps the most relevant principles of CRP to this analysis are its commitment to building positive and collaborative relationships with students and their families (Cummins, 1996; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992), its emphasis on high expectations for students from nondominant groups, and culturally mediated instruction (Gay, 2010). Sleeter and Cornbleth (2011) have provided compelling examples of the ways teachers maintain culturally responsive practices in the context of standards-based classrooms. My analysis here extends their discussion to theorize authentic caring—and culturally responsive teaching as an aspect of authentic care—as a form of resistance against the powerful ethos of neoliberalism and the subsequent shifts taking place in teachers’ daily work, their identities, and their relationships with students. In this sense, care-based resistance, with its culturally responsive orientation, is similar to previously published examples of cultural resistance (see Duncombe, 2002; Gregory, 1999; Martinez, 1997; Sandlin & Milam, 2008) in that resistors defy hegemonic cultural forces as they engage in nondominant, sometimes subversive, cultural practices.


My analysis draws from a large-scale critical ethnographic study of urban teachers’ experiences of reform mandates in one middle school and one high school, in two different midsize urban districts in the Northeast. As is typical of critical school ethnographies (for example, Fine, 1991; Willis, 1977), my study aimed to provide insight into how inequalities are produced, reproduced, and contested, or more specifically, how external and institutional forces influence schooling and how individuals, in this case, teachers, assert their own agency and resist prescribed norms. The two selected schools, both labeled “in need of improvement,” provided me the opportunity to examine how the current barrage of policies targeting low-performing urban schools, such as the adoption of scripted curriculum aligned with the Common Core and new private company professional development programs, plays out “on the ground” and shapes teachers’ work.

This article draws on data from only the high school, which I call Portchester High School. I had no prior relationship with the Portchester superintendent but had heard this person speak at a professional conference and decided to send an email requesting permission to conduct my study in one of the district’s schools. I introduced myself as a university-based educational researcher and teacher educator from the region and was subsequently granted access to the high school and introduced to the principal.

The larger study entailed extensive observations and interviews with a wide range of school personnel over the course of the study. Central to this article, however, was my interest in gaining insight into the ways a small number (N = 7) of seasoned teachers with excellent professional reputations negotiated reform mandates. Specifically, I wanted to know which mandates supported their practice and which ones undermined their practice. In selecting these teachers, I presented a broad set of characteristics to the high school principal and asked him to introduce me to three teachers. I was interested in seasoned teachers with above average student test performance, solid professional reputations (as indicated by receipt of professional awards, leadership roles, and colleague recommendations), excellent relationships with students, high levels of student engagement and learning in their classrooms, and a stated commitment to cultural responsive pedagogy (CRP). I used this broad set of criteria to identify the most capable teachers. The last criterion was important because, I believe, a commitment to CRP is essential to good teaching. I chose to focus on the most capable teachers in order to disentangle the impact of particular reform mandates from a teacher’s lack of experience or competency. I also thought I could gain more insight from teachers who had some historical perspective.

The principal recommended three teachers, including Mr. Vega. I was quickly able to verify that all three met some of my criteria, such as their above-average student test performance and solid reputations within the school. Time spent observing the teachers and following them to meetings was also vital in determining whether they met my criteria. As I spent time at the school and met many other teachers, the group of key participants grew. For example, I began observing, on a regular basis, two teachers who were not initially introduced to me but who fit my criteria and were interested in sharing their perspectives with me.

Two of the teachers recommended by the principal, including Mr. Vega, taught almost entirely in Spanish. These two teachers were among the most culturally responsive that I observed, not only because of their use of the students’ native language but also because of their deep cultural knowledge of and respect for their students. My level of Spanish language proficiency allowed me to follow along in these classes, although on occasion, I had to look up the meaning of a word or ask for clarification from the teacher after class.

The teachers I observed regularly in class at both schools would likely be considered very-good-to-great based on any informed educator’s standards, including my own. They all had well-managed classes where students were actively engaged in learning, and they appeared to be well liked and admired by students and colleagues. However, there was significant variation in terms of their definitions of and commitment to culturally responsive teaching and the kinds of relationships they had with their students. All these participants voiced respect for their students’ home cultures; however, some practiced more superficial forms of culturally responsive pedagogy than others. Some, more than others, had cultural affinity with or deep cultural knowledge of their students. In addition, I observed various levels of commitment to the deeper elements of CRP, such as building sociopolitical consciousness in students. At times, this was also influenced by a teacher’s individual situation and the particular constraints placed on his or her practice.2 Mr. Vega, for example, had perhaps less opportunity in his partially scripted science classes than another culturally responsive social studies teacher who I observed to develop students’ sociopolitical consciousness.

As I began analyzing data and identifying themes, I documented the varied ways in which teachers responded to policy mandates. I also noted their stated explanations for why they did things a particular way. I identified numerous examples of the ways in which teachers attempted to enact policies as faithfully as they could in contexts in which the mandates were not necessarily appropriate or beneficial to students, conflicted with other mandates, or simply did not make sense. I also identified numerous ways in which teachers circumvented, creatively interpreted, modified, or ignored policy mandates for a wide variety of personal, professional, and political reasons. Thus, not all the teachers in the study practiced what I would call care-based resistance, and not all the resistance I observed was principled, constructive, or led to positive outcomes. However, care-based resistance emerged as an important way that some teachers, especially teachers of color, managed to preserve their integrity and their identities as caring educators and create humane classroom environments for their students.

My analysis for the purposes of this article centers on just one teacher, Mr. Vega, whose practice perhaps best exemplifies care-based resistance. Mr. Vega moved to the United States from Puerto Rico as a young adult to take a teaching position, first in another urban district, then at the high school where I met him. He has been teaching for over 25 years. Drawing on data from a series of interviews, classroom observations, and informal conversations during field work, I developed a deep description of Mr. Vega. My descriptive analysis was informed by Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis’s (1997) concept of portraiture. Portraiture is a qualitative research method that allows the researcher to join social science and art, blurring the boundaries of aesthetics and empiricism “in an effort to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life” (p. xv). Portraiture attends to the physical, historical, geographical, and personal context, and the portraitist (researcher)– “subject” relationship as it seeks to piece together various themes into a rich and layered aesthetic whole. This artistic endeavor, woven into the social scientific research process, provides an opportunity for the researcher to assume a counter-positivistic epistemological stance that pushes against and edges beyond the boundaries of the observable; it offers a means to capture something of the emotional terrain, the palpable yet invisible mood of the field, which is important to gaining insight into the nature of authentic caring. Portraiture’s focus on context also provides a means to analyze the interplay between Mr. Vega’s practice and the social and economic realities of the school and neighborhood community, the larger school culture, and the policy context.

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) emphasized the importance of the researcher becoming visible in the process of portraiture through explicit attention paid to the researcher–subject relationship and self-reflexivity. I attempted to do this throughout the portrait. As with other research participants, the more I revealed about myself, the more Mr. Vega tended to reveal about his perspectives and experiences. At first, I was viewed accurately as a White researcher from a well-resourced university. As he got to know me, however, he learned I was also a former ESL high school teacher from the Bronx and had lived for many years in Spanish-speaking immigrant communities similar to his own. This helped to facilitate openness between Mr. Vega and me.

After several conversations, Mr. Vega commented that he had the feeling that we had known each other for a very long time. He expressed wonder at the inexplicable connection we seemed to have. I suspect it was simply a matter of our shared experiences as teachers of immigrant students. Nevertheless, despite our similarities as educators, our social locations, lived experiences, and relationship to culturally responsive pedagogy were admittedly very different. I began to think of these differences, metaphorically, in terms of a well-known concept in second-language acquisition (a topic we touched on many times during our conversations), Stephen Krashen’s (1981) acquisition-learning distinction hypothesis. The hypothesis posits that language acquisition is the subconscious and natural process through which individuals develop language in the context of meaningful communication. Language learning, on the other hand, occurs through an intentional study of language that results in conscious knowledge about the language. Mr. Vega, unfamiliar with the work of such scholars as Ladson-Billings (1995), Gay (2010), and Nieto (2003), had not developed a culturally responsive practice or his authentic care orientation through the study of scholarly concepts. Instead, his practice was intuitive; he embodied the concepts and lived them. For me, a commitment to culturally responsive teaching was to some extent instinctual and influenced by a variety of lived experiences, but it was more so learned, from the standpoint of an outsider to my students’ home communities, than acquired from within those communities.


Portchester is a small postindustrial city in the Northeast. In the 19th century, European immigrants everywhere from Dublin to Budapest settled there and worked in the city’s terracotta and metal refining factories. By the early 20th century, Portchester became the new home for waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants hailing from Puerto Rico and, later, from other places in the Caribbean and Latin America. Industry thrived for decades, but the city was devastated in the 1970s with the deindustrialization of the regional economy. The 1990s brought new development, but the city, now about 80% Latino/a, continues to struggle. New Spanish-speaking immigrants continue to arrive each year in Portchester, while the unemployment rate stands at 16%, and about 20% of the city’s families live below the poverty line.

Portchester High School is over 90% Latino/a, about 10% higher than the city’s population. Most of the non-Latino/a students are African American. Sixteen percent are English language learners, and 66% qualify for free or reduced lunch—a common indicator for low socioeconomic status. The school is situated on a quiet street in a working-class residential neighborhood. It takes up the entire block, and there is a large football field across the street. When I visit the school, I don’t bother to look for parking in front of the building along the street because all the spots are filled before I am able to get there. I invariably park in front of a private home a few blocks away and walk around the enormous building to the front entrance where I show my ID to the security guards.

Mr. Vega stands in the doorway of room 320—a slim man in his mid-50s with a shaven head and small round spectacles. He is dressed in his typical fashion—neatly pressed trousers and an argyle sweater vest. He greets each student warmly as he or she passes through the classroom door. “Buenas tardes. Cómo estás, Juan?” Juan smiles brightly at his teacher as he returns the greeting. Mr. Vega’s fifth-period chemistry class files into the room. Most are very recent immigrants to the United States, mainly from the Dominican Republic, but also Mexico and Central America. These students receive two semesters of bilingual content-area instruction before they are required to do all their coursework in English only. This, the bilingual teachers tell me, is the policy. “Whose policy,” I ask, “the state’s or the district’s?”

No one seems to be sure. The state department of education website notes that some form of support for English language learners (ELLs) is required, but the guidelines are rather vague. Bilingual (native language instructional) programming is one sanctioned, but not mandated, intervention. Districts are free to implement English-only models as long as the district has a plan for the “successful transition of English language learners into mainstream classes.” The amount of time a student can spend in a program for ELLs is not specified. It is stated, however, that multiple assessments should be used to determine a student’s exit from services. The policy language found on the district’s website would lead one to believe that students can spend as much time as needed in bilingual classes to ensure a successful transition to “mainstream” classes. During the year prior to the commencement of my study, however, the school adopted an “accelerated” model consistent with the language of NCLB. They shortened the length of bilingual services to two semesters, resulting in recent immigrant students often entering general education (English-only) classes with at most an intermediate level of English proficiency.

“Good afternoon.” The greetings continue, always in Spanish, as the students filter in. Mr. Vega congratulates one for a terrific performance during the track meet the previous day. He checks in with a few regarding exams they have recently taken in other classes. He gently guides one young man closer to the wall and puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder to give them a moment of privacy. Mr. Vega is nodding gently as he listens. Then he nods more vigorously as if to indicate that he understands, pats the boy on the shoulder, and sends him into the room.

“Is it all right if I sit in this period?”

“Of course, Kathleen,” Mr. Vega says in his thick Spanish accent, “you are always welcome.”

I take my usual seat just behind the u-shaped set of desks where the students sit. There are about 20 students in the room—a large, cluttered but organized room with lab tables in the back, a large periodic table on the side wall amid several posters, displays of student work, and diagrams of various kinds, a whiteboard and projector in the front around which the “u” of students are clustered, and Mr. Vega’s desk in the far front corner buried under stacks of paper.

After Mr. Vega takes attendance, he begins to review the material from previous sessions on atomic structure before going on to today’s topic: electron configuration. All the students appear to be engaged, and each time Mr. Vega asks a question, many hands go up, but the review is more of a guided discussion, with students asking questions as well as answering them. “That’s a great question,” Mr. Vega likes to say with enthusiasm as the students start to think more deeply about the material. His energy is contagious.

Mr. Vega moves around the room, at times using his marker to point to an element on the giant periodic table on the side wall and then to draw representations of them on the whiteboard. I find him to be animated and upbeat, yet calming at the same time. He calls on a few students whose hands are not up. He does not seem to embarrass them, though. Rather, he lures them into the discussion with a sense of wonder in his voice, and it is okay for the students to respond with an “I don’t know.” He also invites students to answer their classmates’ questions, pausing to give them time to think. Most everyone is involved.

Mr. Vega provides context by explaining the relationship between chemistry, physics, and math, and he pauses to pull apart words to help students decipher their meanings. “Subatomica,” he writes on the whiteboard, pointing to the first morpheme and eliciting its meaning. Then he begins to draw a diagram on the board to label the parts of the atom—protones, carga positiva—again he breaks down the words and elicits their meanings from the students. His slow and steady pace, use of visuals, and his attention to the discipline-specific vocabulary and concepts allow me to follow along fairly easily despite my somewhat limited Spanish language proficiency and the decades that have passed since I last sat in a chemistry class. Gliding around the classroom waving his marker and tilting his head, he reminds me of a skilled symphony conductor—masterfully bringing together all the new concepts into a harmonious whole.

As the discussion gets deeper into the subject of electron configuration, a young woman about halfway down from the tip of the “u” raises her hand. “Mr. Vega,” she says quizzically, “does this have something to do with the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, because I read that. . . ” She continues to tell the class about what she had learned about the atomic bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city in 1945.

“Excelente, Yudelka.” Mr. Vega says, acknowledging his student’s question. “This is an excellent question.” Mr. Vega detours a bit to explain fission and to describe briefly the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. He allows the discussion to come to its natural end without rushing students to the next part of the lesson.

Finally, Mr. Vega turns to the projector sitting on a table in front of the whiteboard. He is mandated to use a scripted science program called Progressive Science Initiative (PSI), which utilizes a series of slides that are presented to students from an overhead projector. I am surprised to see that all the slides are in Spanish. He goes through a few of the slides to further illustrate some of the points he made. The connection he has established with the students wanes slightly, but he manages to keep their attention on the whiteboard while they go through the slides. The students nod. He then provides directions for the application part of his lesson—and the students move into small groups to solve the problems before them. Mr. Vega circulates to keep students on task and to assist them when needed.

This was a typical scene in Mr. Vega’s classroom. He exuded kindness and commanded respect, and he extended his kindness to me. I liked to observe his fifth-period class because he did not teach sixth period, and he would always make some time for us to talk. I would take a seat at one of the front desks, and he would join me.

When I was first getting to know Mr. Vega, I wanted to understand how the scripted program was influencing his teaching. From my observations, it appeared that he did not seem to use it too consistently, but he did manage to get through the material presented in the slides. He began by explaining his students’ needs for basic skills and concept development and the struggles they have with language. He remarked that the program is based on an assumption that the students already know the concepts presented in the slides, but they don’t. “So, what I think the students need, I have to reinforce a lot of basic concepts in order for them to understand. In chemistry, we start with atomic structure. But, basically, they, they have no idea about the atom, period.”

“So, the pace of the program presents a problem?” I ask.

“Yes, the pace.” He continues, “I don’t let my students fall behind because I mean, PSI’s important, but my students are more important than that. For me, it is more important to cover probably less amount of the material in order to make sure that they understand [and] that they have a real chance to have a good grade and understanding of the material.” His words are consistent with what I have observed—the slowing down in every session—the time Mr. Vega takes to provide context, to make connections to the students’ prior knowledge or interests, the breaking down of concepts and introduction of new vocabulary, and modeling through the use of visuals and manipulatives.

But I still did not fully understand how he kept pace. I asked the same question during several of our conversations. How did he slow down to ensure students have a strong foundation and keep up with the prescribed pacing?

“They are—we are basically, believe it or not, covering the same material [as the mainstream classes] because I use all the resources in order to help my students. I explain in Spanish and then I explain in English. So, that’s a rhythm that I try to establish for them. And, I think something that helps me is the time, the years that I have been doing this with bilingual kids. So, I recognize the problem [referring to the pace and prerequisite conceptual knowledge needed to follow the slides] and I adjust in order to help the students . . . Kathleen,” he continues without an ounce of impatience in his voice despite my persistence with this line of questioning, “the program has got to conform to the students; the students cannot be forced to conform to the program . . . I’m a teacher. I have to understand my students in order to help them.” This was not the perspective I most often heard from teachers. There was overwhelming dissatisfaction with the scripted program, and teachers complained about the problems they caused virtually every time I spoke with them. Mr. Vega was the only teacher with whom I spoke who talked about getting the scripted program to “work” for the students.

“Are they getting through [all the content in] the program?” I ask on another afternoon later in the school year still pushing the issue.

“Yes! My, yes!” Mr. Vega says with a big smile.

“How are you accomplishing that and taking time to build concepts and provide context?”

“Because this is about commitment, passion, and, and when they understand, it’s a lot simpler to cover material.”

“But that time isn’t really woven into the program.” I say.


“So, where do you find that time?”

“At the beginning of each section, for example, at the beginning, I slow down the whole teaching process because I’m aware that my kids don’t have the concepts clear in their minds, and I depend on that in order to develop more difficult concepts that are coming. So, I’m aware of that. So, that is, I mean, something that experience provides us with, right? At the beginning, when I’m introducing one concept, for example, when I start the concept about electrons and electron configuration and the description of each electron, and each orbital atomic order—those are very abstract concepts. I remember when I took the class in college, it was difficult for me. It’s a difficult topic in college for college students. So, I have kids that barely know how to write—that’s tough. And now, seeing them talking about the concept and, and not only that, doing problems. . . ” Mr. Vega says beaming. “I can show you their work that they do. . . ” I take him up on his offer and casually look through some papers he hands me. They appear to be performing well.

Mr. Vega continues to explain that rushing through the content is counterproductive not only because it prohibits students from learning necessary, foundational concepts, but also because it creates a negative environment.

“[You’ll slow down] even if you fall behind in the timeline?” I ask as if my own mind has been influenced by the prevailing push to perform on standardized tests and the rhetoric of urgency that surrounds that push.

“Oh, yes.”

“. . . and the slides?”

“And, avoid panic,” he adds. “It doesn’t [help] . . . I cannot project that sense of urgency to my students, that I’m rushing material, that I’m pressing, because they immediately would notice that. And, you know, it’s negative feedback that they receive from us when, when we do that.”

“If I allow that to get to me, the pressure,” he adds, “I’m going to put my kids in difficulties. And, at the end, this is about my students. It’s not about me. It’s not about the, the PSI program. It’s not about . . . I’m not here to please Dr. Mendez [the principal] or Dr. Smith [the supervisor]. I’m here to help my students.”

Mr. Vega shifts the conversation slightly to reflect on his own history as a student in a small-town school in Puerto Rico. “And, I think I can relate clearly with my students because my background. I, I spoke with you about it the last time. I remember when I went to college I couldn’t compete at the beginning with the other kids in my own country. Why? Because my school didn’t provide me with a strong background in science and math. . . . So, I, I just want to, I just kind of know exactly what the problem is with my students because I went through that as a student.”

 “You’re really good at it. You’re very good. . . ” I say.

“No, I try to. My, my face is getting red and redder, I know,” Mr. Vega says with a little laugh.

I begin to understand what seems like a contradiction. Mr. Vega manages to get through all the material largely because he slows down, not despite that fact. He resists the prescribed accelerated pace and the sense of urgency that surrounds the mandated program.

As Mr. Vega insists on maintaining a pace at which his students can actually learn the material and make progress, he creates an alternative, protected space for them. He explains to me that the administration puts too much pressure on teachers and students, which he views as harmful, but he does not let the pressure get to him. Alternatively, Mr. Vega strives to—as he calls it—“set a rhythm” as a means of creating a comfortable and predictable learning environment based on respect.

“I, I have to, [the students] have to understand that in my class, they will find a rhythm. They know the routine. They know that they will be respected if they express themselves. This, the other students would never say any negative comment about anyone, because that’s established at the beginning of the school year. In, in order for anyone, not only my students, to feel comfortable to make mistakes, because this, this is the deal. In education, I expect my students to make mistakes!”

“Yes,” I say nodding in agreement.

“It’s very, very common and welcome in my class to make mistakes, because that’s the name of the game. That’s why they’re here!” His voice rises slightly. “And, and, and I have to set the tone at the beginning of the school year.”

This idea of creating a rhythm became a bit of a theme in our ongoing conversation. The rhythm signifies a certain order and sense of safety in which students can figure things out. However, in a context where administrators micromanage teachers and create a culture of fear, the rhythm of the protected space is made vulnerable to disruptions. On another day, I find Mr. Vega during a “free” period. He is irritated and eager to talk when he sees me. He begins by sharing with me that he has a group of students who have been deemed “troublemakers” by the administration. He acknowledges that when they came to him in September, they did not understand the purpose of science class. He tells me that they were there to be with their friends—that is all. But I observe that he is not willing to write such students off or to bully them into submission as I have witnessed other, less student-centered teachers attempt to do. This appears to be just the kind of challenge Mr. Vega embraces.

In their frenzied effort to raise achievement and enforce compliance, however, the administration takes a different tact. They do unannounced drop-ins in classrooms—scrutinizing teachers’ practices and reprimanding students who are somehow out of line. The teachers have told me, and I have observed, for example, administrators entering rooms unannounced to ensure that the lesson objective is written correctly on the board (it must indicate the anticipated percentage of student success on the task), or the classroom is properly organized, or the students are in uniform.

Speaking about this group of “troublemakers,” Mr. Vega says, “Today, for some reason, we, they were able to put everything together. We were talking about chemical properties based on valence electrons, based on electron configuration. They are using all of those terms with authority. I was so proud of them! But, believe it or not, I have to mention this, a supervisor interrupted us! I thought that the supervisor was going to sit down and observe how well they were doing. No! The supervisor stopped the class to inquire, ‘Oh, you have the wrong uniform! You have this,’ he says using an uncharacteristically harsh tone as he imitates the supervisor. “All of the sudden, the class was filling with that negative attitude and negative energy that we couldn’t believe what was going on!” His eyes widen as he explains what happened.

I had never seen Mr. Vega this upset. Whenever I had probed about his attitudes toward the administration or any of the particular mandates, he invariably turned our conversations back to his students. He was always so hesitant to say anything negative about anyone or anything.

He continues, “The, the person destroyed the entire dynamic! I, I, I have to talk about this because those are the little things that an education administrator has to keep in mind. Before you jump into a classroom, they have to have a very strong sense of mind, ‘Hey, I don’t know the dynamic that is going on in that classroom. I don’t know if my presence there is going to create problems,’ and in fact, the person created big problems! Thankfully, the dynamic that we had, we stopped the class after the person left, said we couldn’t believe what was going on, but they understood. We went over the interruption and at the end, hey, let’s move on. And then, we regained the, the, the momentum. I, I, I feel, I feel so proud of them.”

During another administrative visit to Mr. Vega’s room, the principal came in to observe a group of young men who were suspected of being in a gang. Mr. Vega suggested that the principal had expected to find the boys causing trouble. Mr. Vega invited the boys up to the whiteboard to solve some problems. The boys shocked the principal with their ability to do the work. “I was so proud of them, Kathleen,” Mr. Vega says beaming. “I was so proud that they showed the principal!”

Rarely did I hear teachers speak of being proud of their students. Instead, teachers were more likely to lament their students’ lack of academic preparation or complain about the administration. The complaints seemed quite reasonable to me given the circumstances, but the unfortunate reality was that those complaints did not usually foster caring teacher–student relationships or translate into better teaching practices.

“Kathleen,” Mr. Vega says suddenly to me one day as I stand with him at the entrance to his classroom, “something that is important for any new teacher, any advice, if I can give any new teacher is: Do not teach based on making the student afraid.” Mr. Vega is great about picking right up on the themes we had been exploring during our previous conversation.

“Oh, right. Absolutely,” I say.

“Some teachers try to make, create that image that [they are] tough. And, this, this class is difficult; it doesn’t work.”

His thought is interrupted as he greets a few more students. “Hola, Miguel! ¿Que tal?” Then he turns to me again, “Now I’m thinking,” he says, “I like what I’m doing here, definitely, the dynamic in my class, I don’t know, Kathleen. I like this. I like this job.” He likes it, I muse, because he is so fiercely focused on his students and strong enough to resist the pressures to change his ways.

Later after class, we pick up our conversation once again. Mr. Vega begins to tell me that the administration has big problems with certain students, and he suggests that they do not know how to deal with the situation. Mr. Vega laments. He wishes the school had better ways of dealing with students and addressing their problems.

“How do you help students?” I ask.

“Through communication. We talk a lot. And, and, about how powerful knowledge is. Knowledge is a very powerful. I’m sounding very nostalgic or . . . but, it’s true.”

Referring to the administration’s strategies, he says, “If, if I’m going to start a conversation with any student, immediately with the, the whole idea of detention . . . I don’t use that. Detention is not in my vocabulary. I don’t use detention. That’s not what motivates people.”

He continues, “And, the administration will do that,” with a bit of disgust in his voice. “But, if you use a different approach, and you talk to any student as a person, when they feel that you’re treating them with respect, you’re giving them their place. I have no problem with that. It’s so easy to start a conversation with any kid. I don’t care how difficult the person is in the school.”

He adds that teachers also have problems with certain students. Many of his colleagues do not want the English language learners in their classrooms. Conversations I’ve had with teachers in the mainstream corroborate Mr. Vega’s perception. The students become invisible, he tells me. The teachers are resentful now that the English language learners are moving into mainstream classes more rapidly than they did in the past with so little English. They don’t want these students, Mr. Vega explains. They bring down their test scores!

Mr. Vega appears to switch topics abruptly, but I soon realize the connections he’s making. “Look at my accent. Listen to my accent,” he says. “And I, well, I speak with accent but I don’t think with accent.” I sense a mixture of indignation and something else—perhaps hurt, perhaps empathy—in his voice. Could his colleagues actually question his intelligence because of his accent? I suspect some of them might. But my sense is that Mr. Vega is telling me this as an expression of solidarity with his students. He identifies with them as an English language learner so strongly that he is visibly upset by the way they are treated at times in mainstream classrooms. And indeed, I had witnessed some teachers’ resentment over having to teach students who “didn’t have the language” to succeed in their classrooms.

“Yeah. It takes time for me to, my tongue to move up and down and say what is here in, in my brain, but I know what I really want to say,” he tells me. “It, it, it, it’s my, you know, the mechanics and all of that. . . . Knowing exactly what I’m trying to say, my point of view, and you gain respect. That’s what I think, I don’t know. So, yeah, Kathleen, I don’t know. I’m always happy to see you, I don’t know, we talk a lot. Don’t you notice that?”

I smile, “I know! I, well, I really enjoy. . . ”

“You have to turn me off,” he says chuckling slightly.

“Never! Are you kidding me? I love it. No, I so enjoy talking to you.”

“Yeah, likewise. Same thing here, yes,” he responds with a warm smile and a nod.

Another way in which Mr. Vega cultivates his practice of authentic care is through his use of the students’ native language for both academic and affective purposes. Early in the school year, I became aware that Mr. Vega taught primarily in Spanish, occasionally mentioning Spanish-English cognates, but I had not yet seen him using much English in class and wasn’t sure what perspective he held on the issue.

As I explored the topic, I realized quickly that Mr. Vega had a clear knowledge of second-language acquisition theory as he began to explain how concepts, which are much more easily learned in one’s native language, will transfer to the second language in time. His students were very recent immigrants and did not have the academic language to gain content in English. Indeed, most did not even have what is referred to as basic interpersonal communication skills (Cummins, 1983) in English to follow along even in a superficial way.

“For example,” he explains to me, “An atom or el átomo is the same thing in Spanish or English. Once they understand the concept of the átomo en Español, when I move to the English part of that, it’s like nothing. Oh! There is no problem!” he says seemingly delighted by the idea.

He goes on to explain that he offers not only instruction but also assessments in Spanish. “So, in order for, for them to have a real opportunity to have a good grade, they should see the exam, or the quiz, or any assessment in the language that they really control.”

“Right,” I say in agreement.

“Eventually, they will learn English. Well, these kids only have three months in this country, and they’re seeing English for the very first time.”

Again, the concepts, when we learn the concepts in the language, in any language, it’s in our brain, it’s in our mind. So, I think it is, it is basically a mistake if I, we try to force the students to perform and to learn in English only.”

He goes on, “So, what I did is, I translate everything here, for them to understand.”

“Did you, these slides, did they come [in Spanish] or did you go through all of these and translate?” I ask.

“This one came like this. The others, are, are in English, totally in English. So, I translate.”

“You redo all the slides?”

“Yes. No, I have to. Yes. Sometimes I have to readjust the information,” he says nodding.

“You add the Spanish slides?”

“In Spanish. Exactly.”

“So, you go through and translate every slide for them?” I am a bit incredulous as I consider the amount of time Mr. Vega would need to spend to translate the entire scripted program.

“Because, that will help, it will fulfill two purposes.” Mr. Vega goes on to explain how the students can learn the content in Spanish and read through them in English to gain the target language once they have grasped the content.

“That’s a lot of work though,” I say.

He nods in agreement. “But it’s a lot of work. You’re right.”

“That’s a lot of work!” I repeat.

“Yes. It’s a lot of work. But, I have, it’s work, Kathleen, but I like it.”

Mr. Vega then shows me how he personalizes the students’ binders. It is a small thing, but he believes it makes a difference. He says it creates a sense of belonging.

“They’re proud of having a very organized binder,” he explains. “They will come every day with their binder. ‘It’s my binder,’ and that is something that helps.”

“And look at what I did,” he says as he points to the front of one of the binders.

Quimica,” I read.

‘Quimica.’ Why, this is the hook.”

“En Español.” I smile understanding the significance.

“In the language, in Español. Another option that I have is to write ‘chemistry.’ That is foreign. This is Quimica! Boom! That’s the connection,” he smiles broadly.

Late at night after a long day of teaching, afternoon prep for the next day, an evening of grading papers, and dinner with his family, Mr. Vega puts on his running shoes and goes out for a run. It’s time to rejuvenate, to get some air. He encounters a large group of young men clustered together on the sidewalk, hoodie sweatshirts and the darkness of night obscuring their faces. Some people might assume that the young men were up to no good. Some may even be afraid to pass them. But Mr. Vega passes by holding his steady pace. Soon he hears the thump of footsteps behind him, matching his own. He picks up his pace—the thumping grows more intense. He slows down and the thumping quiets. The young men are following him. They are his students.

Mr. Vega’s eyes light up with joy when he tells me this story. I don’t miss the symbolism or his reason for sharing it with me. The students follow Mr. Vega because they want to share the challenge and exhilaration of his vigorous evening run with him, much like they follow him in the classroom. I suspect they love him as much as he loves them.


Mr. Vega’s story may simply read as a portrait of a great teacher. Nevertheless, few teachers in today’s policy context manage to maintain a practice so rooted in authentic care. Doing so entails the constant “pushing back,” either consciously or as a matter of natural instinct, against an ethos of neoliberalism, the productivity culture of the school, and specific mandates that erode the teacher–student relationship.

One of the most central characteristics of Mr. Vega’s practice that conflicted with the prevailing ethos was his explicit focus on developing positive, supportive, and culturally mediated relationships with students. His care orientation was set in opposition to the productivity culture of the school and its single-minded focus on control and achievement. Put another way, he demonstrated a student-driven practice predicated on a humanist model rather than a data-driven practice predicated on a productivity model. Mr. Vega’s care-oriented teaching practice began with his deep respect for and understanding of his students. As he viewed it, they were placed in his care, and he was charged with their overall social, ethical, and academic development. This greatly conflicted with the productivity culture, which places no emphasis on relationship-building and to a large degree undermines individual teachers’ efforts toward developing healthy social relations. Mr. Vega’s mission was not only to teach science, or, rather, the prescribed science curriculum, but to cultivate conscientious, intellectually curious learners. He also strove to develop organizational and study skills, social competencies, and a sense of dignity in his students. It was a matter of educación. He did this through treating his students in a dignified manner and becoming a listener. As Valenzuela (1999) and Noddings (1984) suggested, this is how reciprocity is established, which is essential to the establishment of an environment conducive to academic engagement.

Another way in which Mr. Vega pushed back against the prevailing culture was through his utter rejection of the negative dominant representations of his students that were embedded in institutional and societal discourses around Black and Latino/a and immigrant youth. They were not deviants or “gangsters” or uneducated kids who “lacked language.” He recognized the cultural and linguistic repertoires with which they entered the classroom, and he built on them in a manner consistent with a culturally responsive pedagogy. Nevertheless, Mr. Vega also avoided the trap of dismissing his students’ limitations. He was clear that his students, in general, lacked order and academic preparation. This is a risky public stance to take in a “no excuses” context when there is an obsessive focus on “high standards.” Such a stance can be constructed as a racist belief that the students lack the grit, or intelligence, to rise above their circumstances. A teacher who so explicitly acknowledges his or her students’ lack of preparation may also be accused of “looking for excuses” and not teaching to the high standards that have been legislated.

The opposite, however, was true of Mr. Vega. He had faith that his students could excel academically because he had done it himself. He identified with them; he recognized both their lack of prior access to high-quality educational experiences and the great potential within them. By fostering authentic relationships with his students and targeting instruction at their levels of understanding without succumbing to the pressures of pacing guides, curriculum, or testing schedules, Mr. Vega was able to provide the necessary foundation for academic success. He further resisted the prescribed instructional approaches by insisting that his students need not adapt to the scripted curriculum but that the curriculum needed to work for his students. It could only do so if he slowed down considerably, took time for the development of concepts, and provided space for dialogue and the nurturance of relationships.

Additionally, Mr. Vega resisted the ideological underpinnings of the “accelerated” English language learning approach consistent with current policy that devalues the linguistic skills of speakers of languages other than English and is premised on the idea that content material is somehow not “rigorous” unless it is in English. He taught in a bilingual program where it was expected of him to teach in the students’ native language, but the school had chosen a scripted program for them that was in English only. His response was to translate the entire program into Spanish. He also provided native language science instruction for his former students through tutoring long after they had been exited from the bilingual program. Through his practice, he instilled in his students an understanding that their native language skills were valuable and the gaining of content knowledge in one’s native language was an immensely important endeavor. The skills and knowledge acquired in the native language would transfer.


As I conclude, I address a few pertinent questions related to a theory of care-based resistance. Does a student-centered practice based on authentic, relational care constitute resistance? How might it be useful as an analytical tool, and what is its transformative potential? First, resistance is context-specific. A practice based on relational care would not necessarily be resistance outside the hegemony of neoliberal school reform. I began by summarizing the ways in which teachers’ identities and work have transformed in the context of neoliberal school reform, and I outlined the empirical research that indicates dramatic shifts in teachers’ work due to the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, scripted curricula, data-driven practice, and punitive control. In short, I have described the dominant ethos and policy trends that undermine teachers’ practices of care and authentic relationships with students, and I have argued that maintaining a practice rooted in cultural responsiveness and authentic care requires a certain rejection of institutional norms and opposition to policies and sanctioned practices.

In the field of education, teacher resistance is often viewed in pejorative and psychological terms. That is, resistance is understood as a manifestation of teachers’ fear or nostalgia, and the result is an obstruction of progress. Much of this type of resistance may actually be based on reasonable objections to unsound or unfair policies, but it does not always manifest itself in ways that support students. This is because it may not reject the implicit assumptions around cultural deficit and pejorative dominant representations of students from nondominant groups embedded in the ideology of neoliberal school reform. Mr. Vega’s colleagues who resented the accelerated English policy provide us with an example of this kind of resistance. Specifically, some of these teachers were resistant to the particular mandates aimed at facilitating the success of English language learners in their mainstream classrooms, such as using language scaffolding strategies to support students’ content-area development. Subsequently, according to Mr. Vega, the recently-exited ELL students became invisible in the mainstream. Care-based resistance, on the other hand, rejects both the narrow focus on quantifiable measures of “student achievement” and deficit perspectives. Further, care-based resistance does not threaten students’ progress in any way. Instead, it often serves to ameliorate the deleterious impact of policies and helps students succeed academically where they might otherwise not succeed. It is important, therefore, to distinguish care-based resistance from other forms of teacher resistance that may reject only the policies but not the dominant representations of students from nondominant cultural and linguistic groups.

I have also distinguished care-based resistance from other forms of principled resistance rooted in social justice perspectives or professional knowledge. There are always overlaps in that politically or professionally motivated resistance may also entail a strong care orientation, and similarly, a teacher’s care-based resistance is likely closely tied to his or her political perspectives and professional knowledge. Nevertheless, the teacher whose practice is primarily characterized by care-based resistance is more likely to be viewed by others as an accommodationist. That is, care-based resistance can be very subtle and missed by a casual observer because teachers who practice it may appear to be “working with,” rather than against, the administration. Mr. Vega, for example, demonstrated receptiveness toward new initiatives, or at least elements of initiatives, if they could benefit his students. He admitted that most of the mandates were not useful to him, but he generally refrained from complaining. Instead, he used such language as “making the program work” for his students. In this sense, he did not present a direct and overt challenge to policy the way politically motivated resistors generally would.

Care-based resistance, then, it not a push-back against policy, principled or unprincipled, the way other forms of resistance might be. Care-based resistance operates within the social relational and cultural realm, where it pushes back against a rather abstract set of dominant cultural and ideological forces. In a more positive articulation, it is an assertion of authentic care within the context of a culture of productivity and the prevailing neoliberal ethos.

In sum, the concept of care-based resistance offers educational researchers, teacher activists, and those interested in resistance theory a more nuanced understanding of the variety of ways that teachers resist reform mandates. The concept helps to reframe practices that may be construed as accommodation but in actuality contain important and powerful elements of resistance. It also helps us identify teachers who may be potential allies for political activists. Care-based resistance, as a form of cultural resistance, does have its limitations in terms of serving as a springboard for contentious politics around educational injustices, but practitioners of care-base resistance are likely to be sympathetic to larger efforts toward more just educational policies and practices. Additionally, even if teachers whose practices are rooted in authentic care are never fully politicized, they provide a valuable example of what it means to keep students and relational care at the center of our practice and politics.


1. Pseudonym.

2. See Sleeter (2012) and Young (2010) for more complete analyses of the various ways CRP gets enacted, some teachers’ very superficial understandings of CRP, and how policy contexts constrain teachers’ culturally responsive practices.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 5, 2015, p. 1-30
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17918, Date Accessed: 4/30/2017 4:32:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Nolan
    Princeton University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN NOLAN is a lecturer in the Program for Teacher Preparation and the Programs in American Studies and Freshman Seminars at Princeton University. Her research interests include the social context of urban schooling and urban school reform, school discipline, critical and culturally responsive pedagogies, and critical ethnographic methods. She is the author of Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and “Neo-liberal Common Sense and Race-Neutral Discourses: A critique of ‘Evidence-based’ Policy-making in School Policing” (2014) in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.
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