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Cultural Match or Culturally Suspect: How New Teachers of Color Negotiate Sociocultural Challenges in the Classroom

by Betty Achinstein & Julia Aguirre - 2008

Background: The call to recruit and retain teachers of color in urban high-minority schools is based on an assumption of a cultural match with students. Yet new teachers of color may find themselves challenged by students with whom they are supposedly culturally matched. Although past research has examined recruitment, preservice, and veteran experiences of teachers of color, little research investigates the critical novice phase.

Purpose: The study examines the induction experiences of new teachers of color in urban high-minority schools as they negotiate challenges about cultural identifications. The research questions ask: How, if at all, do new teachers of color experience sociocultural challenges from students? If they do experience such challenges, how do the teachers respond to them in practice?

Participants: Fifteen new teachers of color working in urban high-minority secondary schools in different subject domains in California. The participants include Latino, African American, Asian, Filipino, and biracial new teachers.

Research Design: This article draws from cross-case analysis of case studies of new teachers of color on the theme of responses to sociocultural challenges.

Data Collection/Analysis: Data are from teacher interviews, classroom observations, and focus groups, reflecting 3 years in the teachers’ lives. We coded the data on three levels: preliminary coding of sociocultural challenges, pattern coding of responses to challenges, and cross-case analysis.

Findings: The study findings complicate the limited conception of cultural match currently dominating policy and research rhetoric about teachers of color. The authors highlight a surprising new form of “practice shock” that the novices of color experienced when students of color questioned the teachers’ cultural identifications, finding them culturally suspect. The study also challenges the prevailing description of novices’ response to practice shock as moving toward more control-focused teaching. Instead, most novices at times took up the challenges as teachable moments and opportunities to broaden student conceptions. Teachers drew on “emergent multicultural capital” to negotiate challenges in ways that shaped teaching practice.

Conclusions: The literature on novices, drawn from a White-dominant sample, has not included a discussion of sociocultural conflicts or the supports needed in induction years for teachers of color. The study revealed the lack of support that many of the teachers felt in relation to negotiating sociocultural issues. The study raises issues about targeted induction support for teachers of color that educators and researchers should consider as they seek to diversify the workforce.

Be prepared to have your race be called in question. Be prepared to have your identity be called into question. . . . Be prepared to be criticized for that background and admired for it. . . . I think that’s the hardest part about being a teacher of color at [my school] because I went in, and I know who I am, and I formed my identity. But just because you know who you are doesn’t mean the students are going to accept it. They’re going to play with it. They’re going to tweak it. — Alejandra

Policy makers and researchers have described a cultural gap between teachers and students and the need to recruit and sustain quality teachers of color in urban schools.1 Nationally, although the student population is 40% students of color, only 17% of teachers are of color (with student projections of 50% by 2025)(NCES, 2003, 2004; NCTAF, 2003). In California, the site of our study, 65% of students are of color, compared with 25% for teachers (CDE, 2006a & b). A key assumption that drives a call for teachers of color is that they will have a cultural match with their students. Previous research reports that such a match may promote positive relationships and role models, support students in crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries in school, foster culturally relevant teaching for diverse students’ learning, and ease the professional’s transition to working in high-minority urban schools.2

Yet, as Alejandra,3 a new teacher of Mexican descent, described above in her advice to other novices of color, she was deemed culturally suspect by students with whom she was culturally matched when they questioned her sociocultural identifications. The purpose of this article is to take up Alejandra’s advice to be prepared for these challenges, by reporting on a study of 15 novices of color working in urban middle and high schools in California and how they negotiated these challenges. We report these complex issues not to undermine efforts to recruit and develop more teachers of color, but rather to provide a more realistic picture of challenges that novices of color experience teaching in urban contexts. These challenges are critical for induction and school leaders, and teacher educators to consider as they seek to diversify the workforce. Although educators and policy makers have turned their attention to recruitment and preservice issues4 for teachers of color, greater attention must be paid to their induction experiences. Induction is a unique phase during the transition from a student of teaching to teacher of students. It is a critical period of socialization into the norms of a profession (Feiman-Nemser, Schwille, Carver, & Yusko, 1999).

This study makes two significant contributions. First, it complicates the limited conception of cultural match currently dominating policy and research rhetoric about teachers of color by highlighting a surprising new form of “practice shock” that these novices experienced when students questioned and challenged their cultural identifications and authenticity. Second, the study counters the prevailing description in induction literature of novices’ response to practice shock as moving toward more control-focused teaching. Instead, most of the novices at times took up the challenges as teachable moments, broadening their students’ understandings.



We draw on the literatures that highlight both the promises of and challenges about cultural match between teachers and students of color. Cultural match identifies how students of diverse backgrounds have better access to learning opportunities if classrooms are constructed in ways that are more culturally congruent, compatible, responsive, or synchronized to their home cultures (Au & Kawakami, 1994; Jordan, 1985; Valencia, 2002; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). Recent work articulates two promising dimensions of cultural match between teachers and students of color. The first dimension foregrounds how teachers who share cultural, linguistic, racial, and class backgrounds with students provide a source of connection and examples of successful adults for the youth (Valencia, 2002; Villegas & Clewell, 1998). For example, Basit and McNamara (2004) and Su (1997) found that ethnic minority teachers perceive themselves as role models for their children, motivating students to attain higher academic achievement, broadening student thinking about possible career aspirations, and challenging society’s and students’ negative cultural stereotypes. The second dimension of cultural match foregrounds how teachers tap cultural resources in themselves and their students in their teaching practice (Foster, 1994; Galindo, 1996; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Villegas & Lucas, 2002), and support boundary crossing across multicultural contexts (Carter, 2005; Delpit, 1995; Irvine, 1989). For example, Galindo and colleagues examined how bilingual Chicana educators bridge cultural resources in their role identity as teachers who are supportive of minority childrens’ identities, parents, and communities (Galindo & Olguin, 1996). Foster (1991, 1993, 1994) described domains of connectedness to family, community, and culturally centered ways of teaching as central to her studies of African American teachers. Irvine (1989) found that African American educators serve as cultural translators, cultural brokers, and “conduits through which culturally encapsulated monocultural minority youngsters become multicultural” (p. 57). Carter identified the role of multicultural navigators as those who “harvest the cultural resources both from their own ethnic or racial heritages and from the opportunities provided outside of their communities. Multicultural navigators possess the insight and an understanding of the functions and values of both dominant and nondominant ethno-racial cultures” (pp.17–18).5

This study also complicates the notion of cultural match in three ways, reflecting recent research that raises challenges about the concept. First, to avoid the danger of oversimplifying or essentializing a cultural match, we consider the complex sociocultural differences between and among teachers and students of color. For example, Gordon (2000) reported that minority teachers described complexities of teacher-student cultural match mediated through class, language, color, educational opportunities, regionalism, cultural capital, and schooling experiences.6 Similarly, Au and Blake (2003), studying Hawaiian students and prospective teachers, found cultural match complicated by the intersection of ethnicity, class, and community membership. Second, we interrogate an unproblematized assumption that teachers of color will easily tap their cultural resources in practice with students of color. Just being a person of color does not guarantee effectiveness in teaching students of color (Quiocho & Rios, 2000). As Hernandez-Sheets (2000) articulated, cultural resources among teachers of color would need to be developed if valued, rather than assumed:

[The idea] that teachers of color, because of physical racial markers, advantage children of color, is fundamentally irrational. . . . While one can argue that teachers of color may possess valuable cultural and linguistic resources, it must also be recognized that these strengths need to be acknowledged, enhanced, and developed as pedagogical tools. (p. 7)

Third, we examine how classrooms are sites of many cultural conflicts (not just match or harmony) as students and teachers negotiate their sociocultural identities in the contexts of U.S. urban schooling (Anyon, 1994; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Delpit, 1995; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Oakes, 1985; Page, 1987). In other studies of minority students, challenges to teachers are characterized in a number of ways, from mismatch (cultural difference) to various forms of resistance (oppositional culture) (Ogbu, 1982; Solomon, 1992; Zine, 2000). Yet those studies often lack a focus on the teacher’s perceptions and actions, or conflicts between a teacher of color and students of color. Moreover, teachers are largely cast as representatives of schooling and the dominant culture, which does not always reflect the experiences of teachers of color.


The study draws from the interpretive and interactional traditions of research on new teacher socialization, which hold that both individuals and institutions shape socialization (Lacey, 1977; Lawson, 1992; Zeichner & Gore, 1990). We highlight the significance of teachers’ sociocultural conceptions, and personal and educational histories. Such factors shape teachers’ worldviews (Weick, 1995) and affect their school selection, connections with students, and teaching practices, which in turn shape the context for their socialization experiences (Delpit, 1995; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). For the purposes of this study, we use a working definition of sociocultural conceptions highlighting three dimensions. (1) The ways in which people continually negotiate and define themselves in relationship to: intersecting social and cultural communities (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, language, generation); and historical, political, institutional contexts that define and give status to certain communities (Lee, 2003; Matute-Bianchi, 1986). (2) Such conceptions are socially constructed, continually negotiated, and dynamic. (3) Such conceptions inform how people make meaning and take action (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

Teachers are also socialized within school and classroom contexts impacted by student communities (Anyon, 1994; Jordell, 1987; Lortie, 1975). A major trend in research on novices’ interaction with students/classrooms is “practice shock.” Veenman’s (1984) classic description of the dramatic/traumatic transition from teacher training to the first teaching as “reality shock,” “transition shock,” or “praxisschock” highlights a “collapse of the missionary ideas formed during teacher training by the harsh and rude reality of everyday classroom life” (p. 143).

Veenman and others investigating novice practice shock reported shifts in behavior and attitude from student-centered/democratic to more conservative/controlling approaches (Hoy, 1968; Muller-Fohrbrodt, Cloetta, & Dann, 1978; Veenman, 1984). While most previous research on new teacher induction has focused on White teachers, we wondered about new teachers of color.



Our initial research question for this study asked how the novices’ sociocultural conceptions impacted their teaching and relationships with students. We found experiences of both promise and challenge. One hundred percent of the participants initially described themselves as having some form of cultural match with students, connecting with students’ cultural identities in terms of race, ethnicity, language, class, or being a person of color. All identified a positive relationship with students because of shared sociocultural histories, and most described how this impacted the way that they made their teaching content relevant to their students’ cultures and acted as cultural role models to students. Yet, we also identified some surprising and significant challenges, not in the previous literature, that the teachers experienced in relation to their sociocultural conceptions. Thus, as the study developed, new research questions emerged and serve as the focus of this article: How, if at all, do new teachers of color experience sociocultural challenges from students? If they do experience such challenges, how do the teachers respond to them in practice? This article draws from cross-case analysis of 15 cases of new teachers of color in California on the theme of responses to sociocultural challenges. The study is situated in a larger body of research involving case studies of new teachers of color conducted by the New Teacher Center, University of California, Santa Cruz, to explore induction experiences. A case study approach offers an opportunity to describe teachers’ conceptions and the nature of classroom practice over time (Yin, 1989). Although not generalizable, findings provide opportunities to generate hypotheses and build theory (Hartley, 1994; Yin, 1989).

The authors of this article are (1) a White woman who is a former middle and high school social studies teacher in urban settings and who is also a school reformer, researcher, and teacher educator, and (2) a biracial Chicana/White woman of color who has taught middle and high school mathematics in formal and informal urban settings and who is also a researcher and teacher educator. Both are scholars concerned with diversifying the teaching profession and educational equity. In researching and writing together and collaborating with a larger group of culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse members on our data collection research team, we identified subjectivities, debated different interpretations of the data, and examined how our backgrounds and perspectives impacted the work. By listing our sociocultural and professional identities, we acknowledge complexities of insider/outsider status (Bettie, 2003). We also acknowledge some of the limitations that our own positions create in doing a qualitative study focused on issues of intercultural/intracultural dynamics. Although examining our backgrounds is beyond the scope of this article, our aim is to acknowledge that our own sociocultural and professional positionings impact this research. We continually reflected on the challenges. We also sought feedback from the teacher participants about how we reflected their experiences, and from other scholars of color to refine the work.


The participants include 15 secondary teachers7 reflecting different subject domains: 9 identify as Latino (Mexican/Mexican American), 2 as Asian American (Chinese/Vietnamese; Chinese American/Taiwanese), 2 as biracial (African American/White; Mexican/White), 1 as African American of Caribbean descent; and 1 as Filipina American.8 Ten identify as coming from families who are some version of low income, and 5 as middle income. Nine are female and 6 are male. In their second year of the study, the teachers went to teach in urban diverse schools, including 12 high schools and 3 middle schools with a cultural mix of student populations; a majority were in Latino-student-dominated populations. Seven of the schools are in Southern California and 8 in Northern California (see Appendix A).


Data are from teacher interviews, classroom observations, and focus groups, reflecting 3 years in the teachers’ lives. Each year of the study, teachers participated in 3 extensive semistructured open-ended interviews that were tape recorded and conducted in the fall, winter, and spring (totaling 135 interviews). Interviews ranged from 45 to 120 minutes.9 To capture instructional practices, researchers videotaped six lessons lasting 1–2 hours in each of the 2 years of their teaching during the study. Member checks conducted in the form of focus groups were included (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Finally, we sought feedback about the study from new teacher mentors at professional development seminars and from scholars of teachers of color.

We analyzed the data on three levels (Miles & Huberman, 1994). At the first level of preliminary coding, we summarized segments of data that referenced sociocultural issues from each data set and from descriptive case studies, distinguishing promising and challenging themes. We found evidence from all the participants about some promising forms of cultural match with their students that echo the literature. Yet, in this article, we focus on one of the complexities that emerged from the data about cultural match—when students of color challenged the cultural identification or authenticity of teachers of color. At the second analytic level, we generated pattern codes about the types of challenges and teacher responses to sociocultural challenges, using the constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) in an iterative process to generate, revise, and regenerate categories and codes (Miles & Huberman, 1994).10 Two researchers independently went back to recode the data and reach agreement on refining a typology of challenges (see Table 1). We also generated and regenerated codes derived from the data related to teachers’ responses, including reflection and problem framing, which describes the ways in which teachers identify and analyze the challenges; and actions associated with teaching practice, which captures how, if at all, the teachers incorporate the challenges into pedagogy, content, and relationships with students. We then went back to the data to refine response subcodes related to framing and practice (see Appendix B).

Cross-case analysis was the third level. We developed matrices and other displays to further condense data and draw comparisons (Miles & Huberman, 1994). We identified a common theme from the comparisons about an engaging response when teachers framed the challenge beyond a control/management issue and treated the incident as a teachable moment. We then rechecked by participant for instances of such engagement in each of the subcodes, viewing this as an existence proof that the teachers, in some instance, countered the prevailing control-oriented response to student challenges (see Table 2). Two researchers reached 90% agreement on interrater reliability checks on coding for typology of challenges and engaging responses. We incorporated feedback from a member check and critical commentary from other scholars and mentors.

Limitations of this study include the size of the sample, the underrepresentation of particular ethnic/racial subgroups, and the heavy reliance on teachers’ self-reports. Although we collected and report observational data, findings rely heavily on teachers’ views and experiences from interview data. Because we sought to understand the ways that teachers were making sense of and negotiating these challenges, their insider perspectives are vital.


In this section, we report how the teachers described a new form of practice shock in sociocultural challenges that defy a cultural match. We then explore an engaged teacher response that challenges the control-oriented response of novices depicted in the literature.


Although it is assumed in the literature that teachers of color will experience a cultural match with their students of color and thus have better connections and be more effective, 93% percent (14/15) of the novices reported challenges about their sociocultural identifications from their students of color. The teachers described how students viewed them as culturally suspect, calling into question their sociocultural identifications and authenticity.

The teachers of color viewed the challenges they faced in their classrooms in ways that recognized the sociocultural issues behind the student comments and the implications for relationships between students and teachers, and ultimately in ways that related to teaching practice. Counter to the dominant control-oriented or management frames concerned with issues of authority that novices often bring to classroom challenges (Achinstein & Barrett, 2004), the novices of color in our study had a more complex understanding of the students’ comments. We draw on Erving Goffman’s (1974) ideas of how we frame reality to make sense of our everyday lives, negotiate our world, and choose appropriate actions. Frames are the patterns and interpretations used to organize meaning, define problems, diagnose causes, make value judgments, and suggest remedies (Entman, 1993). Donald Schön (1983) described how educators frame challenging situations that arise in their practice through naming the problem, setting boundaries of attention to it, and imposing coherence to provide directions for change.

The teachers’ frames for viewing the challenges highlight four themes. First, the teachers’ descriptions are not control oriented. They do not tend to reflect a characterization of students’ actions as misbehavior, disruption of class, defiance of teacher authority, or as a call for the teacher to gain control. Second, teachers described the complex intersectionality of sociocultural issues in the classroom revealed by the challenges—that is, how some of the challenges arose at the intersection of race/ethnicity, language, gender, generation (immigrant status), and class. They understood the sociocultural complexities of classroom life (as situated in an historical/political context of the United States) and why such challenges might arise. Third, the teachers tended to characterize the issues as students questioning (8 out of 15) and/or confronting the teacher’s conceptions (12 of 15). Teachers found the students to be unclear about and/or challenging the teachers’ sociocultural conceptions.11 Fourth, teachers reported how the challenges were about student-teacher relationships. Students were attempting to identify the “familiar” to assess the “familial”; that is, students wanted to see their connectedness to the teacher. Although in some cases, the challenges were perceived as a “distancing” move, in most cases, teachers reported that they thought students asked authentic questions to make connections with the teacher, and they sometimes challenged the teacher in order to understand whether they could trust him or her. Table 1 highlights sociocultural challenges the novices described.

Table 1. Description of Types of Sociocultural Challenges in the Classroom (93% of respondents experienced)


Challenge Type

Number (and percentage)

of respondents Reporting (N = 15)

“The Brown/Black Test”

8 (53%)

The Origins Question

6 (40%)

What are you?

3 (20%)

Where are you/your parents from?

3 (20%)

Do you speak Spanish?

5 (33%)

Challenging Spanish ability

3 (20%)

Questioning Spanish

2 (13%)

Racism & Discrimination

4 (27%)

Intercultural racism/discrimination

2 (13%)

Intracultural racism/discrimination

2 (13%)

Gendered Challenges

4 (27%)

Talking White

3 (20%)

Class Clash

3 (20%)

“The Brown/Black test”

When students questioned the teacher’s cultural authenticity or loyalty, teachers described this as a “Brown/Black test.” Teachers found students testing fit with their conceptions of cultural membership. Alejandra, a bilingual Mexican American and low-income teacher, reported how her predominantly Latino students talked about “the Brown test . . . are you really Latina if you don’t really speak Spanish fluently? Are you really Latina if you were born in the States?” Carmen is a bilingual Chicana who taught a class that was half Latino and half African American, with rising racial tension, within a Latino-majority school. Carmen described a challenge when she didn’t “come out” for Cinco de Mayo “pride” day:

If you were Brown you were supposed to wear a Brown shirt and “kill the Black person.” Because I didn’t wear a Brown shirt, kids were hating on me, like you’re not Brown enough. [They were saying,] your posters say [Latino pride, but] you don’t come out. But there’s a thin line between pride and racism. . . . I told them you should be proud and Brown every day and to not use Cinco de Mayo as a day to promote their violence. But because I said that, they said I wasn’t Brown enough.

Tanya, an African American teacher of Caribbean descent from a low/middle-income background who taught primarily African American students, reported how her students “say that I act too Black or too, what we call ghetto. But they don’t say it in a negative way. . . . They’re not used to their teacher talking Black English.” The students of Sonya, a biracial middle-income teacher, challenged,

“Am I Latina? Am I Latina enough?”. . .  The idea that because I am only half Latino and I didn’t grow up in exactly the same way they did, [then] I wouldn’t be the same. . . . There would be heated exchanges and they would say, “You are White. You don’t know.”. . . They felt that I couldn’t really empathize with their situation.

Angela, a low-income Spanish-speaking Mexican American teacher with light skin and eyes, found her students asking, “You’re Mexican?” because some Latino and White students thought she was White.

Origins question

The origins question included students asking, “What are you?” and “Where are you or your parents from?” Teachers described sources of these questions as students’ curiosity or confusion about the teachers’ sociocultural identifications. They felt that students were trying to place them by connecting them to family roots, place of origin, generation, language affiliation, or parents’ backgrounds. In one case, John, a math teacher of biracial heritage (White, middle-class mother and African American father), described situations in which Latino and African American students asked him about his ethnic background. Some students were “straight curious,” whereas others were more “challenging,” saying, “you don’t act Black but you don’t look White; what are you?” Liz, a Filipina teacher with a Spanish surname, was mistaken for Mexican by her students. Latino students asked Ricardo, a bilingual low-income Mexican American, about his cultural background, where he and his parents were from.

Do you speak Spanish?

Teachers reported that students challenged teachers because of limitations in Spanish ability, at times labeling them as outsiders, or that students questioned teachers about whether they spoke Spanish to test the teachers’ connectedness to students. Gabriel, a Chicano teacher, reported how his Latino students jokingly called him “Gringo” because of his limited Spanish. Alejandra found that she had “Americanized Spanish. . . . So students call [her] out on that . . . they associated that with being educated, with being American.” Jose, a teacher who identified as a middle-class fourth-generation Chicano whose second language is Spanish, described how a student asked, “You speak Spanish?” He asked why the student wanted to know. The student said that Jose “didn’t act Latino.”

Racism and discrimination

Teachers also described how their students challenged them about being racist or discriminatory. Intercultural incidents included Carmen, who reported being accused of racism toward an African American student because the teacher was not African American. An African American male student told Mike, a Chinese American from a middle-class background, “that’s racist” when the teacher told the student to “go to the back of the line” (to have his paper corrected). Intracultural racism challenges came when Latino low-income students accused Alejandra of “discrimination; they cry out racism.” In an interesting twist of both intra- and intercultural challenges, a Mexican-descent student said to Gabriel, a Chicano, “Why you hatin’ on me? Because I’m Black?” The teacher was puzzled by the student’s comments and struggled to understand why his Mexican-descent student would adopt a Black identification in reacting to his Mexican-descent teacher.12

Gendered challenges

A fourth type of challenge involved tensions across genders. Alejandra said, “Some [Latino males] have machismo issues that they seriously need to work through.” Mike described how an Asian American male student “shuts down” in class, and the teacher attributed this behavior to a “lack of a male authority figure of color to tell him what to do.” Liz, a Filipina American from an upper-middle-income family with a strong American identity, was challenged by her predominantly Latino working-class students, who asked, “Why aren’t you married?” The teacher described this as a difference of cultures and gender roles.

Talking White

Teachers also reported sociocultural challenges related to academic language. Gabriel’s students said, “Your words are real White.” Linh identified as Chinese/Vietnamese American born in Hong Kong, an English language learner, and low income. She described how when she was reading a Shakespeare poem, “One of my students said, ‘Oh. You sound like a White girl.’. . .  I think because I am not Latino or African American, I don’t think they know many Asians or how they are supposed to act. . . . They know they are different from me.” Alejandra’s students “called [her] out on talking White,” associating it with academic discourse.

Class clash

Teachers also reported that students challenged their class and neighborhood backgrounds. In one case, Sonya found her predominantly poor Latino students challenged her because “you’re not from the barrio . . . and you drive a rich car . . . and went to a [private university].” In another case, Tanya described her students calling her out on being “too ghetto.” This same teacher also reported how minority teachers may not recognize the class and broader worldview differences between students and teachers of color: “I don’t think I can connect with my students in terms of class. . . . You’re not the same anymore [since going to college and becoming a teacher]. You’ve gone on and experienced things that your kids haven’t experienced yet.”


Beyond offering a typology of how the teachers described the challenges, we wanted to understand how they responded to and negotiated them. We found a pattern of high engagement with the challenges in ways that contradicted the literature. Table 2 displays instances in which teachers responded in engaging, rather than controlling, ways to their students’ sociocultural challenges. The table and this section reveal how many of the new teachers demonstrated evidence of (1) reflecting on and framing the challenges in ways that went beyond control or management responses; and (2) taking up the challenges as teachable moments and opportunities to describe their experiences and understandings of culture, to strengthen relationships with students, to broaden students’ conceptions, and to connect to content learning.

Table 2. Responses to Sociocultural Challenges



Number (and percentage) of Respondents (N = 14)

Instance of High Engagement in Reflection and Problem Framing


Identifies the challenge

14 (100%)

Frames beyond control/management issue

13 (93%)

Frames in multidimensional ways

12 (86%)

Reflects on challenge in relationship to own experiences

10 (71%)



Instance of High Engagement in Teaching Practice


Incorporates response to challenge into the classroom

10 (71%)

Describes own understandings of cultures in relation to challenge

10 (71%)

Uses challenge to problematize or broaden students’ conceptions

9 (64%)

Strengthens student-teacher relationship as a result of challenge

9 (64%)

Shares own experiences in relation to challenge

7 (50%)

Connects challenge to content/subject to support learning

6 (43%)

Reflection and problem framing

Instances of high engagement included a teacher acknowledging the specific incident as a challenge, viewing the challenge beyond a control or management issue, framing issues in multiple and complex ways, and reflecting on it in relation to his or her own experiences at home or school. For example, when Jose was challenged by his Latino students about whether he was Mexican and spoke Spanish, and for “not acting Latino,” he reflected that his students viewed him as “a different kind of Latino”—a well-educated, middle-class professional scientist who is multilingual (with Spanish as a second language, and Japanese a third). He did not view this as a management issue or as students questioning his authority. He thought back to his own high school experiences “dealing with [his] racial identity and intolerance.” He recognized the differences between his students’ and his own experiences due to region, generation, language, and class and reflected on the implications of his relationship with them.

I’m middle class . . . it does shape my reality and it biases what I know of the hardships of my community, so I only know a small part of it. It really pushes me to try to reach out and to really try to understand the needs of students that are lower class or recent immigrants.

He identified how his students may not have had an awareness of regional, generational, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity among the Latino community. “They are trying to figure me out. I am a Chicano from LA who has traveled different parts of the world, . . . didn’t speak Spanish . . . and that is very odd.” He contrasted his students’ experiences in northern California with his own upbringing in Los Angeles, with its greater diversity within the Latino community in terms of generations and greater political activism. Further, he linked the students’ questioning to their concerns about schooling:

Is the idea of a Latino like me stretching my boundaries and really pushing it, so scary and so difficult to imagine [for my students]? I think it is. That is part of the reason why there is so much resistance to putting on the coat of a student, or the coat of an academic . . . because it doesn’t feel like it is for them. That is the thing that I fight all the time.

Jose recognized how his school identity raised questions for students about their conceptions of cultural identification.

In another example, Tanya’s view of her African American student’s comment, “you act too Black or what we call ghetto,” explicitly acknowledged the challenge and framed its multiple dimensions. She did not consider this issue a management concern but rather a result of her African American students’ lack of interaction with teachers who spoke Black English or who code-switched between Black English and standard English. She explained that they were unaccustomed to seeing teachers of color revealing their culture, and “they’re not used to teachers relating to them culturally.” Tanya wanted to teach her kids how to access the language of power, yet also to “accept power on their own terms,” using their own voice, including Black dialect. She also framed the issue in terms of relationships with students and identified that if students got to hear her voice, then they could connect and “see [her] humanity.” She also revealed a class analysis, highlighting how her students came from a relatively higher economic status and thus saw her as “ghetto.” Tanya reflected on “historically discriminatory schooling practices” and why students of color would “come into the classroom distrusting all teachers, even teachers of color.” Her framing was finally linked to her own schooling experiences when she was challenged by primary teachers for her Caribbean accent and later felt affirmed in her sociocultural assets in a Historically Black College. She took pride in her ability to code-switch, modeled that for students, and explicitly taught about Black English. They heard her speak in Black English and be “intellectual,” validating Black culture while challenging stereotypes.

When Angela’s students thought that she was White because of her light skin and green eyes and questioned “You’re Mexican?” she recognized that “the majority of teachers they have had have been White. . . . The teacher identity in itself, kids look at as being White.” She also realized that they had not been taught about the history of Latin America, and the influence of the Spanish on the Aztec indigenous people and its impact on light-skinned people in Mexico. She then reflected on her own schooling experiences, which excluded a study of people of color, and how they shaped her own professional commitments: “I want to teach the history of people of color because I hardly was taught it . . .  I know that’s what kids need.” Carmen’s framing of “not being Brown enough” and coming out for Cinco de Mayo revealed an understanding of the racial tensions in her school, her Latino students’ need for solidarity, and their lack of understanding of Latino history. She remembered her own developing understandings of political consciousness and cultural pride but also viewed her students’ perspectives about Cinco de Mayo as an anti-African American day, as traveling “the thin line between pride and racism.”

Alternatively, there were some, but fewer, instances of lower engagement with challenges, including when a teacher did not recognize the incident as a challenge or viewed it unidimensionally (in a limited way or focused on control). When Ricardo’s Latino students asked him about his cultural background and wondered why his Spanish wasn’t perfect, he felt that students were “just curious.” When Mike encountered an Asian male student “shutting down” in class, the teacher framed the challenge in terms of control or a “lack of a male authority figures of color to tell him what to do.” Mike characterized the relationship as a “power struggle” because he was a person of color too, and he was being “tough” on the student.

Engagement in teaching practice

A high-engagement response in teaching practice was characterized by addressing the challenge in classroom practice either at the moment or at a future time by using the challenge as a teachable moment; by describing their own understanding of cultures in relation to the challenge; and by sharing their own experiences navigating home and school contexts related to the challenge. High engagement in practice also included broadening or problematizing student conceptions of culture in relation to the challenge, strengthening student-teacher ties, and, in some cases, explicitly connecting the challenge to help students learn content.

For example, in addressing the challenges about “talking White,” Alejandra drew on her own experiences of navigating multiple worlds. She shared her own experiences of being concerned about losing her home language as she went to school, seeking to reclaim it in later years, and struggling with managing dominant and home cultures:

I always acknowledge that there are these different worlds that I travel between, and we talked about it. You are supposed to learn to navigate between all the different worlds. Some worlds require you to behave in a certain way, and some require you to behave differently, but that doesn’t mean you lose your identity . . . I explain to [the students what I do].

Alejandra took up the cultural conflicts as teachable moments and followed up by explicitly discussing the questions in class in terms of the “culture of power” and the “power of their own culture.” She connected the challenges to her teaching content, relating it to issues of academic discourse, the language of power, and code-switching in negotiating multiple worlds. Alejandra connected the conflicts about “talking White” to learning the culture of power and discourse of power. She made this explicit in her teaching of humanities to students, both in how she taught them about discourse (e.g., academic language and how they present themselves) and in her choices of curriculum (texts that represent both home cultures and the dominant cultures). She saw this as a way to support students’ access to power in society. She wanted students to be able to use academic language and speak professionally, yet keep their identity. Alejandra explained,

Just like code-switching a language, like Spanish and English, you can code-switch with the way you speak English and code-switch with the way you dress. Our school has a very strict code on [student academic performance] exhibitions and every year students have to show up and suit up for a certain exhibition. We make it clear to the students that there’s a very certain way to speak and to dress at those exhibitions and it’s not to subtract from who you are, but it’s to make you even stronger. Now you can do two things, whereas other people can only do one. You try to turn it around on them like that just to make sure that they see it as one of those tricks to get ahead.

Alejandra further described how helping students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to traverse and be successful in multiple worlds may lead to confronting inequities and transforming their worlds. “There are certain things that society as a whole value and society is not run by people who look like them and they need to be able to function within that society. If they can function, they’re more likely to change it in some positive way.” Alejandra also used the challenge as a site to broaden and complicate students’ sociocultural conceptions, helping them to understand how diverse being a minority can be. When Alejandra responded to the “Brown test,” she described her goal as to:

Get my students to widen their perspective of what it means to be a certain race. . . . It’s very important for them to understand that just because you behave in a way that’s different from theirs, just because I use certain words that they might not use, doesn’t mean that I’m any less Mexican than them.

Alejandra saw these sociocultural challenges as occasions to strengthen rather than weaken ties to students. Code-switching supported her connectedness with students. “The fact that I can switch off into Spanish for certain students makes me more accessible to them and makes them feel more comfortable with me. The fact that some of them can hear my accent and a lot of them have an accent, that makes me more accessible.”

In another instance of high engagement in practice, Alicia, a Mexican American teacher, explained that her students expected her to be “super Mexican” because she was a Spanish teacher. She engaged this challenge directly by sharing with students her own experiences about speaking both languages—having a “dual culture”—and incorporating this into her teaching of content.

I do speak the language well but I do speak English well also. When I’m describing myself, I have the fact that I have this dual culture and it’s something that I’m proud of. It’s something that they could be proud of also because in picking language classes they’re developing those skills also. I try to emphasize the fact that they get the opportunity to have the best of both worlds.

She explicitly tried to broaden some Latino students’ conceptions by reconnecting them to their heritage language of Spanish and the beauty of their culture: “I want them to have a different sense of self and have their culture be a part of them.”

Gabriel responded to challenges that he didn’t act Mexican by problematizing and broadening the student’s conceptions with questions like, “What does a Mexican act like? Where do those ideas come from?” and “Even though we both are Mexican, we still have different backgrounds and experiences. . . . Not all Mexicans act the same. Not all White people act the same. Not all African Americans act the same.” Some teachers, like Sonya and Gabriel, explicitly initiated new teaching practices as a result of the challenges, including activities in which they introduced their own and their students’ sociocultural identifications (e.g., cultural collages and community-building discussions).

When students assumed that she was Mexican because of her last name, Liz linked the issue to her humanities class subject content about acculturation and assimilation. She recounted her own Filipino immigrant parents, her experience growing up in a predominantly White community, and the history of Spain’s occupation in the Philippines, which influenced names. She pressed the students to broaden their thinking:

I grew up in a community where there’s a lot of White people—in my own sort of bubble. You guys live in a bubble too. You thought I was Mexican, but there are plenty of Filipinos around you. . . . Not being aware or able to see, that’s a different kind of blindness.

Liz also expressed her own struggles with cultural identity and assimilation because of how she grew up. She described that as a result of being open to and addressing the students’ challenge, she built a stronger relationship with them:

I’ve learned something more from my students in relating to them about my own struggles with thinking about race. Learning how to be vulnerable to them in that respect and trying to push them too, to talk about it, put it out in the open, and [allowed me to] relate to them.

Constraints and lack of support

Alternatively, a few teachers did not address or minimally addressed the challenges, and some lacked support or may have felt constrained from incorporating the challenges into their teaching. For example, Ricardo answered the student’s questions about his origin and moved on, rather than engage with the student further. When challenged about “sounding like a White girl” while reading Shakespeare, Linh explained that she took no offense, that she does sound White when she “code-switches to a professional voice,” and that she understood why her students who experience racism by Whites “and don’t want to sound White” would make such a comment. However, she did not follow up on these issues in the classroom. Others felt constraints and a lack of support. Theresa felt that she could not respond to the challenges and was “out there on [her] own” to try and address cultural issues/conflicts, not adequately prepared to discuss race issues in her class. Gabriel, who did take up the teachable moment, still described a lack of support to address such challenges. When he asked advice of his assistant principal on how to address the cultural questioning, the administrator said that history class was “more appropriate” to discuss those issues than was Gabriel’s math class. “He was talking about the standards and we don’t have time to discuss . . . race.”

Moreover, we asked all the participants in open-ended interviews what kinds of supports, if any, they received in talking about issues of race, ethnicity, class, and language in teaching or in connecting content to their students’ and teachers’ cultures. Sixty-seven percent of the teachers reported that they experienced little to no support in these areas. Many described how they had not turned to anyone or felt that they had no one to turn to in order to discuss these sociocultural challenges. Sonya described the support that she would have needed, but had not received, to address her sociocultural challenges:

To better support new teachers of color [we need] . . . to provide communities where they can experience and talk to each other about their own experiences to see similarities and differences and to see if that would further support their teaching and growing as a teacher. Whether it is issues of kids calling them out on things or kids not believing them or challenging them. . . . There would be an opportunity to discuss those issues with someone who maybe has had a similar experience. I don’t think [I had that opportunity].


Our findings contribute to discussion in two areas of significance. First, in examining the sociocultural challenges of new teachers of color, the study highlights a new kind of practice shock and complicates the cultural match hypothesis highlighted in research and policy rhetoric. Second, counter to the prevailing description of control-oriented responses to practice shock, these novices, at times, took up the challenges as teachable moments that served to broaden their students’ conceptions. The findings reveal how novices negotiated these challenges by drawing on emergent multicultural capital in ways that impacted practice, but also raise issues of support.


New kind of practice shock for new teachers of color

Our study contributes to and challenges some of the findings of earlier work on new teacher practice shock in identifying a new type of sociocultural challenge that beginning teachers of color face. The literature describes practice shock as novices transition from idealism to face the reality and complexity of classroom life (Bergmann et al., 1976). The literature identifies dominant challenges that lead to the shock as classroom management and discipline, motivating students, varying instruction to accommodate different learners, relationships with parents, resources, and dealing with problem students (Furlong & Maynard, 1995; Veenman, 1984). Previous literature does not capture the kinds of sociocultural challenges specific to novices of color that teachers identified in our study. Such challenges came as a new form of practice shock to novices who entered with strong expectations of a cultural match and positive student-teacher ties. Nor does the literature about White teachers’ “cultural gap” account for the kinds of unique sociocultural challenges—for example, the Brown/Black test, origins question, talking White—that novices in this study reported.

Complicating cultural match

The findings complicate the limited cultural match rhetoric dominating the literature in three ways. First, the findings contradict a simplistic one-to-one correspondence of cultural match, revealing the complexities and negotiated meanings of cultures in classrooms. Intersectionality refers to the convergence of multiple and sometimes conflicting sociocultural identifications, such as ethnicity/race, gender, generation, language, and class, that shape peoples’ experiences (Crenshaw, 1995). Looking across the challenge types, we see how they arise at intersections of race/ethnicity, language, gender, generation, and class. They reveal how a simplistic “cultural match” between a teacher of color and a student of color masks the multiple and conflicting affiliations. A biracial (Mexican American/White), bilingual female teacher from a lower/middle-class background interacted with her predominantly low-income Mexican American students differently than did a fourth-generation middle-class Chicano whose primary language was English and whose students represented multiple ethnic/racial communities. Those experiences were still different from a female first-generation low-income Chinese/Vietnamese American teacher who taught Latino and African American students of diverse class backgrounds.

Second, the sociocultural challenges reveal a limitation in the dominant harmonious conception of the cultural match hypothesis. Although there was great correspondence and connection between teachers of color and their students of color, 14 out of 15 teachers found themselves culturally suspect—that is, questioned and challenged about their sociocultural self-identifications and connectedness with students.13 Further, although other research has documented institutional constraints and culturally discontinuous school climates, highlighting challenges from administrators, colleagues, schooling policies, teacher education, and teachers own early schooling experiences (Foster, 1990; Galindo & Olguin, 1996; Lipka, 1991; Mabokela & Madsen, 2003; McLaughlin, 1993; Quiocho & Rios, 2000; Tellez, 1999), this study spotlights the interaction with students of color as a critical site of conflict for novices of color.

Third, the findings call for moving beyond cultural match to an understanding of sociocultural differences amid convergences among teachers and students of color. Although the teachers of color identified strong convergences with students, they also came to see the differences that complicated their ties. A recognition of differences amid convergence is not meant to undermine the importance of affirming shared sociocultural experiences, co-membership in community, and the project of diversifying the workforce. In fact, the cultural questioning was understood by the teachers as an investigation of sociocultural differences amid convergence. Teachers saw the challenges as an attempt by students to check “How like me are you?” or “What kind of connection can I have with you?” These findings reaffirm Stanton-Salazar’s (2001), when he identified how Latino students held Latino teachers to a higher standard regarding their commitment to Latino students. He also found that students with the lowest self-efficacy, self-esteem, and trust looked to those most like familial agents (kin) in terms of language, ethnicity, class, gender, and age.14 Our findings expand his work to explore the nature of how teachers navigate these heightened expectations and their impact on teaching practice. The student challenges were related to this heightened sense of expectations, a consciousness of culture in the classroom, and a longing for connectedness. The Brown/Black test, the Spanish questions, and the origins questions were about students trying to place the teacher within their sphere of understanding of cultures—a search for the familiar and familial. The critical questioning also provided opportunities to complicate students’ and teachers’ conceptions about sociocultural identities. The questioning was, at times, about exploring student and teacher identities in relation to the dominant culture and in relation to the range of identities possible both within and outside their own communities. Thus, these events revealed some diversity amid community.


A surprising noncontrol response: Complex framings of sociocultural challenges

This study highlights an unexpected response. In addressing this new kind of practice shock, most novices did not resort to the dominant logic of conservativism, or control-oriented or custodial attitudes and practices highlighted in previous research (Bergmann et al., 1976; Hoy, 1968; Muller-Fohrbrodt et al., 1978; Veenman, 1984). Although some were surprised, hurt and challenged by the incidents, most did not move to control behavior. The teachers reflected on the challenges using multidimensional frames to view the issues that allowed for a complexity of actions beyond a control response. The frames used by novices highlighted the sociocultural roots of the issues raised by students, implications for teacher-student relations, and the academic potential for addressing challenges. Teachers saw how the students’ comments revealed the complex intersectionality of sociocultural issues in the classroom, implicating how race, ethnicity, language, gender, generation, and class interact to create tensions in both schools and society. The teachers viewed the students’ words as authentic questions or challenges about sociocultural conceptions, and they saw how students were attempting to identify the familiar and familial in the teachers and ultimately make connections to teachers.

Engaging challenges in practice: Drawing on emergent multicultural capital

The teachers demonstrated evidence of high engagement with the challenges in ways that impacted practice. We see an emergent form of multicultural capital at work in the teacher responses.15 Multicultural capital, in the context of teachers’ sociocultural challenges, reflects the teachers’ resources to read the cultural codes in sociocultural challenges using multiple frames; draw on her or his own experiences to negotiate the challenges and share that with students; explicitly teach about and problematize students’ conceptions about cultural codes; strengthen teacher-student relations; and connect the challenges to student learning. Multicultural capital is reflected in the high engagement responses in Table 2.

Alejandra’s example demonstrates the use of emergent multicultural capital to negotiate the sociocultural challenges. She read the cultural codes in sociocultural challenges. She identified the “talking White” conflict in terms of Delpit’s (1995) culture of power and home culture issues, articulating the sociocultural content of the conflicts in “talk,” language, culture, and identifications as American versus Mexican. Alejandra used her own home culture and dominant culture to negotiate challenges, drawing on her own experiences of losing language, reclaiming home culture, and navigating home/dominant cultures. She shared these experiences with her students. She transferred capital to students in the form of explicitly teaching about power of home culture and culture of power in code-switching and talk in school. Alejandra problematized students’ limited conceptions of cultures and challenged the dominant system by articulating how teaching students about both dominant culture and affirming home culture can help them transform the dominant culture and change the system. Alejandra found her relationships with students strengthened by revealing her own negotiations. She also connected the challenge to content in order to support student learning about academic language in her humanities classroom.

Other teachers also demonstrated emergent multicultural capital. Alicia’s responses sought to broaden her students’ conceptions by reconnecting them to their heritage language. Gabriel responded by problematizing and broadening the student’s conceptions, asking, “What does a Mexican act like? Where do those ideas come from?” Liz linked the challenge to her subject content, sharing out about her own immigrant parents and her experience growing up in a predominantly White community, and discussing the history of Spain’s occupation in the Philippines, which influenced names. She pressed the students to broaden their thinking about cultures and see beyond “a different kind of blindness.”

In articulating multicultural capital, we draw on conceptualizations of cultural capital, which reflects access to cultural attributes associated with privilege or status in dominant society (Bernstein, 1990; Bourdieu, 1977). But we also challenge deficit assumptions behind some conceptualizations of cultural capital that label nondominant cultures as lacking in powerful resources (Yosso, 2005). We chose to get at this through a conception of multicultural capital, highlighting the ways that these resources support navigating multiple contexts and draw on and value both dominant and home cultures. Further, we wanted to build on Yosso’s notion of “community cultural wealth” to be shared rather than banked, stockpiled, or saved as capital.16 We also build on conceptions of “multicultural navigators” (Carter, 2005), as educators who draw from their own cultural resources and support students of color to negotiate their worlds. Such navigators know the purpose and values of dominant and nondominant cultures. “They provide critical social ties for co-ethnic members who are less fluent or less successful in navigating mainstream expectations. . . . They [also] demonstrate for youth how to discern different cultural rules and expectations within myriad environments and how to negotiate these rules strategically” (pp. 17–18).

We use the term emergent multicultural capital to signify that, as novices, the teachers are beginning to demonstrate evidence of using their multicultural capital as a resource and demonstrate varying capacities to marshal and share such resources. This highlights the complexity of tapping such resources rather than assuming that all teachers of color have access to and can use such capital. The term emergent also emphasizes that support may be needed to tap such multicultural capital.

Supports needed

The majority of the teachers reported a lack of support to talk about issues of race, ethnicity, class, and language in teaching or to connect content to their students’ and teachers’ cultures. In Gabriel’s case, he was explicitly told not to address the issues in his classroom, whereas Theresa felt alone and unprepared. Sonya highlighted a need for a professional community to discuss sociocultural challenges. Such a lack of support in thinking about sociocultural challenges may be understood as the dominant “colormute” stance of educators when it comes to speaking about how race and culture matter in student-adult relationships (Pollack, 2004). But such a lack of support left some novices, like Theresa, “out there on [their] own.”


Because this study is based on examples from case studies of 15 teachers, its findings are more suggestive than conclusive. However, what the findings suggest warrants the attention of researchers and practitioners.


The advantage of relying on analysis from intensive case studies is that it enabled us to deeply explore the experiences of new teachers of color. The disadvantage is that we cannot be sure our findings are applicable to other settings. We recognize the need for more research to verify the patterns and improve our understanding of experiences of novices of color. We see merit in investigating new teachers’ work lives, disaggregating by sociocultural dimensions, comparing groups, analyzing intersectionality, and appreciating differences among teachers due to sociocultural and professional identities. Future research should examine the interaction of sociocultural and professional identifications and change over time across different educational contexts. Further, future studies could investigate the impact of multicultural capital on ways that novices of color negotiate their challenges, on teaching practices, and on student learning. Such research could support the development of a more complex understanding of cultural match.


Historically, the literature on novice supports and challenges that is drawn from a White-dominant sample has not included a discussion of sociocultural conflicts or the supports needed in induction years for teachers of color. This suggests troubling consequences that should be explicitly addressed in induction programs with tailored support for novices of color. If teachers of color who expect to be cultural matches with their students of color find themselves culturally suspect and challenged by their students, this study suggests that induction supports are needed to help address a new form of practice shock. The study revealed the lack of support that many of the teachers felt in relation to negotiating sociocultural issues in their classrooms.

When the teachers in this study engaged the sociocultural challenges by using their emergent multicultural capital, they influenced practice, strengthened student-teacher ties, and broadened student perspectives. Yet cultural resources among new teachers of color need to be developed if valued, rather than assumed (Hernandez-Sheets, 2000). This study adds to the preservice literature about the need to cultivate cultural resources of teachers of color. For example, Murell (1991) found that African American students’ cultural knowledge was not valued in teacher education and classroom interactions. Avenues for reconciling conflicts about teachers’ developing philosophy that address minority perspectives are often not provided within teacher education programs. Murrell highlighted how minority preservice teachers need support in discovering “who they must be as teachers” (p. 223). This study suggests that beyond preservice, induction programs and schools need to focus on developing and supporting multicultural capital among novices of color. Induction should support novices in engaging students in meaningful exploration of sociocultural issues. The article also suggests that targeted induction supports are needed to help new teachers of color negotiate the complexities of being a cultural match and a cultural suspect in their own classrooms.


We wish to express our gratitude to the participating teachers in this study who shared so generously. We wish to acknowledge the support for this research provided by the Flora Family Foundation. We thank the New Teacher Center, University of California, Santa Cruz, Ellen Moir, its executive director, and the staff at the center. We recognize the significant contributions of the entire research team on the broader study on new teachers of color, including Michael Strong, Lisa Johnson, Candice Millhollen, Iris Weaver, Anthony Villar, and Sally Hewlett. We also thank new teacher mentors who gave us feedback on initial findings. We especially thank Larry Cuban, Steven Z. Athanases and his graduate class, Rodney T. Ogawa, Ana María Villegas, Aida Hurtado, Susan Moore Johnson, Michael Strong, Candice Millhollen, Enid Lee, Anna Rios, Rochelle Gutierrez, Geert Kelchtermans, Lyn Corno, and anonymous reviewers for their feedback at various points in the evolution of this article.


1. Finding an appropriate way to characterize the socioculturally diverse group of teachers in our study raises challenges. We chose to use the term teachers of color because it is a more updated description than the term minority, given the shifting demographics of the nation. As Nieto (2000) noted, the term people of color describes groups such as African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians, and Latinos; emerged from the communities themselves; and “implies important connections among the groups and underlines some common experiences” (p. 30) in the United States. However, a mutual history does not equate to a shared socio-cultural-historical experience. We understand the limitations of such a term and its problematic historical roots. Whenever possible, we will designate a specific sociocultural identification of a particular teacher (or group of teachers) and, more important, will use the terms that the teachers used to describe themselves and their students. Although we recognize that the process of naming is vitally important and highlight in this research the participants’ self-identifications and the diversity of sociocultural identities within and across the participants, we needed a workable term to look across the multiple groups in our data set. When referencing past research, we draw on the terminology of the researchers.

2. For literature on how teachers of color foster a cultural match with students, provide positive relationships and role models, and support students in crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries in school, see Gandara & Maxwell-Jolley, 2000; Irvine, 1989; and Valencia, 2002. For literature on culturally relevant teaching and the success of teachers of color in supporting diverse students’ learning, retention, and achievement, see Dee, 2004; Ehrenberg & Brewer, 1993; Foster, 1997; Hanushek, 1992; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 1994, 1995, 2001; Moll et al., 1992; Quiocho & Rios, 2000; Villegas & Lucas, 2004; and Zeichner, 1996. For discussion of how teachers of color have an easy transition to working in high-minority urban schools, see Haberman, 1996; and Murnane, Singer, Willet, Kemple, & Olsen, 1991.

3. All teacher names are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.

4. Programs have proliferated to develop alternative pathways into the profession, recruitment of paraprofessionals, and students of color in earlier years (see Villegas & Lucas, 2004). Research on preservice issues for teachers of color focuses particularly on testing issues, the Whiteness of teacher education institutions, exclusion of the perspectives of teachers of color, and the over-focus on needs to raise the consciousness of White teachers teaching culturally diverse youth (Delpit, 1995; Villegas & Lucas, 2004; Montecinos, 1995; Sleeter, 2001; Valencia, 2002; Valencia & Aburto, 1991).

5. Weisman’s (2001) study of Latina teachers highlights the concept of bicultural identity, in which a person can function in two worlds (primary/home culture and dominant culture) and hold a critical perspective of the histories of subordinate groups to impact social change (Freire, 1970; Romero, 1995).

6. For example, some middle-class Latino teachers resented working with low-income children, and certain teachers from lower SES backgrounds resented teaching Latino children whose cultural capital exceeded their own.

7. These 15 participants represented secondary teachers and had complete data sets. Participants in the broader study were selected on the following criteria: (1) initially was a teacher candidate in one of two teacher preservice programs that has a commitment to recruiting teachers of color, placing them in urban diverse settings, and providing them explicit classes on issues of diversity and culturally relevant and socially just teaching; (2) identified as a teacher of color with a commitment to working in an urban school with a high minority-student population; (3) reflected a spectrum of subject matter domains, and both genders; and (4) was situated in California, where the policy context is relatively supportive of new teachers (with a funded mandate for induction and mentoring throughout the state).

8. We recognize the limitations of overrepresentation of Latino teachers but also note the overrepresentation of Latino student population in schools in California (site of the study).

9. In the first year of the study, the interviews focused on professional and personal backgrounds, interests in teaching, beliefs and practices about teaching, sociocultural conceptualizations, relationships with students, preservice experiences, and supports and challenges in learning to teach. In the second year, which was their first year of teaching in schools, we interviewed teachers on the lessons that researchers observed and continued to ask about teachers’ beliefs and practices. We specifically highlighted culturally relevant teaching issues, school context and fit, relationships with students, sociocultural conceptions and influence on their teaching, supports and challenges in learning to teach and cultural issues, and assessment of change over time in their conceptions and practices. In the third year of the study, several questions were repeated from the second-year protocols to check for consistency over time, and other questions followed up on emerging themes from the first 2 years of data collection. These included questions about being a cultural role model for students and how sociocultural conceptualizations were formed, changed over time, and influenced their teaching of content and relationships with students.

10. We initially constructed matrices representing each incident when students challenged the teacher’s sociocultural identifications, and the teacher responses. From this, we developed a typology of sociocultural challenges drawing on the ways that the participants viewed and named the challenges.

11. Although questioning and confronting are different phenomena, the teachers’ responses to student questions versus pushing back were not significantly different (responses discussed later). Further, some comments that began as questions were embedded in confronting issues (e.g., “Where are you from? How come you don’t act Mexican?”).

12. Interestingly, in a collective reflection on this issue, another participant hypothesized that the first- and second-generation Mexican American students, like African American students, had developed a pessimistic view toward school once they realized how school and U.S. society were not offering them access, and thus they may have formed “countercultural” responses to schooling and teachers.

13. Although one may be tempted to reduce the challenges to the fact that students and teachers were not literally matched on some sociocultural dimension (SES, ethnicity, race, language, gender, and so on), we found that even teachers whose every subidentification corresponded to that of their students still experienced sociocultural challenges with the students.

14. Although overall, students in Stanton-Salazar’s study did not have ethnic/racial preferences of teachers, instead looking for an authentically caring teacher (transcending race/ethnicity), the students with lowest self-efficacy and trust did report a familial-like teacher preference.

15. We want to distinguish our use of multicultural capital from Bryson’s conceptualizations (1996). Bryson, extending the work of Bourdieu (1984), focused on cultural tastes (e.g., music) and found that the primary form of status distinction among the more advantaged class in modern societies is an openness to a wide variety of cultural forms and expressions of cultural tastes (e.g., high- and low-status musical activities). Bryson identified how this new cultural currency may be a type of multicultural capital.

16. We recognized the limitation of using the economic conception of capital and yet wanted to access notions of power, educational attainment as a form of wealth, and resources to be marshaled that the term capital does capture.


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Participants by Background and School Demographics

click to enlarge


Sample Coding System on Data From Gabriel


Some students even confronted me. They don’t think of me as being Mexican, or they don’t see me as being like them. Even though we may have the same skin color, they still see me as an outsider. . . . And I was just kinda blown away. They’re shocked to know that I’m Mexican. I guess they’re just not used to seeing a Mexican or I’m third generation, and these students are probably first or second. . . . They ask me, “What are you? Where are your parents from?” . . . . The way I act or talk, they’re just not used to coming from another Latino.


Challenge Type Codes: “Brown/Black Test”; Origins Question

Frame Code: Frames Beyond Control/Management Issue


S: How come you don’t act Mexican?

T: That’s a good question. But what do you mean? What does a Mexican act like?

S: I don’t know. You act weird, like your words are real White, when you talk.

T: . . . Think about what is a Mexican supposed to act like? Where do you get those ideas from? . . . Even though we both are Mexican, we still have different backgrounds, different experiences. Okay? . . . Be careful of what you think a Mexican is supposed to act like because not all Mexicans act the same. Not all White people act the same. Not all African Americans act the same. If you were to go to Texas and see a Mexican, you might think the culture is different. Yes, I am Mexican. But remember, all Mexicans are different. I want to talk about this more.


Practice Code: Uses Challenge to Problematize or Broaden Students’ Conceptions

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 8, 2008, p. 1505-1540
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15156, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:06:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Betty Achinstein
    University of California, Santa Cruz
    E-mail Author
    BETTY ACHINSTEIN is a researcher at the New Teacher Center, University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research interests include new teacher socialization; diversity, equity, and schooling; mentoring and induction; and professional communities. Her recent publications include Mentors in the Making: Developing New Leaders for New Teachers(Teachers College Press 2006) with Steven Z. Athanases; “(In)fidelity: What New Teacher Resistance Reveals About Professional Principles and Prescriptive Educational Policies” in Harvard Educational Review (2006) with Rodney T. Ogawa; and “Focusing New Teachers on Diversity and Equity: Toward a Knowledge Base for Mentors” in Teaching and Teacher Education (2005) with Steven Z. Athanases.
  • Julia Aguirre
    University of Washington, Tacoma
    JULIA AGUIRRE is an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Her research interests include mathematics learning and teaching, teacher cognition, teacher education, roles of race/ethnicity, language, culture, and class in mathematics education, and culturally responsive pedagogy. Her recent publications include: "Examining the Relationship Between Beliefs and Goals in Teacher Practice," Journal of Mathematical Behavior (2000), with N. Speer and "Examining Teacher Beliefs Related to Algebra Competency in the context of the 'Algebra for All' Reform Debate," In M. L. Fernandez (Ed.) (2000) .
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