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Redirecting our Gaze: Seeing Things as They Are

by Christine K. Lemley & Gerald K. Wood - August 24, 2012

For the first time in history, more minority children were born in the United States than white children (US Census Bureau, 2012). In Arizona, House Bill 2281 bans teaching ethnic studies curriculum; this ban highlights the contested nature of knowledge and the significance of educating students through a curriculum that is responsive to and grounded in the lives of all students. This article argues that culturally relevant pedagogy be interspersed throughout teacher education program coursework in order to prepare teachers to serve the needs of the changing PK-12 student demographics.

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

         -Anaïs Nin

In the opening quote, Nin argues that our understanding of reality is premised on our identities rather than on objective facts.  Consequently, we often understand experiences through our own lived realities based on our race, social class, and privileges and/or disadvantages.  Meanwhile, for the first time in history, more minority children were born in the United States than white children (US Census, 2012).  How are we as teacher educators preparing our teacher education students to serve all students and their communities?  The goal of this commentary is to demonstrate how culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994) can better prepare all educators to serve increasingly diverse student populations.

The demographics of teacher education students mostly resemble those of teachers: 84% white and female (National Center for Education Information 2011).  If white, middle class, female teacher education students could adjust their gaze to see school through the multiplicity of students’ lived experiences, teacher education students may be able to scaffold academic success and engagement.  “Teacher education has not created a strong pipeline of diverse scholars who can challenge conventional thinking about what it means to teach diverse groups of students” (Ladson-Billings, 2011, p. 13).  Specifically, we need to offer courses addressing how culture impacts teaching and learning and increase the diversity and retention of teacher educators of color that are committed to equity issues.  Ladson-Billings further argues that whereas we do need to recruit and retain more teachers of color, we also need to look at the university teacher educators and how they are engaging these issues throughout the program curriculum, not only in individual courses. Here we describe how teacher educators can apply culturally relevant pedagogy to recruit and retain students of color as well as engage CRP throughout program pedagogy and content.


We situate ourselves in the ideals of culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994) to identify individual and institutional inequities (Adams, Bell, and Griffin, 2007) and promote teacher as well as student engagement and empowerment.  Culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1994) comprises three tenets: (1) academic achievement, (2) cultural competence, and (3) sociopolitical consciousness.  Academic achievement involves student learning that is broader than test scores.  With academic achievement, teachers encourage all students to experience success in their content area.  Cultural competence uses the students’ culture as a vehicle for learning to promote awareness of students’ own cultures as well as fluency in at least one additional culture.  Simultaneously, cultural competence addresses academic achievement by having students learn additional content knowledge.  

Students develop a sociopolitical consciousness through which they challenge individual as well as institutional inequities that exist, especially in terms of race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender/sex, and disability.  Addressing sociopolitical consciousness, teachers integrate discussions and activities in their curriculum that expose inequities in order to promote inclusion.  Ladson-Billings (2011) describes these three elements in terms of an equilateral triangle and underscores how if you’re not doing all three, you’re not doing culturally relevant pedagogy.  

Teachers employing culturally relevant pedagogy push their students to excel academically while simultaneously teaching them through their culture, other cultures, and long-neglected perspectives that perpetuate inequities, especially racial/ethnic inequities.  Culturally relevant pedagogy is used interchangeably with culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2000), which validates, comprehends, transforms, and empowers diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them.  Culturally relevant teachers focus on getting to know the students they teach and then accommodating their curriculum and pedagogy to meet the needs of their students.  These teachers invest time to understand the community in which they teach, the people that live in the community, and the needs of these families.  The identified needs of the students drive curriculum creation and intertwine addressing standards to ensure that the students successfully gain knowledge and skills expected at each grade level.


In Arizona, House Bill 2281 (HB 2281) bans teaching ethnic studies curriculum; this ban highlights the contested nature of knowledge and the significance of educating students through a curriculum that is responsive and grounded in the lives of all students, inclusive of Eurocentric as well as non-Eurocentric perspectives.  The recognition that the experiences and lives of people of color have been limited in the school curriculum is reflected in the lack of preparation of the majority of teacher candidates, who have little exposure to the diverse experiences and histories in the United States (Ladson-Billings, 2011).

The following example highlights how many teachers may not understand or be able to see things as they are for students but could easily take cues from their students as they relate to interests and needs.  This example draws on some conversations with Guadalupe (a pseudonym).  Although many of her family members are undocumented, she is a documented Mexican-American living in Arizona.  Her father had been deported to Mexico because he did not have papers.  Her mother followed her father, and Guadalupe was staying with a family member to try to finish school; the separation from her parents and other family members was challenging and she ended up leaving halfway through the year.  In the context of Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), anti-immigrations legislation that allows police, among other things, to ask for people’s papers if there is “reasonable suspicion,” and other anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, she shared the following:

I wanted to know about them [e.g., SB 1070, SB 1066, HB 2281] and was reading the newspaper to know what was going on.  Teachers would kick me out of class because all I would be doing is reading the newspaper…that’s all I wanted to learn about and they wouldn’t teach it to me.  So I had to learn about it myself.

We asked Guadalupe how her teachers supported her learning this knowledge.  Her English teacher had asked for a more open assignment, regarding laws.  Guadalupe replied that her English teacher supported learning this knowledge in the following way:

Yeah, my English teacher. We were talking about what happened with the Jews, Jewish people.  For our assignment, we needed to find out about a law.  When she said that, I raised my hand and asked her, “Can I go first now?”  And she said the assignment wasn’t due until next week.  And I said, “I already know my assignment, though.”  And she didn’t believe me, so she’s like, “Go ahead.”  So that day, I read three laws.  I read SB1070, HB2281 and SB1611.  She was like, “what?” (Guadalupe laughs.)  She was surprised that I actually knew about them… She even said herself that we don’t teach kids about this.

As Guadalupe’s example suggests, youth are motivated to read, write, and analyze complex issues when the issue is directly related to their lived experiences and they are able to connect this to the broader curriculum.  By developing these skills, Guadalupe was also working to educate her family, her teachers, and her peers.  In addition, she was acquiring the skills to participate actively in researching a topic through primary and secondary sources and forming an opinion to challenge laws she found oppressive.


What knowledge and skills do we need to teach our teacher education students to achieve 100% of their potential?  It is essential to integrate academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness together in the curriculum in order to address the existing and changing demographics in our communities and our schools.  As teacher educators, we need to continue to integrate effective analysis skills in our curriculum to develop professional judgment that inspires equity pedagogy to promote emancipatory action.  

To effectively address school reform, school administrators and educators need to recognize the changing reality of our school demographics and the need to transform our education programs to serve the needs of all students.  To improve the academic and social conditions of school and society we could implement culturally relevant pedagogy in school reforms and curriculum.  In this way we could advance justice, compassion, and equitable sustainability through viewing inequities as they are and acting on identified injustices to improve education and the broader global community.


Adams, M., Bell, L., & Griffin, P. (Eds.).  2007.  Teaching for diversity and social justice. 2nd ed.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Gay, G.  2000.  Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice.  New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G.  (Fall, 2011).  Is meeting the diverse needs of all students possible? Kappa Delta Pi Record, pp. 13-15.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994).  The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Center for Education Information. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/media/pot2011final-blog.pdf

US Census Bureau . (News Release, May 17, 2012).  Retrieved from: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-90.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 24, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16856, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 3:28:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Christine Lemley
    Northern Arizona University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE K. LEMLEY grounds her teaching, service and scholarship in the ideal of culturally relevant pedagogy to engage and empower historically marginalized teachers and students. Most recently, her work focuses on social justice and equity issues through critical community engagement.
  • Gerald Wood
    Northern Arizona University
    E-mail Author
    GERALD K. WOOD focuses on community and youth organizing. He draws on critical geography and place-based education to underscore the complex realities impacting youth of color and provide pre-service teachers with opportunities to understand and engage these realities.
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