The Power of Teacher Talk: Promoting Equity and Retention through Student Interactions
reviewed by Eileen Wertzberger & J. Spencer Clark - May 02, 2019
Title: The Power of Teacher Talk: Promoting Equity and Retention through Student Interactions
Author(s): Deborah Bieler
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807759570, Pages: 168, Year: 2018
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In The Power of Teacher Talk: Promoting Equity and Retention Through Student Interactions, Deborah Bieler explores the nature of informal teacher-student interactions and how these brief, yet powerful, moments have the potential to create a culture of retention for teachers and students. Typically, these interactions occur in the margins of the traditional curriculum, during the minutes that mark passing periods or the moments before or after the school day. Bieler argues that for equity-oriented teachers, these fleeting moments offer their own curriculum, apart from the traditional content-driven curriculum, that is consequential in empowering and retaining the most marginalized and underserved students.
Furthermore, she posits that when teachers are intentional in prioritizing students and their well-being during these informal moments, it can positively impact their sense of efficacy and resilience within their other educational experiences, thus challenging a pushout culture within schools (p.14). Bielers study focuses on four English Language Arts (ELA) teachers who had at one time participated in the New English Teachers for Social Justice Project (NETS) and who had expressed a commitment to equity-oriented and socially conscious pedagogy. Through analysis of their experiences over a two-year period, The Power of Teacher Talk offers a unique perspective on teacher and student retention that considers the lived experiences of novice equity-oriented teachers. The text examines both their triumphs and challenges through documentation and analysis of firsthand, in vivo classroom data rather than secondhand, or reported, classroom data (p. 19).
Bieler examines two instrumental means by which teachers construct informal interactions: through physical space (see Chapter Two) and through spoken communication anchored in time (see Chapters Three, Four, and Five). In Chapter Two, Classroom Décor as Interaction, Bieler notes the ways in which equity-oriented teachers create spaces that invite conversation and personal connection with students. For example, Bieler describes the personal items belonging to Heather, a 3rd-year teacher whose school is in a predominately white working-class town (p. 29). Behind Heathers desk, she had four noticeable items, two of which issue challenges to the viewer (You have to color outside the lines and Be the change ) (p. 30). While indirect in their delivery, Bieler contends that the two artifacts that expressed these views (a poster and a postcard respectively) convey her social justice orientation in ways that do not threaten her positionality within the cultural context of her school and community (p. 30).
In contrast, Jasmine, a 4th-year teacher whose more diverse school stands on the outskirts of an urban center, positions her social justice orientation more prominently within her classroom. The most striking feature of her classroom is a poetry wall where, along with her students, she shares her own work. The mutual sharing of writing, not for the sake of assessment, but for expression, allows Jasmine to connect with her students and serve as a role model. As Bieler notes, Jasmines décor appeared to be an emancipatory, revolutionary, equity-oriented moveone that privileged writing over English (p. 40).
In addition to examining how space was used to communicate and foster relationships with students, Bieler delves into how the teachers in her study leveraged informal, spoken interactions with their students in order to create a pull-in culture; a culture in which both teachers and students lean towards retention. Bieler offers numerous vignettes that illustrate the power of informal interactions in reaching all students, especially those identified as falling through the cracks (p. 98). Bieler notes that when a teacher and a student are talking to each other in a particular moment, they not only are performing their current selves, but also are laying a foundation for their future selves (p. 51). While in-class interactions are an important place for these conversations to occur, Bieler argues that the moments before and after class provide places for teachers and students to assert their agency and to create or perform their identities in ways that are not possible during class time (p. 73). These informal interactions, situated outside of the curriculum, go a long way in fostering a sense of belonging, purpose, and worth for students and teachers.
Yet, even for equity-oriented teachers, cultivating these interactions in meaningful ways can be difficult. Bieler recognizes an inescapable truth: that much like their professional peers, equity-oriented teachers are not immune to fatigue and burnout; that they too may be running on emptycompassion drained, patience thin (p. 64). This acknowledgement is critical in helping teachers cope with the struggles of their profession in ways that allow them to be human and make the mistakes that are an inevitable part of teaching. To this end, in each chapter Bieler addresses key obstacles that equity-oriented teachers may face as they shift to become more aware and intentional about how they cultivate relationships with students. In addition, she includes questions at the end of each chapter for teacher reflection, discussion, and action.
Unlike the first five chapters of The Power of Teacher Talk, Chapter Six, Interacting with a New Taxonomy for Equity-Oriented Teaching, sets forth a call to action for teacher preparation programs, one that prioritizes equity and social justice knowledge over content and pedagogical knowledge. As cited by Bieler, bell hooks contends that all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic, and because there is a mounting lovelessness in our culture, we need to work much harder to know how to realize love in word and deed (p. 113).
If teacher preparation programs can prioritize an ethic of love and social justice knowledge, novice teachers will be better able to create affordances and opportunities for their students to assert their agency, even in their students most challenging moments. Bielers underlying message is that dialogue and interaction, rooted in an ethic of love, can expand the horizon of agency (Butler, 2013) for both the teachers and students.
Indeed, The Power of Teacher Talk exemplifies an ethos of love; a respect for the dignity and worth of all students that empowers teachers to seek meaningful interactions during the informal moments that frame their professional setting. Yet, The Power of Teacher Talk does far more express this ethos. Bielers work expresses a more equity-oriented pedagogy and demonstrates how teachers and teacher preparation programs can take steps to align their actions in ways that value students and their lived experiences.
Butler, J. (2013). For a careful reading. In N. Fraser (Ed.), Feminist contentions (pp. 133-150). New York, NY: Routledge.