“Teacher Responsibility and Agency in System Change” by Madhu Narayanan

The importance of dispositions


The Black Lives Matter movement forces educators to confront their uncomfortable position as both perpetuators of systemic inequality and actors with an opportunity to change that very system.  Faced with this choice, educators can elect to criticize the system without attending to their daily actions that influence student outcomes.  Such a choice carries the danger of avoiding a confrontation with personal values.  This article argues that for lasting change, space needs to be created where such a confrontation can take place and educators can make face the existential choice of their agency in social justice.


Earlier this fall, two thousand Seattle Public School teachers reported to work in various displays of open solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.  The act of protest was a response to recent events that threatened BLM supporters and to general educational inequity.  Students, parents, administrators, even the district joined in showing their support (Cornwell 2016; Herz 2016).  But the day of protest brought to the forefront an inherent question in education: What is the responsibility of individuals in creating lasting systemic change?

This enduring sociological question is aimed at untangling the tight dialectical dance of social structure and individual agency (Giddens, 2004, 1-16; Berard 2005).  The expansive critique offered by the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged after the killing of several black Americans at the hands of police, asks this question when it demands that we investigate the institutional racism built into the criminal justice system (Black Lives Matter, 2016).  To change such ingrown biases, individuals in the police and judicial system need to investigate their personal reactions, values, and prejudices that surface when interacting across lines of difference.  As essential members of a stratified education system (Anyon, 2005) teachers live in this space through their daily practice.  In the design of teacher training programs, teacher educators have a responsibility to support engagement with the question of agency.  This paper argues that for teacher educators to support lasting systemic change through practice they must move beyond the common systemic critiques and challenge the uncomfortable space of individual responsibility and values.

How can teacher educators help new teachers find their sense of personal responsibility to make a tangible and immediate impact within an unjust system (Pollock et al., 2010)?  Unfortunately, the answer to this question is: we don’t really know.  The act of teaching occurs within a structure of power that encodes biases and prejudices against minority students at multiple levels.  Teachers, especially those who work with disadvantaged students, further inequity by serving as gatekeepers to knowledge, opportunity, and success.  However, by rejecting this system outright teachers may be denying their students future opportunities.

Among teacher educators, a common proposal is to adopt a Social Justice approach to teaching ‘urban’ students, one that challenges long-standing elements like accountability structures or rigid curricula.  Another idea put forward is the use of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) to empower teachers to recognize and acknowledge the diverse assets that students bring (Gay, 2000, 29).  These ideas are valuable, but the immediacy of teaching means the ultimate challenge is not one of system wide change but rather of personal agency in their daily practice.  It is thus an existential question of teacher identity and purpose.

I’m going to argue in this piece that system-wide change can only be achieved through connecting our values as educators to classroom practice.  For teacher educators, this means facilitating an inward look at the spaces where mindsets and dispositions become teacher practice.  I’ll start by summarizing some common ways of framing inequality, including Social Justice education and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.  Next I’ll make the case for embracing teacher dispositions when working in a complex and unjust system.  I’ll close by making the connection between teacher actions, uncertainty, and large scale systemic change.  The Black Lives Matter movement force us to inquire how we perpetuate or fight injustice, but for educators who both benefit from and disagree with the educational system, the answer requires a dive into the uncertain space between the two.

Teachers and Systemic Change

Sometimes, when reading the literature on our unjust education system, it can be easy to get the impression that the education community knows both the main problems and their root causes, and that there is a clear path to education for social justice.  What emerges instead is a complex muddle with few clear theories of action.  In this section, I’m going to argue that the conversation around social justice and curriculum downplay the most important factor – teacher dispositions.

Education in the United States has been subject to detailed critiques of how the institution systematically discriminates against certain sectors of society while privileging others.  The critique has included unveiling the stratifying effects of schools (Bowles, Gintis, and Meyer, 1975), the consequences of teaching children in a deeply segregated school system (Wells et al., 2006; Orfied, Frankenberg & Kuscera, 2014), and the alienating practices within schools (Lareau, 2003).  Serving as a backdrop to these trends are larger economic and cultural forces that have transformed education into an extension of neo-liberal ideology by endlessly measuring and tracking students as preparation for a future as effective works and consumers (Giroux, 1994).  Furthering the disconnect in disadvantaged schools, a predominately white and female teacher work force confronts a challenging cultural divide (Sleeter, 2001; Haberman & Post, 1998).  There are strong parallels between this description of society and the state violence and ingrained discrimination described by BLM.  One could additionally argue that schools are a reflection and perpetuator of a larger privileged patriarchal society.

The call for Social Justice in education has emerged as a guiding philosophy for educators to address an inequitable world.  A key belief in this literature is the need to contest existing systems of power and fight oppression, with an ambitious goal to further a society with the just distribution of outcomes and resources (Hackman, 2005, 103-104).  From this broad goal, it is hard to pin down a clear definition of what Social Justice means for educators, with the literature spanning “Critical Pedagogy,” power relations, community collaboration, and exploration of identity (Grant & Agosto, 2008, 186-194).    Multiple frameworks have been suggested (Picower 2012; Hackman, 2005; Carlisle, Jackson & George, 2006), and it has been described democratically, philosophically, and ethnographically, and requires one to reference varied discourses (Hytten & Bettez, 2011).  This wide range reflects the lack of a unified vision and a vague overall definition.

In place of a unified vision or prescription for what teachers should do in the classroom with their students, it’s argued that new teachers can best further social justice by joining nation-wide movements (Picower, 2012), and by connecting with the local community (Zeichner, Payne, & Brayko, 2015; Anyon, 2005).  Sometimes, teachers are asked to further achievement within the system (by preparing students for high-stakes test and success in schools) while also fighting that very system by joining forces with others (Cochran-Smith et al, 2016).  Other times, it seems that the mandate is to be public dissidents instead of preparing students within the system (Picower, 2012), that they must “affirm their commitment to democratic public life and cultural democracy by struggling in and outside of their classrooms in solidarity with others,” (Giroux, 1994, 45).

A common effort to translate such visions into action is found in revisions of school curricula.  Some trends here are critiques of existing curricula that further dominant narratives (Gonzalez & Shields, 2015; Rivera Maulucci & Barton, 2005), advocating special curricula for at-risk populations (Cammarota, 2007), or subverting existing mandates to teach true social justice (Picower, 2012).  The implicit assumption is that there is a standard curriculum, that teachers have no voice in the curriculum, and that enacting revolutionary curricula in the classroom is the key lever for furthering justice.

These last paragraphs have mentioned two of the pillars of Social Justice education – progressive curricula and social activism.  It might be thought that I am dismissing these ideas as meaningless, and perhaps that I am just reflecting a dominant narrative.  In fact, I think both elements are essential and have the potential for dramatic and powerful change.  I also believe by focusing on these elements, such writers are avoiding a confrontation with the single most relevant, and complex, variable of all – a teacher’s own agency and responsibility in working with students.  If this is ignored, then we dismiss the tremendous influence teachers can have in the classroom through intentional actions.

One effort to address just this issue has been Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP).  Often hailed as teacher-centered response to systemic inequality, the intellectual origins of this set of teacher practices can be found in research teaching Native American students that details how traditional classroom practices like individual grading, immediate and strict discipline, and group discussions, were ineffective and alienating.  Successful teachers were able to identify and value different cultural norms while upholding high standards for learning, chiefly by adopting a “Warm Demanding” stance that balanced a message of care and concern with accountability in the classroom.   Similar findings have since been noticed in diverse settings (Hammond, Dupoux, and Ingalls, 2004; Bondy et al, 2012; Kleinfeld 1975).

Geneva Gay expanded on these approaches to include an accessible curriculum and a non-negotiable stance towards academics and used the term “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” (Gay 2000).  At its core, CRP suggests ways of communicating, conceptions of knowledge, methods of learning, and an overall educative process that is situated within a framework consistent with students’ cultural background, (Howard, 2001, 136).  This approach is a recognition that educators “traditionally have attempted to insert culture into the education, instead of inserting education into the culture, “(Ladson-Billings, 1995, 159).

The concept of CRP is the closest example in the Social Justice literature of concrete actions teachers can take.  At its core, it is an attempt to create a schooling experience that enables students to pursue academic excellence without abandoning their cultural integrity.  But CRP isn’t really an action, it’s a way of thinking about teaching.  A point that many miss is that valuing the culture of students and expecting the most from them is not a challenge to the typical systemic inequities.  It is a challenge to who we are as educators.

Teacher Dispositions

There is ample evidence that culturally responsive pedagogy has a positive impact on students (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Ware, 2006).  As noted above, research observing teachers of Native American students have found that teachers who adopt the warm demander stance in the classroom are able to manage positive classrooms (Hammond et al, 2004).  Ware (2006) chronicled the statements and actions of range of teachers who showed impact on their students.  In a survey of teachers judged to be effective, Brown noted that such classrooms consistently used non-punitive approaches to disruptive behaviors, relied on strong trusting relationships rather than fear or punishment, and honored students’ cultural needs (Brown, 2004, 286).  Ladson-Billings chronicled the classroom work of a collection of teachers who embraced culturally relevant techniques (Ladson-Bilings, 2009).

Yet, teacher education programs have been largely unsuccessful in developing true culturally responsive practices in new teachers, and school districts have likewise failed to bring such practices to existing teachers.  Part of the failure is certainly a lack of any training at all; but even when presented as part of teacher certification programs or professional development they can fail to translate into real change.  I think the reason for this is that, as teacher educators, we simply don’t know how to develop this stance in others.
It’s argued that teacher prep programs that ignore CRP lead directly to helperism (Zeichner, 2016, 152-153; Cann, 2015); meanwhile, other teacher practices around classroom management or direct instruction are dismissed outright as not culturally relevant.  (Kretchmar & Zeichner, 2016, 425).  But none of these strategies are intrinsically unjust or inappropriate.  In fact, transformative classroom instruction actually makes explicit the culture of power that operates in a classroom.  Strict, no-nonsense classrooms with disciplinary techniques we might view as harsh and punitive can  serve to create orderly environments for learning if students are valued (Delpit 1995; Ladson-Billings 1994; Howard 2001, 139; Brown, 2004, 270; Ware 2006, 452).  Other examples highlight the ability of black teachers to teach black students.  Here, race is identified as a key element in CRP; the argument is black teachers are fluent in the cultural practices needed to connect with students (Ware, 2006, 451; Cann, 2015, 303).

These examples suggest a general confusion about how to develop teachers who can reach minority students.  Are discussions of CRP in college enough?  Do you ignore classroom management techniques?  Do you have to be black, or adopt the same characteristics as a black teacher?  Is teacher recruitment the key variable – finding the best, brightest, and most interested in equity (Ladson-Billings, 2009, 143; Haberman & Post, 1998)?  Many teacher candidates deliberately choose to start their careers in such schools out of commitment to budding conceptions of Social Justice (Olson, 2008, 33; Lee, 2011).  In the process of learning to teach, they encounter the shifting and elusive meaning of justice in the context of a small community of students.  New teachers respond in a variety of unpredictable and non-linear ways as they respond to constant changes in the relationship between teaching and Justice (Boylan & Woolsey, 2015).

Embracing the fluid space of identity, agency, and justice, complicates the idea of resistance.  The sources of injustice are difficult to identify and for teachers in particular, this might suggest that the path towards justice lies inward.  In the course of grounding their book on Culturally Relevant teaching, Villegas and Lucas argue for a set of mindsets they call “Socially Conscious.”  This includes being rigorously reflective, attuned to multiple perspectives, aware of the dominant culture while validating all cultures, and valuing student resources.  It involves a deep commitment to being an agent of change, to “assume responsibility for identifying and interrupting inequitable school practice,” (Villegas & Lucas, 2002, 26-36).  This prospect can be frightening; it signifies that if we are to accept the challenge of justice, then as teachers the real systemic, revolutionary change we seek is through taking personal responsibility for justice and interrogating our own actions.

Agents of Change

I ended the last section by suggesting systemic change will ultimately come from accepting personal responsibility for injustice.  Does this mean that movements like BLM are destined for failure, or that protests are largely ineffective?  The answer is different for teachers because by choosing to work in an unjust system, they are accepting the legitimacy and structure of that system.  Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement, but it does mean a certain trust that the system – the bureaucratic district, the hierarchical school structure, the egg carton classroom and graded student body model – includes the structures for its own improvement.

Part of the ideal of our democratic education – imperfect and inequitable as it is – is an acknowledgement that our system, through proper training of the next generation of citizens, includes the possibility for deciding to improve that very institution (Gutman, 1987, 148).  Considering our own agency within a flawed system, teachers have a matrix of four choices ranging from spectatorship to full agents of change (Rorty, 1998).  They can reject the system outright and accept responsibility to change it – this is essentially a revolutionary stance.  They can accept the flawed system and reject responsibility, thus perpetuating inequality and systemic injustice by becoming defenders of the status quo (Ladson-Billings, 2009, 145-146).  A third way is to reject the system while also rejecting any responsibility, with the danger of becoming nothing more than a spectator.  Protests of inequality and injustice without accompanying visions of change thus devolve into ineffective cynicism.  The last possibility is accepting both a flawed system and the responsibility for change; this is perhaps the only chance there is for righting a deeply unjust educational structure.

One might argue that the choices aren’t that stark, that there is some middle ground.  I don’t think so; I see the decisions we make as educators placing us squarely in one of these camps.  An essentially anarchic stance rejects the system while accepting responsibility for change through revolution; this opens up frontiers of possibility for a new society.  It also imposes a social agenda on students who don’t have that choice, and the absence of a vision for a just system of education creates a vacuum for more injustice.  The more appealing choice of working diligently within an unjust structure has the benefit of not imposing societal aspirations on young people.

Confronting injustice in our schools, educating the disadvantaged, engaging in the institutional work of teaching, these are thus no longer political acts, nor even acts of social change; they are rather existential challenges to ourselves about how we make sense of cruelty and suffering in the world.  One reason I’ve come to this conclusion is the difficulty I’ve had in my own work as an educator.  I’ve encountered the biggest challenges to my beliefs not in policy debates or discussions about the purpose of education, but in moments that rarely find their way into academic literature.  These are the slight pushes and pulls when educator make decisions about behavioral consequences, a lesson’s purpose, grades, a student’s schedule.

One example is from my time as a high school Principal.  One afternoon I had the privilege of staffing our “send-out” room.  Darquel, a student in Mr. Smith’s math class, arrived a few minutes because he was “doing nothing” in the class.  After a few minutes of playing bad cop there usually is a chance for real conversation.  In this case, Darquel didn’t like that he couldn’t turn his homework in late and he found a unique way of expressing his feelings.  We looked at his blank homework together and I saw an opportunity for a mini-lesson on quadratic equations.  We peeled back the layers and saw that the real problem was an inability to find common factors.  With the problem diagnosed we both visited Mr. Smith to ask if Darquel could get some help after school and turn his homework in once he understood it.

“Well, of course I’ll help him; my office hours are Tuesday and Thursday during Lunch, but I don’t accept late homework.  He’ll have a shot to show me he can do it on the next quiz.”  While I stood there speechless, Darquel didn’t wait to see the resolution – he was out the door before his blank homework hit the ground.  There was no way Darquel would come alone at lunch with a teacher he knew didn’t care, and the grading policy sent a message that his effort was worthless.  I think Mr. Smith thought he was both offering his Math services and teaching a lesson in consequences, but the message was clearly lost in translation.

I didn’t think to use my authority to require Mr. Smith to accept late homework, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  Educators perpetuate or destroy structures of injustice with our every word and decision, no matter how subtle.  By the end of the year Darquel had failed and a cycle was perpetuated.

It has been argued that educational injustice stems from a system where disadvantaged students are concentered in factories of failure, from curricula that are not relevant to students and preach dominant narratives, and from disempowering teacher management structures.  That might be true, but the front line for teachers are moments like these where the deciding factor is a teacher’s disposition that all students can learn and it’s within my power to get them there.  Whether you believe that solving quadratic equations is an essential life skill, helping students meet that skill today is a victory for equality and civil rights tomorrow by opening up future opportunities (Tate, 2001).

As I’ll argue next, foregrounding teacher dispositions means that specific practices – like grading policies, curriculum, assessment (including testing), and discipline – can be released from the narrow prescriptive confines of many who argue what is and isn’t education for justice.  Many critiques suggest that such practices as a scripted curriculum, standardized tests, and harsh discipline are taboo.  I’m not suggesting that these practices are good or bad; I’m arguing that the teacher dispositions driving instructional practice – the responsibility we accept – can determine their efficacy.

Teacher Dispositions as the Foundation of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

The suggestion that teacher dispositions are critical is certainly not groundbreaking (Michelli, 2005, 12; Villegas & Lucas, 2002, 26-33).  Solutions without the right mindsets are doomed, meanwhile strong mindsets can make dismissed ideas effective.  I’ve suggested that we don’t really know how to develop the dispositions needed to support all learners.  The challenge of developing teacher mindsets – essentially, fostering the existential confrontations that need to occur for teachers to take personal responsibility – is so complicated and difficult that it’s even been suggested that it’s not worth the effort and programs should instead try to find the right teachers up front (Haberman & Post, 1998).  Without the right values and mindset, even programs that encourage exposure to different cultures and communities (Zeichner et al, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 2009, 146-147) can actually solidify biases (Haberman & Post, 1998; Boylan & Woolsey, 2015; Sleeter, 2001; Lee, 2011).

One idea is to creative the conditions for ‘adaptive.’  Heifetz (1994) describes ‘adaptive’ changes a reexamination of personal values that commonly results in disequilibrium.  The natural need for order, direction, and protection are often overwhelmed by and underlying shift in values.  The mismatch and misunderstanding of differing value systems becomes an existential challenge and can lead to stiff resistance (Lakoff, 2002); the rancor and ugliness in debates about teacher education are an example of this (Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2001; Hess, 2011).  For this reason, policy makers and administrators often turn to technical remedies which provide the necessary order, direction, and protection and avoid the hard adaptive work (Heifetz, 1994, 28-34).  The chief argument of this paper is that when we talk about education – advocates of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, protesters, Teacher Educators – and ignore the tough questions about our own responsibility, we miss an opportunity for long term change.

Heifetz argues that value systems can change when internal contradictions are orchestrated within individuals.  This prioritizes individual dispositions in the work of teacher education and in leading necessary systemic change:

For a social system to learn, old patterns of relationships – balances of power, customary operating procedures, distributions of wealth – may be threatened.  Old skills may be rendered useless.  Beliefs, identity, and orienting values – images of justice, community, and responsibility – may be called into question. (Heifetz, 1994, 30)

Educators struggle to examine their own values and practices because of the resulting discomfort (Wilson, 2005); for this reason, it is easier to rail against the system or place responsibility for injustice on bureaucrats.  Developing the practice of facilitating the necessary disequilibrium is hard and for all the talk about prioritizing social justice and supporting teacher dispositions, there is little guidance for how to do this.

There are examples of work that encourage rigorous self-reflection and an embracing of disequilibrium.  Vagle (2011) chronicles how a teacher educator coaches and co-reflects with his teacher candidate to modify the approach to a scripted curriculum so that it is ultimately relevant to students.  Pollock et al (2010) shares a facilitation strategy that pushes teacher candidates to find spaces of discomfort as they identify their own agency can have an effect.  Approaches like these helps foreground the work of developing the teacher dispositions that Villegas and Lucas (and others) have identified as critical for adopting a Culturally Responsive stance.  This liberates educators from having to engaging in certain pedagogical practices while dismissing others; the truth is most any pedagogical practice can have a positive impact on students if it is implemented by valuing students’ assets and voice.  Disciplinary practices that might be written off as harsh can actually send a message of care (Delpit 1995; Ladson-Billings 1994; Howard 2001, 139; Ware 2006, 452), assessments that are tied to a high-stakes culture can have great value for learning (Popham, 2001), and even scripted curricula can be implemented with reflection and thoughtfulness (Vagle, 2011, 369-370).

The critical belief in CRP is that all students can learn.  When state tests or teacher evaluations or in-school discipline show otherwise, values are challenged.  It is the heart of systemic change because it involves the changing of such values and it takes time.  Luckily, there is a good deal of research that shows how Teacher Educators can foster the teacher actions that lead to changes in disposition.  Jon Saphier and his colleagues share several strategies to communicate messages of support and belief in students through grading systems, discussion strategies, and lesson planning (Saphier, Haley-Speca, and Gower, 2008, 261-316).  Several studies describe instructional strategies that value student perspectives and constructed knowledge (Gelbach 2011; Rivera Maulucci and Barton, 2005; Blackwell et al, 2007).  Classroom culture can be developed by teaching students to use affective statements to express their needs (Costello, Wacthel, & Wachtel, 2009, 12-15).  Teacher education programs should make these practices – grading, assessment, classroom culture, and instruction – central parts of their curriculum by requiring candidates to critically examine each and put them into practice.

Together, these strategies can address the “cultural discontinuity” that many students experience.  It can help the misunderstandings that often result in punitive actions and provides practical actions that can demonstrate authentic caring that students’ value (Howard, 2001, 145). For new teacher candidates this is a pathway that can build a foundation of robust Culturally Relevant dispositions through action and allow teachers to lift the veil of power that their role has traditionally been granted (Gay, 2000, 36).

Conclusions: Embracing the Hard Work of Developing Teacher Dispositions

I started by asking how teachers approach their role as active participants in a system while trying to change that very system.  I shared two of the common approaches to redefining the work of teachers – Social Justice education and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.  The reality, however, is we don’t really know how to develop the necessary mindsets and dispositions that are needed to work across lines of privilege and difference.  This challenge stems from the fact that most teachers who work with disadvantaged children are White, and regardless are acting as relatively successful agents of privilege who may not recognize inherent inequities.  Power is already a forceful dynamic in classrooms; the overlapping of race, class, and teacher authority makes it all very complicated.  My point has been that if educators are going to make an immediate difference in the lives of their students they need to reject the cynicism of spectatorship and adopt a stance of deep personal responsibility.  This doesn’t preclude acknowledging traditional conceptions of knowledge or rejecting unjust school practices (Ladson Billings, 2009, 145-148).  This is ultimately a deeply individual choice, one that can perhaps be fostered by creating spaces of disequilibrium through looking at concrete actions in the realm of grading, discipline, and lesson design.

Developing teacher dispositions is more than implementing strategies; this is an area of teacher education that still needs much research (Grossman and McDonald, 2008, 191), but it is apparent that the practice needs to be combined with supported reflection.  Dispositions of new teacher candidates can be assessed, but they can also be influenced by clinical experience.  Schussler et al. (2002, 252-261) offer several strategies to help teachers identify their moral beliefs, clarify their goals, and be self-reflective on their role and the multiple perspectives at play in schools.  For teacher candidates (and current practitioners) struggling to reconcile their daily influence in an often unjust system, this messy, confusing, and at times sobering examination is a necessary space for teacher education programs to occupy (Pollock et al, 2010).

What this all suggests is that a deep self-examination is needed to support true and lasting systemic change.  A similar individual accounting has been called for in our criminal justice system; consider this reflection from a law and psychology professor about the nature of wrongful convictions:

“The way everyone talks about it is very legal—false confessions, police coercion, eyewitness I.D.s.” [Richard A. Leo, of the University of San Francisco] believes that the real issues are far broader, and include the adversarial structure of trials, confirmation bias, cultural notions about what indicates guilt, and a basic human tendency to attribute meaning to details that may be coincidental. “It’s not a narrow evidentiary problem,” he said. “It’s a social problem. It’s an institutional problem.” Leo said that he’d once tried to calculate the number of people involved in a wrongful conviction, from police officers and prosecutors to jurors: “It’s staggering—it’s, like, fifty people involved in every single one.” (Clifford, 2016)

The Black Lives Matter movement and other calls for reform force us to choose between cynical detachment, blind perpetuation, revolutionary action, or democratic change.  This is ultimately a personal, existential decision with lasting political consequences.  If enough educators elect the last option, they are putting a measure of faith and trust in our institutions, in our people, to embrace change.

Photo Credit

Photo courtesy of Wendy Barrales.


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