December 2017
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TEACHER IDENTITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: A GRADUATE STUDENT'S TRANSFORMATIVE JOURNEY
Carli Danaher, University of San Diego, San Diego, California, USA

Throughout my whole life I attended a private Catholic school. Although my parents did not attend college, they were always supportive and involved in my schooling. I grew up in a close-knit community, where all the students in my predominantly white elementary school were a part of the same parish. Everyone was very supportive of one another, which was a main reason for the success of my classmates and me. Since I am a native speaker of English who grew up in a place that was not very diverse, I had no knowledge of some of the struggles and hardships that come along with not knowing the English language in the United States. I did not have many opportunities to have conversations with people from different cultures, nor did I have the experience of having conversations about how people from different cultures acquire English.

My classes at University of San Diego (USD) helped me to see that English is a global language, not belonging to one group of people, meaning that language learning techniques are culturally specific. This is very important for a teacher because cultural awareness is a key factor in helping your students learn English. Klein (2008) states that “there can be no organizational transformation without personal transformation” (p. 5). The transformation of the classroom has to start with the teacher. My experience at USD has shown me that I have to be aware of my background and the students’ backgrounds, while helping students to be aware of their own. My professors taught me that reflection is an important component for growth and that teachers always have to be critical of themselves during their practice.

The journey to develop my teacher identity started with my first teaching opportunity, provided to me by a professor of my university. This opportunity was the foundation of the discovery of who I am as a teacher. During my first year of graduate school, my professor Dr. Viviana Alexandrowicz asked me to teach an ESL class to members of the Bayside Community Center. Bayside Community center is located in Linda Vista, which is located near USD, but happens to be an economically distressed community. This class was a team-taught effort. I volunteered with two of my classmates, Paz Valdivia and Aureen Andres. The students consisted of Vietnamese and Spanish senior-citizens with English skills at the beginner level. I entered graduate school with no teaching experience; this volunteer opportunity opened the door to the ESL profession and opened my eyes to the types of oppression experienced by English language learners.

Enrolling in the TESOL program at USD has transformed my thinking by allowing me to be critical of the factors that have influenced my learning, and the cultural differences between my students and I. Two questions I always ask myself when thinking about my own learning experiences are: “Why has the way I have been taught successful for me?” and “Would it be successful for all students to be taught the same way?” This helps me realize that what worked for me may not work for my students. I also think about whether my students have the same support or opportunities as I had.

When I first started teaching the volunteer ESL class, I had no experience with lesson planning or curriculum design. Dr. Alexandrowicz expressed to me that the reason my students wanted to take my class was to become better leaders in their community, but as a new teacher I was not sure how to do this without covering grammatical aspects first. The first lesson I taught was on grammar, specifically comparatives and superlatives. I started teaching with explicit grammar methods, using PowerPoints to explain the rules to the students in a lecture format. I was teaching in what Freire (2005) calls “the banking concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends on only as far receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” (p. 72). This was the only way I knew how to teach because prior to attending USD, my classes had been teacher-centered. I am not saying that grammar is not important, but it would have been the only thing I taught if there was not the discussion about what the students wanted to learn.

The students chose the topics that they wanted to learn, such as language for seeing a health care provider and going to the grocery store, however the lessons were based upon what we as the instructors knew about the topics. The students had little control and memorized the vocabulary we presented. As the semester continued, we started to integrate what we were learning in our graduate student classes into our teaching in the volunteer class. In our graduate school classes we participated in group activities and discussions, so we had our students get into groups and draw the improvements they would like to see in their community on a poster. Along with teaching vocabulary related to making improvements in the community, we decided to shift the class to be more student-centered. We began this shift by first creating a unit on writing formal letters in order to make changes in their community. For example, a lot of students needed help with housing issues. We started off with the basic format of a letter and then over the course of time we took the students to the computer lab to type the letter. Overall, the purpose of the volunteer class, according to my colleagues, the students and I, was to teach leadership skills appropriate for representing issues at a community forum, so we also included public speaking.

Writing about developing critical consciousness in teacher candidates, the coordinator of the USD TESOL program and my professor Dr. Sarina Molina explains that “it became important to align the work within our TESOL program with the mission of our department through provision of opportunities for our teacher candidates to think about and develop this sense of critical consciousness through their work as language teachers” (Molina, under review). The volunteer class I taught helped me develop a sense of critical consciousness by immersing myself in my students’ culture and by understanding their needs for learning English. While teaching this class I developed an idea of how it was part of a bigger picture of transforming education, turning students into critical thinkers and problem solvers. Towards the end of the class I was able to envision who I was a teacher. I gained a sense of identity and found my purpose in my field, which is teaching for social justice.

Ricento and Hornberger (1996) stated that “teachers can transform classrooms, thereby promoting institutional change that can lead to political and, ultimately broader social change” (p. 418). I have interpreted this to mean that the teacher is a reproducer of social reality as he or she helps students to become aware of their own society. I believe that by helping students to become problem solvers we can start to positively impact society as a whole. Teachers can create content alongside their students by researching what it is in the students’ lives that they would like to change. As teachers, we have to help students become critical of their surroundings and help them to find their voices in order to change their reality. Towards the end of the class, the students were able to construct letters to the local authorities, in order to make improvements in their community.

My transformation as a critical teacher started when I moved away from Freire’s “banking method” and involved my students in the creation of their own learning. My classes at the University of San Diego have been student-centered, which has allowed me to develop my voice and passion, and are a model for the type of teaching I would like to have for my students. I want my students to know that they creators of their own learning and that they can be the difference that they want to see in the world. I want my students to find their purpose and identity in society through education. Today I see myself as a transformative teacher, a teacher that has been able to grow through techniques of self-evaluation and self-reflection. I have been taught to acknowledge and not ignore cultural differences. I am a teacher that is not afraid to be critical of my background in order to understand my students. I will continue to stay aware of social injustices and open a discussion to my students, so together we can take action and start to positively impact society.

Klein, E. (2008) What is resistance-free change? Encinitas, CA: Dharma Consulting.

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Molina, S. C. (2017). Cultivating a sense of critical consciousness in teacher candidates within a community-based adult ESL program. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Ricento, T. K., & Hornberger, N. H. (1996). Unpeeling the onion: Language planning and policy and the ELT professional. TESOL Quarterly, 30(3), 401-427.


Carli Danaher is a graduate student at the University of San Diego in the TESOL, Literacy, and Culture program. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois. She works as an educational technician at Mesa Community College and currently developing an English program for campus workers at USD.

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