Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting to Class

For June's monthly forum, I'm interested in conversation about ways in which we might complicate questions of class and social mobility in teacher education, in part by complicating teacher ed students' understanding of their own class backgrounds.

I’ve spent my 20+ years as a teacher educator on campuses that serve large numbers of students from working class backgrounds, so I’ve always done a bit of a mental lurch when hearing frequent references in the literature and in casual conversation among colleagues to the teaching force being “white and middle class”.

I’ve nodded in agreement at the “white” part but have been puzzled by the casual but common references to most teachers being from middle-class backgrounds, in part because the students with whom I’ve worked have not fit this profile, in part because I’ve looked in vain for any actual data on the class background of people who go into teacher education (it doesn’t seem to actually exist), and in part because it’s rare for researchers to even collect data on the actual class backgrounds of teachers in critical studies of schooling, as if teacher identities were formed independently from backgrounds of relative deprivation or privilege.

But beyond frustration with casual uses of language about class, I’ve wondered if we aren’t missing the pedagogical possibilities of opening richer conversations about class with students who do occupy a distinctive social space -- students who, while in teacher education, may be poised at the very point of crossing formidable class borders because they have methodically, if not consciously, constructed new social identities through school to enable their social mobility.

So I’ve wondered if, rather than dismissing upwardly-mobile students as “tokens”, who have been “allowed” to succeed to placate gullible others into faith in fairness (or worse, just seeing classed identities of White working- class students as something that needs to be “fixed” as a condition of academic success) , there wouldn’t be potential in interrogating the “complex social trajectory” (Reay, 1997, p. 19) of class border crossing as they progress through teacher education.

I do want to be clear about what I mean when I speak of class. I draw on the theoretical work of Pierre Bourdieu, and I’m challenged by feminist scholars writing about class at the intersections of gender and race (e.g. Adair, 2002; Furman, Kelly and Nelson, 2005; Reay, 1997a; 1997b; 2004; Walkerdine, 2003; Lucey, Melody, and Walkerdine; 2003; Skeggs, 1997, 2005) who understand class boundaries to be constructed and maintained not only in occupational hierarchies but also in the dailiness of social life. Sayer (2005, p. 1) elaborates:

Class matters to us not only because of differences in material wealth and economic security, but also because it affects our access to things, relationships, experiences and practices which we have reason to value, and hence our chances of living a fulfilling life. … Condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance typify relations between people of different classes.

Success in school has delivered first-generation teacher education students to the contested social spaces at the very borderlands of class, and they likely come with baggage that not even they can fully recognize. As Renny Christopher (2004) notes, class borders are essentially invisible to upwardly-mobile students until they stand ready to step across them. They’re likely encountering these (previously) invisible borders at the very time that they’re becoming teachers, yet the field seems to assume that most teachers have lived their entire lives on the privileged side of those class divides and have little to say about deprivation or exclusion.

So, my challenge in thinking about teaching these students is how to both honor the experiences of the White, working-class students but also “to encourage students from working-class families to form new political relationships with that experience” (Lindquist, 2004, p. 191).

My questions about this work, then, are about how we might attain two goals: a) to draw upon the distinctive perspectives of these class border-crossers to illuminate their “complex social positioning as a complicated amalgam of current privilege interlaced with historic disadvantage” (Reay, 1997, p. 25) and b) to complicate what Adair and Dahlberg (2001 p. 174) have termed a cultural “impulse to frame class mobility as a narrative of moral progress” .

Both goals, I think, could serve our work as teacher educators well, and perhaps could help to get us past the “resistance” that we sometimes see in teacher education when we try to teach critical perspectives on schooling.

Might there be potential in more explicit reflective/autobiographical work on class and social mobility in teacher education? Or at least in moving beyond our casual depictions of teachers as "white and middle class" when many may be facing formidable barriers to class mobility at the very time that they hear themselves described as middle class (and therefore ill-informed about social struggles) in our courses?

Do many of us actually know the class backgrounds of the teachers and teachers-to- be with whom we work, since identity is complicated upwardly-mobile students likely learned long ago that they have to "pass" as middle class to make it?


Nancy Flanagan said...

Fascinating topic, Jane. Thanks for your thoughtful questions. I have also looked for data on social class characteristics of the teaching pool; Lortie mentions, briefly, the percentage of teachers who are first-generation college graduates, but his statistics are 4 (or 5) decades old.

I am sure that the lingering perception that teachers are latecomers to the middle class drives a lot of opinion, policy-making and even research design.

I know this is anecdotal evidence, but I work with groups of teachers across the country who are seeking National Board Certification--a pool of committed, not entry-level, teachers. There are enormous differences in their perceptions of their ability to leverage class mobility in their students through educational opportunities. Teachers in high-needs schools still write about their belief that they are a powerful resource in creating "better lives" for their students in a traditional economic sense; teachers in advantaged schools tend to write more about their own technical skills as instructional experts. From this cross-section (of hundreds of candidates) the idea of class mobility as a narrative of moral progress still resonates. I also see very little that might be construed as teaching for social justice, or from a critical perspective. Just an observation...

I'm not sure about additional reflection or autobiography in pre-service coursework as an effective means to class awareness. There are lots of syllabi out there laden with dispositional, critical theory and diversity readings--all rich and rewarding to the open mind, but not particularly useful to someone who thinks they may be teaching for awhile in a district near/similar to their hometown. Maybe you have to actually teach before you can study yourself as a teacher.

LH said...

I agree, this is an important post.

I myself am a first generation college graduate from a "working class" background.

This identity has been complicated and perhaps stifled since, like you said, "upwardly-mobile students likely learned long ago that they have to "pass" as middle class to make it." This notion seemed to be passed on to me at an early age. Even as an adult, I for some reason feel "less than" when discussing this background, while I know that largely, it is the core of my being and drives the way that I see and think about the world.

It is, in a fact, a complicated and "complex social positioning" - one that I am still trying to figure out.

Jim Horn said...

In responding to Nancy's remarks about the potential utility of critical or diversity readings, it is my contention that the teachers who want to teach for awhile in their white neighborhood schools are exactly the one who can benefit most from readings and discussions that focus on race, privilege, social justice, and equity. (Teachers in Camden don't need a Joe Kincheloe reader to get the picture). The students I taught at Monmouth were exactly these white privileged students who, for the most part, did not understand white privilege or the dangers of "color-blindness or the difference between equality and sameness--or even the value of affirmative action.

And these future teachers will be the ones who will teach white children what they will come to know about these issues for the most part--particularly since it seems we are headed into another era of apartheid schooling in America.

In terms class issues within teaching, teachers have historically come from lower middle class or working class backgrounds and are often, like myself, the first in their families to graduate college. In my informal surveys of my students, I still find many of them first-generation college graduates and, as such, quite keen upon adopting middle class values without much interrogation of those values. And without the pay or the respect that usually accompany middle class careers, the emulation of the middle class talking points, e. g., anti-tenure arguments, take on an added urgency for some of these teacher candidates--as if adopting the middle class ideology will bring middle class recognition and benefits.

Willard Waller argued something very similar 80 years ago in The Sociology of Teaching.

Here is enough from a site I found online to give you an indication of where he was coming from:

"Willard Waller's The Sociology of Teaching (21) was first published in 1932 and has become a classic in the field. There are many reasons for its continuing acclaim, one of which is its description of the school as a social system in which stability is constantly endangered by both internal and external forces. The themes of conflict, change, and coercion are evident throughout.

Waller describes the school as

... a despotism in a state of perilous equilibrium .... a despotism threatened from within and exposed to regulation and interference from without. It is a despotism capable of being overturned in a moment, exposed to the instant loss of its stability and its prestige. It is a despotism demanded by the community of parents... . It is a despotism resting upon children. . . .(22)
Clearly, Waller sees the school as a coercive institution. At the top are the teachers, given their authority by the community outside the school. At the bottom are the children, relatively (but not totally) helpless under their yoke. Here, the interests of the teachers are in unavoidable and universal conflict with the interests of the children. The teacher is the taskmaster, attempting to make the students learn the formal curriculum. The students are subordinate to them, but are much less interested in schoolbooks than in their classmates and informal activities. The teacher, then, must coerce the students into obedience and learning:

The teacher-pupil relationship is a form of institutionalized dominance and subordination. The teacher and puptl confront each other in the school with an original conflict of desires, and however much that conflict may be reduced in amount, or however much it may be hidden, it still remains. The teacher represents the adult group, ever the enemy of the spontaneous life of children. The teacher represents the formal curriculum, and his interest is in imposing that curriculum upon the children.... The teacher represents the established social order in the school, and his interest is maintaining that order....(23)"

Nancy Flanagan said...

[Jim] In responding to Nancy's remarks about the potential utility of critical or diversity readings, it is my contention that the teachers who want to teach for awhile in their white neighborhood schools are exactly the one who can benefit most from readings and discussions that focus on race, privilege, social justice, and equity.

[Nancy] You're right, Jim. And perhaps "useful" was not the correct word choice--what I meant was "effective." You can lead a novice teacher to an examination of the classism thoroughly embedded in K-12 education, but you can't usually make her believe or act. That's a much deeper level of awareness than most pre-service teachers have, in my experience, including young teachers who are not white and middle class. They're not unable to comprehend it, they're just so focused on other things that come first: field experiences, job interviews, avoiding having to take a job in an unfamiliar context.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be requiring readings and discussions about privilege and equity. We absolutely should--it's our moral obligation. Only that requiring a course or two in "Equity and Diversity" is a small first step, and our expectations about opening minds, let alone hearts, to the hidden biases in a massive, concrete system like American public schooling will likely take some first-hand experience.

Many ed-school candidates are attracted to teaching because the system has been good to them, again including novice teachers whose own K-12 education was not particularly high-quality. If you're the smartest girl in a blue-collar high school, a success story, headed off to become a teacher, it's real cognitive dissonance to have your professor tell you that your school and teachers unconsciously supported privilege and classism, against their own interests. You can give them all the Willard Waller you like, but words like dominance and subjugation aren't likely to click neatly into their mental models of good old Lakewood High, or their future selves, as teachers.

Not yet, anyway.

I am also a first-generation college graduate (and also the only one of my siblings); it took me years to understand that my own family was barely working class, or painfully examine my own assumptions about privilege. And then more time to apply such self-awareness to my teaching practice and the operations of my school.

Examining class and privilege is a must in pre-service teacher education, but probably only the first little crack in a large shell of assumptions.

Jane said...

Interesting discussion!

I'd like to clarify: I'm trying to think about something a bit different from the conventional ways that we teach about diversity and privilege in teacher education.

I'm wondering if there is more to be done beyond only reading the conventional, often abstract texts about dominance and subjugation (but I do think that they should still read those, because even if the "click" comes later, there will at least at some point be a click of recognition of what was read back in teacher ed).

I read what Nancy said about being the smartest blue collar girl in high school (ditto), and also what LH has said about how for her, it never has actually felt as clean as others might assume.

I wonder if at least some of our first generation students really do actually get beyond "school worked out for me, so I assume that it works for everyone", but don't have a place to figure out what that means or even to acknowledge those experiences.

Because I suspect that once they do leave their blue collar schools and communities, college can feel pretty daunting in unexpected ways, and the data on how many first -generation kids don't make it through college would seem to suggest that it isn't smooth sailing for many of them.

In fact, if we do believe our critical studies of barriers to movement across social borders, wouldn't we expect them to face unexpected class barriers when they do try to navigate their way into the middle class? Wouldn't we expect that their attempts at mobility would be contested along the way if we do believe that there is classism in formal education?

So what I want to think more about is whether they likely experience obstacles they face as individual self-doubt, because they really don't have language to think about it in terms of classism, because we so rarely do talk about class.

I wonder, if, as LH says quietly, there is, among many of our students, a pervasive sense of feeing "less than", of having some tacit sense of surprise that others went to high schools much different from that place where we were the smartest girl in the room, if there isn't some uneasiness that they're conscious of when they make mistakes in social situations, or when they're struggling to pay for school while others fly off for breaks in exotic places, or when the feel uncomfortable distances growing between them and their families as they become more educated and become more middle class.

I'm wondering then, in my post and in reading these thoughtful comments, if there isn't some potential in talking very openly and honesty about the experiences of mobility of the people in the room (which is a very different thing than reading about diversity in schools in other places) and opening places for conversation about how that trajectory has been much more complex than the "work hard and you will be welcomed into new social worlds" myths that has likely been central to their schooling -- and which they may b at the very point of beginning to doubt as they do try to move into the middle class.

Because my strong sense, from my initial talk with students about some of this, is that there is actually a great deal there to talk about -- that they have struggled to cross class barriers, but that they've tried to keep that hidden because all of their success has been based on the belief that they have to be perceived as middle class.

But there, in our classes, are probably people who have at least a tacit understanding that it's just not nearly as simple or straightforward as being rewarded for hard work in school.

Julie Lindquist has written that we tend to teach about class as if it's mainly about the uneven distribution of material goods, but first-generation students who are standing at the very point of crossing class borders experience class in very emotional and visceral terms.

So I'm wondering if there isn't potential of tapping into those experiences themselves as a way into more substantive talk about inequalities and injustices in school.

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Anonymous said...

What all of you really want is an excuse to indoctrinate students with your loopy ideas about social class and "white privilege."

Anonymous said...


I do not think it is true that the data on class is not available. I work as a research data analyst and have seen this type of data in other fields.

It probably is a subject that most (yes, probably upper class) researchers are not interested in pursuing.

If you are interested in this topic, please contact me at

- SH

Edubabbler said...

I had a student of mine say in one class, "We are all middle class now. Why do we need to talk about this?" One of the things I do with my students is show them salary comparisons (adjusted for inflation) for the last 50 years or so. In talking about this, I ask them if people in the US really are more prosperous. We also talk about what that means as well.

For me, it's not a talk about white privilege, because the very notion that everyone is middle class hurts whites just as much as everyone else. Living and working in NJ, the latest Minimum Cost of Living report is particularly useful because it compares counties, and illustrates that everyone is struggling to get by except, of course, for those who earn significantly more than the NJ Minimum Cost of Living Standard (which is something like 250% of the national poverty level).

destilando cafe said...

The best teachers I ever met avoided Schools of Education as if they were radioactive. Alternative certification is the way to go--major in an academically rigorous subject, and then go teach. You will avoid all this babble (this blog is really hard to read and I was a stellar (4th generation) college student back in the day. Perhaps I'm getting old, or perhaps you're writing crap--"costless"--does that mean FREE?). Moreover, nobody should be allowed to teach in the public schools for more than 15 years. Administrators should serve every third year as a full-time classroom teacher. No college professor should be allowed to pontificate on the subject of education without spending every other year as a full-time classroom teacher in the most "challenging" (ha) school around. So there.

Christopher J. Frey said...

In my social foundations courses at a suburban public university, I approach this question every semester by first asking my students which class (lower; lower-middle; middle, upper-middle, upper) they think they belong to. Usually I get the curve - most say middle, with a few lower- and a few upper-, with the stray lower or upper only. Next, I give them average quintile incomes, and ask them to guestimate their parents' yearly income. Usually, three-quarters of the students then move up a class; occasionally a stray student will move down (and wow, you should see the look on that face!) I find that, contrary to the OP, many of my students come from upper-income, rather privileged backgrounds. Usual caveats apply to this very unscientific data, mind you.

sexy said...







Anonymous said...

Although I have been teaching for some time, it is just recently that I have put so much serious thought into the lower socio-economic students in my school. My school has always been one of acceptance and it has always been a goal to help each and every child succeed regardless of class. It seems though that with each passing year our population of students in poverty increases. As a result, I have been delving more deeply into research to help strengthen my ability to be a positive role model with these students. Payne's book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" is the first I've read. I have to say that I felt her suggestions to improve school staff abilities in working with those in poverty was very insightful and beneficial to me. Particularly her focus on the need for positive role models for students in poverty. Isn't that what teachers are after all? Role models? It is imperative that we be good role models...especially to those who do not have many other good role models in their lives.